The curtain is important. It marks the line between the offices, the stress, and the infighting, and the stage itself, with its bright lights and laughing studio audience. Both sides are crucial, but the curtain is key. That’s what allows the magic to happen. On one side, Garry Shandling, as the eponymous talk-show host Larry Sanders, is a neurotic, self-centered mess—his personal life is a shambles, his working relationships tend to implode, and he’s pretty sure his ass is too big. But when the right moment hits and he steps through that curtain, he’s a genial god—confident, charming, just the right sort of self-deprecating. The Larry Sanders Show is about show business, about the bruised egos and flailing that go into putting on an hourlong talk show day in and day out. It’s about the obsessive perfectionism that goes into picking monologue jokes that no one will remember in a week. Mostly though, it’s about the curtain, and how the promise of that split-second transition can ruin lives and save them at the same time.
Structurally speaking, Sanders doesn’t stray much from the standard sitcom format. The first few scenes introduce a premise (say, Shandling suddenly deciding he wants to be more in touch with his staff), a wise character points out the flaws in the premise, the wise character is ignored, wackiness ensues. Not every episode runs along these lines, but the actual content of the series isn’t all that unusual. Strip away the show-business in-jokes and explicit sexual references, and this is a workplace comedy, with all the job worries and personality conflicts that have defined the genre since The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Ted Baxter never had to worry about his sex tape going public, but if MTM had aired on HBO in the ’90s, who knows what might have happened?
What makes Sanders a good show is the quality of talent involved, and the expert way that talent, both in front of and behind the camera, hones established material into seemingly effortless comedy perfection. Watching the show now, the credits read like a Who’s Who of rising stars, including writers Judd Apatow, future NewsRadio creator Paul Simms, Steve Levitan (Modern Family), and supporting players like Janeane Garofalo, Jeremy Piven, Penny Johnson, Scott Thompson, Sarah Silverman, and Bob Odenkirk, all either at the peak of their craft, or as young faces eager to prove themselves. Then there are the astonishing number of guest stars on the show, actors and musicians willing to play “themselves” and mock their media image. The series split its time between the behind-the-scenes chaos (shot on film), and the talk show that the chaos came together to produce (shot on video). The comparison between how people behave off-air and on- fuels many of Sanders’ greatest gags.
What makes Sanders a great show is its commitment to character-focused storytelling, and the brutal honesty with which it treats its three leads: Shandling, Rip Torn as the world’s greatest producer, and Jeffrey Tambor as Shandling’s sidekick, a horrifying bundle of self-loathing, neediness, desperation, and despair. Tambor’s ability to walk right up to the edge of caricature without hitting a false note is the key to the heart of darkness that drives the series, the knowledge that all this effort and determination to be loved can’t ever really be satisfied. It’s never enough, but it’s better than nothing.
Key features: All 89 episodes are here in the complete-series DVD set, musical performances (including Elvis Costello, They Might Be Giants, Warren Zevon, Beck, and more) intact. The bonus features from the previously released Not Just The Best Of The Larry Sanders Show set are present, too, including multiple commentaries, interviews with guest stars, a making-of documentary, and the expected deleted scenes and outtakes.