“Larry’s Agent” (season 2, episode 5; original airdate June 23, 1993)
In January of 1993, David Letterman announced he was leaving NBC’s Late Night With David Letterman to have his own show on CBS that would directly compete with Jay Leno’s Tonight Show. NBC had jilted Letterman—the presumptive heir to The Tonight Show after Johnny Carson—and then inadvertently made him the highest paid man on network television: CBS would pay Letterman $12.5 million a year (with up to $2 million more in bonuses based on ratings with 18- to 49-year-olds), doubling his NBC salary. The network gave his new show an $82 million budget, which covered his salary, production costs, and renovations to the theater that would be his new home. Letterman’s Worldwide Pants company would also own his new show and have production rights for a backup show that’d air 12:30-1:30—basically, control of his own version of Late Night, but on CBS. Even more insane, it vowed to pay him $50 million if they ever moved his show from the all-important 11:30 timeslot. (A decade later, NBC would have a similar agreement with Conan O’Brien for $45 million if the network didn’t give him The Tonight Show as promised.)
By comparison, Leno was being paid $12 million over two years, according to Bill Carter’s The Late Shift. (Entertainment Weekly, in an article about the high price of the late-night war called “Is Dave worth it?”, claimed he was making $3 million.) He didn’t own The Tonight Show, either, unlike Carson, who’d won it in contract negotiations in 1980. Of course, Leno wouldn’t be undervalued for long—he pulls down more than $30 million a year these days.
All of the money floating around late-night television heavily informs “Larry’s Agent,” which finds Larry renegotiating his contract with The Larry Sanders Show’s nameless network. His longtime agent, Leo (John Pleshette), isn’t having much luck getting the money Larry wants, but he doesn’t seem to be pushing hard enough. “I thought we were going after Letterman money,” No dice—Larry can’t even get Arsenio money (though at his peak, Arsenio made $12 million a year). “It’s not Leno money, is it?” Artie asks, insinuating that’s the worst-case scenario. God no!
Larry has no stomach for showbiz scheming, and Leo doesn’t either. But budding super-agent Stevie Grant (the inimitable Bob Odenkirk) thrives on Machiavellian maneuvering. He’s smarmy, two-faced, and ruthless—and more important, he thinks Larry has the network by the balls. (Grabbing his own, he advises Larry, “Don’t let go until you get what you want.”)
Larry initially finds Stevie deplorable, but changes his mind, only to regret it over the course of “Larry’s Agent.” Without Larry’s blessing or even knowledge, Stevie threatens to take the show to another network and/or move it New York. If the networks don’t fall in line, he vows to go to the syndicators instead. He glad-hands Hank about the clearly horrible live tour he wants to do to raise some quick cash. After watching Hank do a miserable rendition of Blood Sweat & Tears’ “Spinning Wheel”—“The worst piece of shit I’ve ever seen”—Stevie tells him (“the King of the Couch”) that he’s a “quadruple threat.”
Stevie is rattling cages and starting fights, which of course, terrifies Larry. When network honcho Sheldon Davidoff (James Karen) mentions the New York plan to a clearly confused Larry, his anxiety skyrockets. Unbeknownst to him, Stevie has made it a “screw ’em situation.” He seeks solace from Artie, who can’t get over Stevie’s inability to shake hands—“Fucking little snot. He’s too busy playing with his balls to shake my hand. You’re always supposed to shake a man’s hand!”—advises Larry to let Stevie do his job (even though Stevie’s style “got men fragged in the corps!”)
As in “The Stalker,” “Larry’s Agent” telegraphs its ending at the beginning of the final scene. Larry’s all set to fire Stevie and look for an agent who lives in a more comfortable spot between the Leo/Stevie extremes, but before he has a chance, Stevie gives him a piece of paper with the network’s excellent new offer. Suddenly, it’s “Hey, let’s go to the Dodgers game together!” Because, hey, you can’t argue with results.
Larry can’t handle confrontation, but he knows the value of having someone else be the bad guy. On the show, he has Artie. Now he has a younger, brasher version of Artie negotiating his deals. He just needs a version of Artie for a wife, and he’d be totally set.
- If you’re following The Larry Sanders Show on Netflix Instant (only the first season is available on DVD via Netflix), you’ll notice that it has “Larry Loses Interest” as the fifth episode of season two. Which I watched and took notes for, only to realize the more reliable IMDB had “Larry’s Agent.” The rumor was Netflix goes by production order (at least for this show), not airdate. Who knows if it’s true, and really, it doesn’t make all that big of a difference. The Larry Sanders Show isn’t terribly serialized.
- If you don’t think Jeffrey Tambor is a national treasure, this episode should steer you right. That rehearsal scene kills, but the best is when he walks into the office in his tap shoes and does a goofy little dance. By the way, he needs that 5-pound bag of sand on stage ASAP!
- What’s Hank’s road act? He tells Artie: “Well some songs, a few jokes, a little soft shoe, you know like Sammy used to do, but with a twist.” “What’s the twist?” “I’m doing it.”
- “You have an act? Just like Ed McMahon, you have an act!” Nice cameo from Doc Severinsen, Carson’s longtime bandleader, who’s wearing one of his signature hideous jackets here, even away from Carson’s Tonight Show stage. It’s telling that he shares Leo as an agent, though “He hasn’t done shit for my career. I mean he’s shit all over my career!” Considering Larry is Leo’s biggest client, Leo isn’t too much of a power broker in Hollywood. But hey, he beats Hank’s geriatric agent!
- Severinsen, by the way, is 84 and still touring. Nice.
- Man, Leno was the punching bag in this episode, where his salary and band are mocked. (Severinsen to Hank’s bandleader: “Could be worse. You could be in Leno’s band.”) Yuck it up now, fellas. Within three years Leno would become the unchallenged king of late-night TV, a reign of mediocrity that continues to this day.
- After dumping an insane amount of money on Letterman (who ruled the ratings landscape for a couple of years), CBS almost lost him at the turn of the millennium, when ABC came courting. Letterman has since conceded that he basically will never beat Leno.
- There are a couple of references to syndication in this episode, which is the deal Arsenio had—meaning he wasn’t based on any network. Letterman had a host of syndicators pursuing him before he went with CBS, and the paychecks were even bigger. In The Late Shift, Carter notes that Viacom guaranteed Letterman $20 million for a yearly salary and up to 70 percent of the show’s profits—so Letterman could make up to $50 million a year. But as Carter writes, syndicators couldn’t guarantee where the show would be placed, and Letterman was all about 11:30. Letterman was also a dyed-in-the-wool network guy. He didn’t entertain any of the syndication offers seriously.