“Larry’s Birthday” (season 2, episode 12, originally aired 8/11/93)
“These are heady days for Piven,” wrote the Chicago Tribune’s Lynn Van Matre in August of 1993. The actor had left The Larry Sanders Show after two seasons to take a starring role in an upcoming film called PCU—his first role where he got the girl. Not only that, but he had two other films in the works, a remake of Car 54, Where Are You? and a film with Emilio Estevez and Cuba Gooding Jr. called Judgment Night.
Superstardom didn’t follow. PCU has a modest reputation as a cult film, Judgment Night is better remembered for its “pair rock bands with rappers” soundtrack, and no one remembers Car 54, Where Are You? In 1995, he appeared in a movie called Dr. Jekyll And Ms. Hyde, where one of the dudes from Wings turned into Sean Young.
But that year he also had a small part in Heat and would go on to co-star with Ellen DeGeneres on her eponymous show. Piven appeared in 72 episodes, had his own short-lived show, Cupid—where he literally played the god of love—and worked steadily, though never with much of a high profile. Look no further than a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, where Homer wants to find out why a TV show with a character who shares his name was changed.
Producer #1: “The 13 of us began with a singular vision—Titanic meets Frasier.”
Producer #2: “But then we found out that ABC had a similar project in development with Annie Potts and Jeremy Piven.”
Homer: “Who's Jeremy Piven?”
Producer #3: “We don't know.”
Producer #4: “But it scared the hell out of us, so we slapped together a cop show instead.”
It’s no secret that the road to stardom can be winding, and Piven wouldn’t really find it until 11 years after he left The Larry Sanders Show, and once again on HBO: When Entourage debuted in 2004, Piven found the role he was born to play, even if he routinely proved more interesting that the show’s ostensible lead.
Wikipedia says that Piven left The Larry Sanders Show because he wasn’t given much to do with the character of Jerry—which is an apt complaint considering our discussion about Darlene last week. In a short interview for one of the show’s DVD extras, Piven doesn’t say that in so many words, but acknowledges where he fell among the incredible talents of the Larry Sanders Show cast: “I was like the sixth or seventh or eighth or ninth man off the bench, playing for the Chicago Bulls.” (Hey, it was the ’90s.)
With such a large and talented ensemble on The Larry Sanders Show, Piven didn’t have a lot of opportunities to show his range.
“If you were to look at my work in that show, I mean, all I was doing at times was literally trying not to laugh,” Piven says in that DVD interview. “That was my intention in the scenes. Other people were doing great work—I was just trying not to crack up.”
But Piven proved he could shoulder an episode, like in “Out Of The Loop,” when he’s hilariously under the sexual spell of an intern. And in “Larry’s Birthday,” he provides one of the few genuinely sentimental moments in a show that usually avoided them.
When “Larry’s Birthday” opens, the office is in a titter over the host’s birthday, an annual charade where Larry tells Beverly he really doesn’t want to celebrate it, so no parties or gifts, but expects them anyway. This, consequently, forces everyone into a sort of competition to get Larry the best gift. Although Phil and Jerry usually give him a joke present, Jerry changes his mind for an autographed 1957 Mickey Mantle baseball card—a surefire winner, so much that it makes Hank doubt the gold bracelet he bought. (When Phil tells him it looks like something Sammy Davis Jr. would wear, Hank says “Oh, thanks!”)
The bigger problem, though, is writer Mike Patterson (John Riggi), who Phil and Jerry see walking into Larry’s office. With both of their options ending—Phil’s in a week, Jerry’s in a month—the appearance of another rooster in the henhouse can only be ominous. Phil immediately suspects the worst. When Mike asks the guys later if any parking spots are available, Phil says glumly, “I’m sure one will be open next Thursday.”
The last time Phil and Jerry panicked—when Larry requested a typewriter in his office—it turned out to be a false alarm, but this time the threat is real. As Artie tells Larry later, the show can’t afford three writers. “Can’t we wait a while and see how they all work out together?” asks Larry, ever the pussy. “You mean just throw them all in a cage together and see who survives?” retorts Artie. (“That would be up to you,” Larry says.)
Jerry strikes first. As the writers go over the cue cards before the show, he tells Artie that they’re having a hard time working with Mike. Only one day into it, he just knows it’s not going to work. Artie tries to postpone lowering the boom—perhaps until he and Larry can tell him together—by glad-handing, assuring Jerry that Patterson was only brought on to take the pressure off of Jerry. That only panics him more, so Artie has to put the poor bastard out of his misery.
As he points out, Jerry has been consistently unprofessional: He comes in late, takes naps in the office, picks up women from the audience, and has fucked at least three interns, and those are only the ones Artie knows about—including the one he fucked on the set! “Don’t sweat it, kiddo,” Artie says by way of consolation. “It’s a good deal. You’re getting fired—they have to pay you for a month!”
Jerry storms out of the office to get hammered at the Smokehouse, but he’s back the next day, working in the writers’ room as if nothing happened and looking every bit like a man who’s had a psychotic break. He drunkenly confronts Larry later, then makes that whiplash about-face between rage and contrition perfected by boozers everywhere. When Mike gives Larry a baseball autographed by Hank Aaron, it sets Jerry off again.
Up to that point, you could write off his outburst as simple desperation, but the closing scene of the episode shows that Jerry’s hurt goes deeper than that. Beverly videotaped staff members individually wishing Larry happy birthday, which includes one Jerry recorded before his firing. He tells a sweet story about bombing at a stand-up show, where only one person laughed—Larry, whose kind words afterward really affected Jerry. Years later, he still speaks of it with the kind of naked gratitude that suggests it meant more than Larry could ever fully grasp. That’s why losing his job cut Jerry so much deeper than it would have Phil (who’s already buddy-buddy with Mike). Larry was the one guy who hadn’t rejected Jerry—until now.
Smashing Larry’s car window with a rock is the perfect way for Jerry to go out. For Piven, it was off to a brighter future ushered in by PCU.
It took sixth place its opening weekend and was out of theaters after two weeks.
- I loved how Hank stupidly thought he could steal Artie’s gift idea. The scene where a contrite Hank tells Larry the booze is from him and Artie is awesome, especially when he accidentally confesses Artie didn’t help pay for it.
- I also liked when Beverly asked Artie why he always buys the same booze for Larry every year. “Well, after four sips he fell asleep at the Christmas party,” she says. “Exactly, that’s what Larry likes to do,” says Artie.
- Darlene holds cue cards upside down.
- One of these days I really am gonna pair up these episodes, but I keep finding too much to talk about in each one.