One of the debates in the comments over the preceding two seasons of Larry Sanders Show TV Club coverage centered on the essential nature of Hank Kingsley. As much as Jeffrey Tambor has been celebrated for the role (which he called one of the three loves he’s had over the course of his long career), a surprising number of readers—to me, at least—find Hank fundamentally unlikeable. Hank may be a buffoon, but he can also be a huge asshole. In seasons one and two, it was usually typical celebrity narcissism, the stock in trade of The Larry Sanders Show’s pointed satire. That’s the strain of assholery Hank displays in “The People’s Choice” as he nakedly schemes to score an announcing gig and pouts over Larry not liking his terrible joke for a sketch.
But that run-of-the-mill jerkiness pales in comparison to the inky darkness viewers glimpse for the first time in “Hank’s Night In The Sun,” which director Todd Holland describes on the commentary track as Hank’s “rocket-sled ride to unlikeability.” The Hank we see toward the end of the episode isn’t just an asshole; he’s a villain.
The A-plot of “People’s Choice” is typical for The Larry Sanders Show: Artie agrees to direct the People’s Choice Awards, which Paul Reiser will host. Larry’s mad he wasn’t approached for the hosting job, and when Reiser drops out, Larry agrees to do it—unaware that he’ll be co-hosting with Dean Cain and Rita Moreno. Artie blames the network, but Larry discovers he’s lying, and it strains their relationship until Larry walks away from the People’s Choice job. In a “Gift Of The Magi” twist, Larry agrees to stay on out of loyalty to his friend, but Artie has quit the because it was distracting him from his primary job.
The episode has some winningly bitchy sniping between Larry and Artie, like when Larry doesn’t realize that Elvis Costello’s real name is Declan. “Well, just read the fucking notes!” Artie says. “Why don’t you shove ’em up your ass?” Larry retorts. Elvis Costello has a great cameo (and one of The Larry Sanders Show’s few great performances), after Paula warns the entire staff not to bother him. They follow instructions a little too well—they won’t even look at the guy—to the point he feels unwelcome.
The Hank plot in “People’s Choice” is also a pretty standard B-story, but it informs what follows in “Hank’s Night In The Sun.” The episodes weren’t necessarily shot in order, and who knows if Garry Shandling et. al intended any threads to connect (notice the Angela Lansbury references in each), but the unfulfillment Hank feels in “People’s Choice,” as Larry bluntly shoots down his idea and he humiliates himself by begging for the announcing gig, would certainly contribute to his aggressive ambitiousness in “Hank’s Night In The Sun.”
Faced with the challenge to step up and host the show when Larry falls ill, Hank works through the terror of getting his big shot and succeeds, winning the audience and guests with self-effacing vulnerability and genuine charm. But the success quickly brings out the worst in Hank, just as Larry predicts as he watches the monologue with Beverly: “You don't understand: This is going to go right to his head. He’s going to be a huge, huge pain in the ass.”
Fans tend to hail this episode as one of Larry Sanders’ best, and it definitely has some of Tambor’s best work on the show. In the space of a few minutes, he goes from loveable to diabolical, a sympathetic underdog to reprehensible schemer. The transformation between his preshow freakout in the dressing room with Artie to his shockingly dark speech to Darlene at the end is a marvel.
So much about this episode clicks. Artie and Paula’s exchanges have a delightfully snappy rhythm: “Oh, your mind amazes me!” “I’m just now comfortable with it myself,” and “Oh God, why does Larry have to go to the yogurt place in person?” “Because he thinks if you can see the colors, it’s easier to pick the flavor.” (Credit veteran Larry Sanders writer Peter Tolan.) Their scenes are shot energetically, as the camera follows Artie into the office, then to the writers’ room and back out. DP Peter Smokler achieved that smooth look by shooting on Rollerblades, which speaks to the resourcefulness of the crew operating with a very limited budget. (Holland notes on the commentary track that TVs in the office usually aren’t on because they couldn’t afford playback, and Beverly’s computer monitor has a paper cutout for its screen. Cast and crew would often bring props from home.)
This is Tambor’s episode, with an important assist from the great Rip Torn, who shores Hank up then knocks him down to size. Their chemistry probably owes something to how the episode was “rehearsed extensively,” according to Holland’s commentary track. He adds it was a rough process because the two of them had strong opinions (about what, specifically, he doesn’t elaborate).
One of the primary elements that makes “Hank’s Night In The Sun” so great is how quickly Hank transforms from sheer terror (not being able to move his legs) to diva. Artie is barely done helping Hank to the make-up room and Hank’s asking for pineapple. He’s still sweetly eager, but the tinges of megalomania have started to appear, like in his niggling direction to Shadoe Stevens (though perhaps that’s unfair, because that is the kind of feedback given to voice actors and announcers).
The next morning, though, Hank has become a hateful bastard, snidely commenting on Artie’s congratulations, ordering Paula to get his coffee, barking at Beverly about using Larry’s desk, sabotaging guest host Richard Lewis, and, in a deleted scene, treating trusted servant Darlene like utter shit.
That deleted scene is the prelude to Hank’s pre-show chat backstage with Darlene, who tries to warn him that he’s changed. “There’s a darkness around you,” she says, unleashing a deeply disturbing monologue from Hank. The night before, he got down on his knees and prayed that Larry would stay sick the next day, the day after that, the day after that, the following week, forever. “You don’t get it, do you?” he says. “It’s not Larry who is sick. It’s me! I am very sick. I’m a sicko. I’m so fucking sick.” He lowers his voice just before he steps through the curtain. “But I’m finally where I belong.” Damn! “That’s Pete Tolan’s edge,” Shandling says on the commentary track after that scene.
That’s the kind of black-hearted avarice that leads you to call a staff member a “hopeless retard” on the air and apparently say something nasty about Joan Cusack to her brother. (But his repeatedly calling Lionel Ritchie “Little Richard” is vintage, pre-evil Hank “I call Wynonna Judd ‘The Judd’” Kingsley.) The post-show walk-and-talk between Artie and Larry is a staple of The Larry Sanders Show, and Holland perfectly stages it in grim silence, as Hank and Artie walk to Larry’s office without saying a word. As quickly as Hank went up, he comes down.
And that’s the humanity that Hank still maintains. Had he descended into full megalomania, he would have insisted he did fine, but everybody else screwed up. Bad writing! Bad interview notes! Other people not doing a good job of making him look good. But Hank knows there’s no point, and Artie would never let him try that shit anyway. Hank will donate money to a Down syndrome group, apologize to John Cusack, send a basket/baskets to Lionel Ritchie, and the show will run a repeat that night. “But I’ll always keep a copy of tonight’s show close by,” Artie says, “so keep that in mind the next time you want to throw your weight around.” I SAID GOOD DAY!
- Another connecting thread between “People’s Choice” and “Hank’s Night In The Sun”: Hank’s inability to get what’s funny about a joke. He doesn’t understand why “Tastes like coconut!” isn’t funny (“Coco-nut. Two K sounds, followed by a ‘nut’”), nor does he get the monologue joke about putting Larry in a trunk. (“I have an American car, and I put him in the trunk and I kidnapped him… Does that help?”)
- Another bit from the commentary track for “Hank’s Night In The Sun”: The George Wendt role was originally going to be Eddie Murphy, or another potential guest star to be named, just like the guest hosts Artie lists off—Jerry Seinfeld! Richard Lewis! Okay, Bob Saget! Maybe John Ritter? Would you take Howie Mandel? What about Louie Anderson?
- At the end of “Hank’s Night In The Sun,” when Larry’s so doped up on painkillers that he forgets he’s talking to Artie again, Garry Shandling notes that they often didn’t have a hard out for episodes, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who watches the show. We’ve talked about its “wackity-smackity-doo” endings, which use an obvious joke or too neatly restate a theme of the episode. Holland says they’d usually try five or so different endings until they found one they liked.
- Larry finally getting “those painkillers he’s been after” sets up his real dependence on pills at the end of season three (not the fake one that began the season).
- Artie to Hank: “This is Elvis.” Hank: “I don’t think so.” Oh Hank, if you only knew how that guy would screw you on a car later in the series.
- Hank to Phil: “Save you ivy league double-talk for your chums down at the parliamentary debating society.”
- Larry to Artie: “You should call the Conan O'Brien people. See if they need a producer for the farewell special.”
- Beverly fires a warning across Hank’s bow: “Would you like it if I called Larry about this? Because if I do, you know he’ll give me the go-ahead to kick your balls right out through the TOP OF YOUR HEAD.”