Quick programming note: Episodes four and five of this season of The Larry Sanders Show are big ones, so we're just going to do one this week so we can give it enough attention.
“The Guest Host” (season 1, episode 4, originally aired Sept. 5, 1992)
Opening credits guests: John Stamos, Helen Reddy, the national spelling bee champion
Hank’s introduction for Larry in the opening credits: “Because he’s already been paid and we might as well use him.”
“The Promise” may have provided a neat time capsule of the early ’90s by having David Spade as a hot up-and-coming comic, but “The Guest Host” practically has giant text scrolling across the screen saying “THIS WAS MADE IN 1992!” Why? Dana Carvey.
These days, Carvey doesn’t really show up on the pop-culture radar. He hasn’t made a movie since 2002’s critically panned Master Of Disguise (though he has a role in yet another sure-to-be-terrible Dennis Dugan/Adam Sandler project, Jack And Jill, out in November). He’s appeared a few times on television, and he did a pilot last year for Fox that wasn’t picked up.
But when “The Guest Host” aired in September of 1992, Carvey was on the precipice of big things. Wayne’s World, released that February, was a huge hit, and he was an integral part of Saturday Night Live’s resurgence in the late ’80s and early ’90s. As is usually the case with a popular SNL sketches, Carvey’s characters—Garth Algar, The Church Lady, Hans the bodybuilder, The Grumpy Old Man, and his impressions of George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot (’90s!)—became part of the cultural lexicon at the time. By the end of ’92, Carvey was shooting the Wayne’s World sequel—which he references in “The Guest Host”—and would leave Saturday Night Live the following year to ostensibly go on to big things. He’d also play a notable role in the post-Carson Jay Leno/David Letterman fiasco that Bill Carter chronicled in his book The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno & The Network Battle For The Night. Turns out the plot of “The Guest Host” would play out, in a way, in real life.
More on that later. “The Guest Host” captures Carvey in a perfect moment of ascendancy: The feeling that he’s on his way to superstardom is palpable, which makes him a terrible guest host for Larry, who’s taking a weeklong vacation.
Why? The guest host can’t outshine the regular host, and Larry simply can’t match the excitement around Carvey. He has a hit film and a stable of beloved characters on a television show that heavily influences the cultural conversation—especially in 1992, when, say, Alyssa Milano would do a Church Lady impression in her Teen Steam workout video.
Carvey as a guest host is great for ratings, but for the perpetually paranoid Larry and his equally nervous inner circle, it could be disastrous. But at the start of “The Guest Host,” Larry couldn’t be less concerned. He just wants to start his vacation.
Hank is, of course, furious that he wasn’t considered for the guest-host gig. “What the fuck does Dana Carvey know about hosting this show?” he bellows at Artie, before fumbling through a bad impression of Carvey’s Hans character. “I’m going to give you a pump-up.” He begs Artie for an impromptu audition for him and network bigshot Sheldon Davidoff—which he predictably bombs.
Hank’s bitterness and desperation underlie the entire episode. He visits Carvey in Larry’s office to give some pointers, leaning on his four years of sidekick experience and eight years of work as a cruise director. (“So all told, that gives me 12 years of getting people to interact.”) He offers some bizarre advice about listening and asking for help on set, but it’s passive-aggressive at best and confrontational at worst. “Does this help you at all, or should I just go fuck myself?” In the very next scene, Hank sits in the make-up chair and shouts, “That snotty little shit!”
Although it’s not surprising Carvey leans heavily on his SNL characters when he debuts as guest host—the network has forbidden him from mentioning NBC’s name—it’s cringe-inducing 20 years later. Carvey cycles through them as he takes the stage, then recontextualizes one of his famous lines from Wayne’s World, “I feel funny, like when I used to climb the rope in gym class. Schwing!” (Oh, “schwing!”—were we ever so young?) He’s canny enough to say “Well, I had to get that out of the way” right afterward, but then he does Hans and The Church Lady (and Larry). It’s pretty terrible.
At least it is now. In the world of The Larry Sanders Show in 1992, Carvey is killing. “It’s amazing—it’s like he’s born to do it!” chirps Larry’s wife, Jeannie, as they watch the show at home. “Well, anyone can do a monologue,” Larry responds. When Carvey banters comfortably with Fantasy Island’s Hervé Villechaize, Jeannie—still not getting it—says, “He made Hervé Villechaize seem funny without making fun of him!” Larry just stares at her blankly, and we can see the stress creeping over his face.
But he’s still mostly in good spirits when he’s called down to the office for a network meeting the next day—until he meets with Artie and network executive Barbara Kirsh (Anne-Marie Johnson). After one episode guest-hosting Larry’s show, Carvey has been offered a late-night talk show on CBS in the same timeslot as Larry. “I saw this coming,” Artie says. “If you saw this coming, Artie, why didn’t you say something?” Larry responds. “If I said something every time I saw something, we’d never get anything done.”
So now the killer is inside the house. Larry knows he can’t let a potential competitor host the show, even if the person is an old friend. (“You guys are all buddy-buddy when you’re coming up in the clubs together, but then as soon as there’s a hint of competition, your friendship goes out the window,” Jeannie says.) As much as Carvey plays the good guy who is simply on a hot streak, he betrays some of his cold-hearted ambition in the conference room with Jerry and Phil, when he asks if they’re “locked in to this show or what.” Not only is he Larry’s potential competitor, but he’s also a poacher!
Everyone’s always “dear friends” in showbiz, but as Jeannie astutely observed, that friendship is only as strong as the competition between friends is weak. Meaning, if the stakes are low, everyone’s buddy-buddy, but when something’s on the line, that goes away. Later in his office, Larry and Artie demand Carvey tell them if he’s taking the CBS deal. “Just answer the question, you little asshole,” Artie says. When Carvey says he’s passing, Artie immediately adds, “I apologize, sir.” You get the feeling it wouldn’t have been pretty had Carvey taken the deal.
Another showbiz rule plays out immediately afterward: You never really know what’s happening. While Larry and his handlers were freaking out about the CBS deal, Carvey was actually accepting an “overall deal” from NBC. Larry and Artie are stunned (“I saw it coming,” says Artie), but Carvey tries to reassure Larry later that it’s for primetime. But in the last moment of the episode, Carvey confesses the overall deal could include late night.
Real life heavily informed The Larry Sanders Show, and in some ways imitated it. NBC thought it had been grooming Carvey to be the next David Letterman, announcing in July of 1992 that it signed Carvey to “a long-term deal” that guaranteed his NBC exclusivity. Rumors flew that Carvey would take Letterman’s place, which NBC, now realizing it wasn’t likely going to retain Letterman after giving The Tonight Show to Leno, didn’t deny. What they didn’t count on was Carvey’s Letterman fandom, Carter writes:
“Carvey had told people that he idolized Letterman and would probably consider doing a show following Dave, but he would inevitably be cool to the idea of trying to follow Dave’s act as host of Late Night after Jay’s Tonight show.”
After months of self-delusion by West Coast NBC executives, Carvey turned down the post-Leno gig. (Conan would debut there in September of ’93.) His hot streak would continue with film for a couple of years, then he tried his own eponymous sketch show, which was quickly canceled—but helped launch the careers of Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, and Louis C.K.
“The Guest Host” presages and reflects the issues of the network schism going on at NBC, but viewers can still enjoy “The Guest Host” without all that background knowledge. As much as The Larry Sanders Show was a fictional comedy, real life heavily informed and imitated it.
- Apologies for missing last week. We were in NYC doing some of our last shooting for Pop Pilgrims.
- Reading a special citation for entertaining the troops during the Gulf War:
Carvey: “You guys went all the way over there?”
Hank: “We sent a videotape, but nonetheless.”
- Hervé Villechaize committed suicide almost a year to the day after this episode aired.
- Artie’s feedback to Hank that he “wasn’t quite right” wasn’t specific enough for Hank. “Okay, let me be more specific: Some of the things you do are not quite right,” Artie tells him.