“The New Producer” (season 1, episode 5, originally aired Sept. 12, 1992)
Opening credits guests: Angelica Huston, The Black Crowes, Jeff Cesario
Hank’s introduction for Larry in the opening credits: “Because he’s already been paid and we might as well use him.”
“There’s something priceless and extremely annoying about someone who will always tell you the truth, or at least lie to you in a way that, although you know it’s a lie, sounds a lot like the truth.” —Larry on Artie, Confessions Of A Late Night Talk Show Host: The Autobiography Of Larry Sanders
The core of The Larry Sanders Show is the relationship between Larry and Artie. Larry is the boss, but as I said the write-up of the first episode, Artie is the archetypical Guy Behind The Guy, the man who really runs the show. He has the unenviable task of tending to the host’s needs and fragile ego while keeping the show operational and successful. It’s a thankless job, and beneath his no-bullshit demeanor, Artie feels underappreciated.
We get our first substantive sense of that in “The New Producer,” when an emergency appendectomy sidelines Artie. What’s confusing about this episode is that we have no sense for how long he’s been gone until close to the end, when there’s passing mention of the new producer, Jonathan Litman (Ian Buchanan), working for “a couple weeks.” That’s a critical bit of information, because it explains how the Machiavellian scheming behind the scenes to replace Artie was able to make such progress.
Sitting at home in a wingback chair watching the show, Artie’s critical of the decision to bring first-time guest and stand-up Jeff Cesario to the panel (i.e., to the seating area) after his set, and even more perturbed when Larry thanks Litman for his work by bringing him on to the set. “Horseshit! Not once in six years did he invite me on stage! Horseshit!” Then, in the first indication of how Rip Torn will totally own “The New Producer,” he repeats all of that in Spanish to his nurse. “¿Como se dice ‘horseshit’?” he asks, in what is one of a slew of classic Artie moments from this episode. Double bonus points: He’s taking his medicine with tequila.
Artie’s right to be nervous, because Litman is scheming with network executive Sam Fitzgerald (Bill Applebaum) to replace him, unbeknownst to Larry. “If there’s one cardinal rule in show business, it’s never get sick,” Artie tells Hank later. “It’s when you’re down, when you show the slightest weakness, that they slip that knife in your back.” That line’s played for a laugh, but in an “uncomfortable because it’s true” kind of way.
Artie’s an old-timer in an industry that prizes youth above all. In the thoroughly trifling “autobiography” of Larry Sanders, Confessions Of A Late Night Talk Show Host (which I found on Amazon for $.01), Larry writes that he wanted someone “young and hip” to produce the show, but the network was pushing Artie. “Well, don’t you think he’s passé?” Larry asked. But Larry met with him, and after Artie said some smart things, Larry offered him the job. “Fuck you,” Artie said. “I’m just here for the free lunch.”
“That clinched it,” Larry writes.
However many years later, the network is tacitly endorsing his replacement. It’s not just Artie who’s in trouble with the new producer. Litman writes a memo with some suggestions for changes to make in the show, which quickly sets the entire office into full-blown panic. The memo was meant only for the eyes of Litman, Fitzgerald, and Larry, but Phil managed to get a copy and distribute it to everyone. “It was right on Larry’s desk!” He tells Jerry. “In a folder, under some papers, in a drawer that was locked. It was finding the key that was a bitch.”
Litman’s suggestions start out benign enough—new graphics, allowing first-time stand-ups to sit on the panel—but they get more serious when the guitarist for the band gets busted for pot. Then he mentions how the monologues have gotten soft and predictable—“like Leno’s” (Leno was only four months into his job at this point, and already he’s getting ragged on)—and cites Phil in particular, saying he’s socially maladjusted and probably talks shit about Larry behind his back. “Larry is just the kind of asshole to read that and believe it!” Phil says. “‘Social maladjusted,’ what does that mean? Now I’m sorry I made copies of this for everybody!”
Also in trouble: Hank, who skews too old (“Hanks is very sensitive about this age,” says Darlene in her air-headed way. “He’s only 34.”), and, of course Artie. When he reads in the memo that there are too many plants on the stage, he reads between the lines. “This isn’t about those plants—this is about me. I am those plants, godammit!”
Larry of course can’t deal with any confrontation—that’s why he has Artie—but facing a staff rebellion on one side and possible scheming behind his back on the other proves too much. He needs Artie to navigate that world for him. He can trust Artie, but Litman couldn’t be more of a schemer; that may be an asset when he’s on your side, but how can you ever trust someone like that?
Where Hank’s panic leads him to get an ill-advised earring to try to look younger, Artie decides to get loaded and show up to tell Larry off. Drunk Artie is a loose cannon and uproariously funny, delivering the best lines of the episode. Hank, now freaking out because Larry has convinced him the piercing is infected, is only more rattled when he finds Artie waiting in his office with booze. “Drink it! Or I’ll knock you down on the floor, I’ll put my foot on your neck, and I’ll piss in that good ear.”
Hank, already terrified about being fired and growing more panicky about his ear, is especially vulnerable to Artie’s jaded fatalism. Artie prides himself on his sharpness and ability to anticipate where things are headed; the way he says “I saw this coming” in “The Guest Host” shows how he constantly assumes the worst about everything. Facing his worst fear now, he’s boozed up and going down swinging.
“Hello, you worthless piece of shit!” he bellows at Larry in his office. “Oh, don’t worry about us. Does the name Sally Jesse Raphael mean anything to you?!” “Cousins who fuck is the first topic!” adds a shit-faced Hank.
Artie has spent years tending to Larry, subsuming his own needs, and there’s so much real hurt in his crazy shouting that it’d be heart-breaking if it weren’t so goddamn hilarious. In full-on “in vino veritas” mode, Artie accuses Larry of being a self-centered bastard who doesn’t want someone who will challenge him. Just look at the way he’s ignoring his deathly ill sidekick!
“Would you even fucking care if that infection ran straight into [his] brain, swelling it to such a grotesque size that the skull burst like a ripe honeydew melon! I saw a case like this in Korea once. Horrible, painful way to die. Yeah, the screams still haunt me.”
Really, the episode can’t possibly top that. If there were ever proof that Rip Torn was born for this role, this is it. Torn was nominated for an Emmy every year of The Larry Sanders Show, but won only once, in 1996. He should’ve won them all.
The Guy Behind The Guy must have instincts to run a late-night show, and even though Larry dismisses Artie for being paranoid, he of course finds out that Artie was right. Not only were Litman and Fitzgerald working together against Artie, but they were also reassessing Larry. In this world, no one is safe. That’s why you have to have someone you can trust.
The next day, a contrite Larry convinces Artie to stay. “You considered that stuck up little shit, didn’t you?” Artie asks. “I had every right to consider him, Artie.” “Damn right you did. I’ve taught you well.”
Shandling has always maintained that the show wasn’t mean or cynical, as some asserted, because at the core are characters who love each other. Their bond is what makes them able to survive in this world. I wasn’t sure that I ever bought that, and I’m still not sure Larry really “loves” Hank or anyone else on that staff, but I do believe he loves Artie. There’s a genuinely sweet moment as Larry and Artie reminisce about the show’s early days and how much Larry relied on him—and continues to rely on him.
And some appreciation is all that Artie ever really needed. A little teary, he says in that perfect Artie way, “I love you, you bastard.”
• More Artie gold (not to be confused with Ari Gold): After Hank mentions how Regis Philbin was able to make a comeback, Artie booms, “Is that what you want to do?! You wanna sit there while Kathie Lee prattles on in your good ear about how Frank hates to change Cody’s poopy diapers?!”
• Larry to Hank: “The left ear is the gay ear—did you know about that? And when you wear it low on the lobe like, Hank, it means you’re catching, not pitching.”
• Co-creator Dennis Klein wrote this episode with Shandling. Klein has some impressive writing credits, including All In The Family (the episode where Archie is robbed while driving a cab and faces a corrupt politician), The Odd Couple, and the pilot for Cosby, Bill Cosby’s mid-’90s sitcom.
• These issues would resurface, but with the tables turned, in the season three episode "Arthur's Crises." This time CBS comes calling for Artie, and Larry flips out. It can't match the many excellent lines in "The New Producer," but it ends with another sweet moment between Larry and Artie.