“The Promise” (season 1, episode 2, originally aired Aug. 22, 1992)
Opening credits guests: Val Kilmer, Valerie Bertinelli, Wynonna Judd
Hank’s intro for Larry in opening credits: “And now, because it’s FAA regulation, your flight attendant, Karen Jansen!”
A few minutes into the first episode of The Larry Sanders Show, Melanie Parrish provides what had might as well be the series’ thesis statement: Late-night TV is trench warfare. And the second episode of the series focuses on the deceit, competition, and tremendous insecurity behind the shows’ eternal struggle for higher ratings. At the center of the episode: Hot young comic David Spade (looking especially baby-faced) does Leno the same week he was scheduled on Larry’s show, which violates an “unspoken rule.” “Maybe it’s so unspoken he didn’t know about it,” quips Larry’s wife Jeannie (Megan Gallagher).
This is the only episode written by Joe Toplyn, but it makes perfect sense if he was brought in special for the subject matter: Toplyn was a longtime writer for Letterman’s show when he wrote “Promise,” and he would go on to write for Leno’s Tonight Show and quickly canceled talk shows like The Chevy Chase Show (as head writer!) and The Caroline Rhea Show.
The Spade conflict drives the episode, but it really revolves around the limits of loyalty. Larry discovered Spade, who was scheduled to make his fifth appearance on the show when he accepted a supposedly last-minute fill-in request from Leno. Larry feels betrayed, but he also knows the implications of Spade’s rising popularity: Larry’s no longer Spade’s benefactor, and he can’t honestly expect the comic only to do his show. Sure, doing the same material on two late-night talk shows in one week is bad form, but Larry also remembers feeling guilty when he went from only doing Merv Griffin’s talk show to Carson’s Tonight Show. (He justifies it by saying Griffin’s afternoon show didn’t compete with Carson’s late-night one.)
Besides loyalty, this episode focuses on what would become one of The Larry Sanders Show’s favorite themes: the phoniness of show business. Larry is almost always painted as a willing participant in these charades, beginning in “Promise” when he runs into Spade going over his material with Paula. Larry makes a hollow invitation for Spade to stop by his office on his way out, but is horrified when he actually does it. Their stilted small talk reaches Office levels of discomfort. (Later, Larry says, “I asked him to stop by on his way out. I thought it was a friendly thing to say; I didn’t know he’d actually do it.”)
That exchange is benign compared to the bald-faced lying toward the end of the episode, when Spade feigns guilt and tells Larry some bullshit story blaming his managers. Larry responds with his own bullshit, assuring Spade he’ll invite him back on the show in couple months. We know Spade’s lying because he high-fives an unnamed guy on his way out. We know Larry’s being dishonest because he tells Artie as much.
“And he claimed it was his manager and agent, huh?”
“That’s what he told me.”
“You bought that horseshit?”
“Are you kidding? I told him we’d wait a couple months, and then we’d book him again. We’ll bump him a few times—he’ll get the message.”
That’s of course now how it turns out. Late-night TV may be trench warfare, but the rival armies are only as good as their unreliable weapons—i.e., guests, who routinely flake out. When Joe Pesci bails on Larry, they can only replace him with...David Spade. Sad trombone.
“Spiders” (season 1, episode 3, originally aired Aug. 29, 1992)
Opening credits guests: Jon Lovitz, Lyle Lovett, Steve Duchesne
Hank’s intro for Larry in opening credits: “Because we’ve tried it with just the desk, and it really isn’t the same”
Late-night TV hosts of the past 50 years are generally acolytes of the great Johnny Carson, and as such, they all pay homage to Ed Ames’ appearance on The Tonight Show in 1965—the tomahawk throw that became what’s probably the most famous moment in late-night TV history.
It’s a quick window into Carson’s: He immediately seizes on Ames’ throw, masterfully underplaying it until the time is right to deliver a zinger: “I didn’t even know you were Jewish!” The crowd and Ames completely lose it, and television immortality is born. The incident was a favorite on Carson anniversary shows, and it lives on in pretty much every retrospective about the man. Ames, who’s still alive, is likely more famous for this than anything else in his long television career.
To both the character of Larry Sanders and comedian Garry Shandling, Carson was a god. So it’s not surprising that “Spiders,” which Shandling wrote with original Saturday Night Live writer Rosie Shuster (with an assist from Paul Simms, later of NewsRadio, and regular Sanders writer Peter Tolan), not only emulates that famous Carson moment, but directly references it. (It would show up again in season three.) Along the way, The Larry Sanders Show achieves one of its own classic moments.
Showbiz history heavily informs “Spiders” beyond the Ames tomahawk: Another one of Larry’s heroes, TV legend and groundbreaking comedian Carol Burnett, is the guest on the next night’s show. Even better: Larry’s going to do a sketch with Burnett, whose eponymous sketch show undoubtedly influenced Shandling and Shuster.
Showbiz tradition also lies in the episode’s titular spiders: Animals are a staple of late-night television (another classic Carson moment happened when a monkey peed on his head), and the Burnett episode will feature spiders from the 1990 film Arachnophobia. The plan is to put a dead fly on Larry’s head and have two tarantulas—one on each of his arms—race to get it. But Larry’s afraid of spiders, and terror immediately fills his face as Artie describes the tarantula race. Artie essentially tells Larry to get over it: “This is showbiz tradition!”
Larry’s anxiety about the spider stunt wrecks the rehearsal for the dire sketch he’s doing with Burnett. How dire? He plays Tarzan, while Burnett plays a feminist Jane who vows to sue Tarzan for sexual harassment. (There’s even a joke about “a pubic hair in my coconut,” a reference to the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings of 1991.) It’s pitch-perfect satire of late-night TV and its reliance on labored topical humor—Larry’s monologues are another good example—and it lands with a thud during rehearsal. Larry and Artie talk about it afterward:
“Between you and me, I think I looked like an idiot in that loincloth.”
“Between you and me, I think I saw your balls at one point.”
“That’s the only laugh I got, I think.”
Larry dishes the spider stunt onto Hank, who’s hilariously, heartbreakingly touched by the host’s decision to let the sidekick have some of the limelight. (Larry of course can’t bring himself to be honest about his fear.) In an episode with several great moments and lines, the exchange between the spider wrangler and Hank is pretty fantastic:
“I carry a spider anti-venom kit on my person at all times.”
“Where is that?”
“Well, I didn’t bring it with me today.”
“It’ll only hurt for a second—unless you’re allergic to spider bites.”
“How would I know if I’m allergic?”
“Well, you’d go to a doctor and have yourself checked.”
The random line from the wrangler about burning himself with the iron really makes this whole exchange, and it hilariously ratchets up Hank’s anxiety. Suddenly Hank isn’t such an attention whore.
As mentioned in the recap of “The Promise,” Hollywood phoniness is a favorite theme on The Larry Sanders Show, and an exchange between Burnett and Larry during a commercial break goes back to that well. The Tarzan sketch has been justifiably axed—to the relief of both parties—but Larry and Burnett express disappointment that they weren’t able to do it. “I love doing that broad physical comedy,” Larry says, directly contradicting what he told Artie earlier. For some reason, he keeps insisting they do it another time, not taking the hint when Burnett says she’ll have to check her schedule. Finally she shuts him down by saying he needs a bigger loincloth: “I saw your balls.”
The climax of the episode comes shortly thereafter: Hank uses the audience to get Larry to do the spider stunt, and disaster inevitably—and hilariously—strikes. Larry flinches, Burnett freaks, and Hank ends up getting bitten on the face. It’s a perfect moment of unscripted tomfoolery, the kind of serendipitous anarchy that becomes legendary—just like Ed Ames and his tomahawk.
After the show, Artie says in his perfect way, “It made the Ed Ames tomahawk throw look like a big piece of shit!”
• “The Promise” has the first appearance of Larry’s “no flipping” catchphrase.
• It’s also the first appearance of Hank’s fan club, which comes up again in later episodes. Those senior women and their hideous satin jackets—wow. Hank’s vanity is a running gag on the show, and it’s played up more in this episode. When Phil doesn’t return his hallway greeting, Hank tells the group, “You see that? It’s very sad. When they respect you too much, there’s a distance.”
• That awful monologue bit with Cindy Morgan as the flight attendant was another indication that writing isn’t the strong suit for Larry’s show. At the last second, Larry ditches his captain’s hat before the curtain opens, and mocks the bit after he takes the stage. “Please do not stand until we’ve come to a complete halt, which I think we just have.”
• I love that Artie calls rollercoasters “rolleycoasters.” Artie: “Merry-go-round, rolleycoaster.” Larry: “You know, talking to you is like talking to you.”
• “Spiders” provides the first glimpse at the fissures in Larry’s marriage. When he and Jeannie have Jon Lovitz and his girlfriend over for dinner, Jeannie’s exhausted by Lovitz and Larry’s nonstop riffing. She says she’s not interested in “having a comedy club” in her house. She also implies that Larry’s afraid of having a baby, even though she wants one.
• One funny exchange between Larry and Jeannie:
“Why are you hurting me? You know I’m afraid of spiders.”
“Yeah, then why are you doing this stupid spider stunt on your show? I’ll tell you why: because you guys will do anything for a laugh.”
“Oh that’s not true.”
“Then why are you doing it?”
“Because it’ll be funny.”