“Hank’s Contract” (season 1, episode 7, originally aired Sept. 26, 1992)
Opening credits guests: N/A
Hank’s introduction of Larry in the opening credits: N/A
The most successful casting decisions are the ones where an actor so fully embodies a character that you can’t possibly imagine someone else doing it. Most shows are lucky to have one actor who can pull this off, but The Larry Sanders Show has three: the great Rip Torn as Arthur (to restate: It’s the role he was born to play), Garry Shandling as Larry, and Jeffrey Tambor as Hank.
The Larry Sanders Show frequently goes to Larry’s support staff to find a story, and it’s a deep well to tap: Larry is a self-centered, insecure celebrity, and as such, he needs a lot of people to prop him up. “The New Producer” introduced us to the issues in Larry and Artie’s relationship, and “Hank’s Contract” turns the attention to Larry’s sidekick/straight man. Artie has a thankless job, but he’s at least an insider. He runs the show. Hank has a thankless job, period. He may be a vain buffoon—which qualifies as “normal” in Hollywood—but making fun of Hank is the staff pastime on Larry’s show. In “Hank’s Contract,” we see Hank reach his breaking point.
What pushes him there? The annual renegotiation of his contract. Each year, Hank acts like he’s leaving, with elaborately choreographed pageantry that this year includes a fake going-away party and giving away trinkets from his office. (In an episode full of great bits, one of the best is Hank giving Larry a basketball signed by football great Kenny Stabler.) It’s pathetic not only because of its phoniness, but because it’s so clearly ineffective. No one buys it, except maybe Darlene, and it puts no extra pressure on the network. It’d be a sad display if Hank weren’t so manipulative.
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Negotiations have dragged longer than usual this year because of Hank’s demands: a 5 percent raise, gross percentage points (a percentage of overall revenue from the show), three additional weeks of paid vacation, and a “Hankmobile”—a golf cart to drive around the studio.
In typical Hank fashion, he’s playing hardball at exactly the wrong time, and he’s considerably overestimated the leverage he has with the network. As mentioned a few times in “Hank’s Contract,” talk shows are moving away from having a sidekick, making Hank even more out of step with the times. This is not the time to demand a golf cart.
“What does he think he’s worth, for God’s sake?” Larry asks Artie while drinking Alka Seltzer in his office.
“How do you place a value on a man who introduces Wynonna Judd as ‘The Judd?’” Artie replies. (Enter Darlene: “Were you two just talking about Hank? Because my ears were burning.” Hilarious.)
“Hank’s Contract” spends the first part of the episode in familiar territory: making Hank look like a jackass. It reaches its high point during his “surprise” going-away party, which he of course orchestrated through Darlene.
“If someone invented a camera that could take snapshots of our feelings, I would take a picture of this moment and keep it in the wallet of my heart forever,” Hank says, burying the needle on the Treacle-O-Meter. Again, no one is buying it. They see Hank go through this charade every year. In the corner, Larry and Artie bet on what anecdote Hank will tell—one from the cruise-director days or a telethon story? (Winner: the cruise.)
Phil and Jerry up the ante in the Hank’s Annual Good-Bye Pageant by ordering a stripper, which of course turns out to be a woman Hank banged. (“Meet me? You’ve done a hell of a lot more than meet me,” she says. “Asshole, that number you gave me was just some dry cleaners in Torrance!”)
The thematic change happens after the party, when Hank asks to speak to Larry alone in Larry’s office. “Alone? What about Artie?” Larry asks, in typical fashion. Artie sneaks off to listen on the speaker phone as Hank comes unglued. A couple of gems from his meltdown:
• “She was half The Judds! Now there’s just one of them! So she is a Judd! She is A SINGLE JUDD!”
• “What about the time I chipped my tooth on the bathroom urinal?! What the fuck is so comical about that?!”
“It was a back tooth, Hank.” says Larry, smirking. “I don’t know how you did it.”
When Hank realizes Artie’s listening, he finally finds a bit of emotional leverage. That was a shitty thing to do, and Larry knows it. Looking like he’s about to cry, Hank says, “That’s just the kind of shit I’m talking about. I’m not going to take it anymore. I’m tired of being your personal village idiot.”
As steamed as Hank is, he confides to Artie that he’s “got the network by the balls on this one,” because Dick Cavett is looking for a co-host for his upcoming show on CNBC. Artie, of course, has no idea what CNBC is. “My TV stops at channel 13, the way it’s supposed to.”
Hank’s bluffing, the way he presumes Larry did during his contract negotiation when he told the network ABC offered him a post-Nightline talk show, but the network calls Hank’s bluff. And now he just accept it because he promised he wouldn’t back down on the air at the beginning of the episode. “It’s going to be embarrassing enough when this thing hits the front page of Variety,” Hank moans on his sofa, then pauses. “The second page at least.”
As mentioned before, Shandling maintains that characters on The Larry Sanders Show love each other, and “Hank’s Contract” gives viewers the first real sense that Larry genuinely cares for Hank. It’s not just guilt, pity, or his need to have a comic foil. He just can’t help liking the guy. “Hank was always there for me,” Larry writes in Confessions Of A Late Night Talk Show Host. “He would laugh at monologue jokes he didn’t get. I loved him for that.”
Larry strong-arms the network, and soon we see Hank happily driving an enormous golf cart—emblazoned with “KINGSLEY” on the front—backstage. (Where could he possibly drive that thing?) Turns out the network bent, but didn’t break: He received the raise, but no points, only one and a half weeks of additional vacation, and he had to pay for the golf cart. Having thought he was out of a job altogether, Hank is elated, but Larry sees it as a rebuke from the network. He threatened to walk unless they gave Hank what he wanted, and they gave only a little. “You’d think the network cared enough about me to do exactly what I tell them to do. It’s an insult, Artie. An insult!”
That doesn’t bode well for Larry’s next contract negotiation—especially when he reveals in the final moment of the episode that he bluffed about the post-Nightline show. And let’s not forget Jonathan Litman and network exec were going over a list of Larry’s flaws in “The New Producer.” In Hollywood, no one is safe. Sometimes you just need a golf cart to get through the day.
• As is often the case with The Larry Sanders Show, art imitated life. Around the time “Hank’s Contract” aired, David Letterman was shopping for a new home after NBC gave The Tonight Show to Leno. ABC offered Letterman a post-Nightline show—the same time as his show on NBC—but he was only open to 11:30 (the Tonight Show slot). According to Bill Carter’s The Late Shift, ABC hinted to Letterman that it would drop Nightline for him, but the offer never materialized. Paul Simms, who wrote “Hank’s Contract” and later created NewsRadio, started writing for Late Night With David Letterman just after Carson announced his retirement and continued through July of ’92, according to IMDB—so he didn’t have to look far for inspiration. (Simms also wrote “The New Producer,” which is thematically complementary to “Hank’s Contract.”)
• Can we talk about Robin Williams for a moment? This episode perfectly captures the tyranny of Williams in the early ’90s, when we as a nation were forced to endure Aladdin and Mrs. Doubtfire only 12 months apart. (May we never forget.) And that iridescent green suit? Holy Christ. His riffing is just painful—Artie tells him “Sir, your mind is a national treasure”—but at least the show humanizes him. When the camera goes off, so does the mania, and Williams sounds as unsure of himself as anyone else. If I could create a continuous video loop of Dana Carvey’s guest monologue and Williams’ riffing, we’d never have to waterboard anyone again.
I liked this exchange, too:
Larry: “Listen, you’re not going to do Arsenio or Leno, are you?”
Williams: “I’ve got to.”
Williams: “Hey, it’s the business, get used to it. Blow me.”
Oh, and Williams’ IMDB picture is appropriate:
• Another bit about Hank from Larry’s book:
He’s a good man and I will miss him because now that the show is over I don’t intend to ever see him again. I’m just kidding. In fact, we went out for dinner just the other night and he begged me to start up another talk show because he was really having trouble getting work. By six a.m. we were lying drunk in a whorehouse in south central Los Angeles. “This is like old times, isn’t it?” Hank sighed.
• Do people still use Alka Seltzer? I feel like I haven’t seen commercials for it in years.