“Off Camera” (season 2, episode 16, originally aired 9/15/93)
Behold, THE EPISODE OF DEATH! Feel the grim reaper’s icy grip on your shoulder has you gaze upon the ghosts of Larry Sanders guest stars past! Gene Siskel: DEAD, 2/20/99 (complications from brain surgery)! Warren Zevon: DEAD, 9/7/03 (lung cancer)! Then just four days later,John Ritter, felled by something called aortic dissection! Also DEAD: Sid Newman, who played Sid (4/10/01, heart failure)! And the dog that’s in this episode! No way he’s still alive, right?
Who can laugh when the stench of death hangs in the air like a fart on a crowded subway?
Well, we all can, because “Off Camera” is another great episode from the second season, one that does the “a bunch of crazy stuff happens” setup well. (See also “Artie’s Gone” and “The Party” from season one.) It’s a sitcom trope that dates to the earliest days of television: Everything needs to go smoothly when an important person shows up (in this case, a writer from the relatively new Entertainment Weekly played by Joshua Malina, a.k.a. The West Wing’s Will Bailey), but everything of course goes haywire. Ritter and Siskel have an altercation. Phil is shirtless, drunk, and bleeding. Artie bangs a guest in wardrobe. Darlene brings a stray dog into the office. And Larry knows about none of it.
That’s because of Artie, an old pro who honors the showbiz commandment of keeping the talent happy and protected. We’ve talked before about Artie’s thankless job, but “Off Camera” provides the best—or zaniest?—look yet at the “preschool” he runs. The best part: Any episode that spends a lot of time with Artie guarantees some gold:
- When the EW reporter asks if Larry has dated the guests: “You think we been busting our balls doing 1,400 shows so Larry can get laid? Believe me, if Mr. Sanders wanted to fuck talent, he would’ve been an agent.”
- When John Ritter’s agent (whom Artie dismissively calls a “keychain”) gets pissy: “If you don’t shut the fuck up, I will kick you in the nuts so hard your dentist will have to work around them at your next cleaning.”
- When he’s fooling around with Elizabeth Ashley in wardrobe: “Since you’ve gone on Slim Fast, I’m powerless!”
- When Phil whines after the dog bites his hand: “Stop being such a fuckin’ baby, godammit, Phil! So you’ll jerk off with the other hand for a few weeks.”
Where “Artie’s Gone” showed what happens when his steady hand isn’t on the wheel, “Off Camera” shows that even the maestro can’t prevent chaos.
Part of it’s booking: Pairing a critic like Gene Siskel with an actor who made a bunch of bad movies like John Ritter proves toxic. Their confrontation begins when they meet each other in the green room, where Ritter proclaims he doesn’t listen to critics because he doesn’t find it “constructive,” then proceeds to recall verbatim a 5-year-old negative review Siskel gave Glow-In-The-Dark Condom: The Movie (a.k.a. 1989’s Skin Deep). “Skin Deep was a very good movie. It did extremely well in Europe,” Ritter says haughtily.
The other part of it is people: Artie does his best to keep the staff in line, but Darlene introduces the chaos agent into the mix by bringing a flea-ridden stray dog into the office. Ritter trips over the dog (which he assumes is Siskel’s for some reason) and busts his nose. The dog also bites Phil, which leads to Artie advising he pour brandy on it to sterilize the wound, which leads to Phil being hammered and shirtless—and, at one point, deciding to go say hi to Warren Zevon while he’s performing. (Only Artie tackling him backstage prevents that.)
Zevon is another issue: Even though Artie assures him he won’t have to play his signature song, “Werewolves Of London”—because Zevon is understandably tired of it by this point in his career—Larry asks him to play it as a second song. That annoys Zevon, but infuriates Ritter, who gets bumped because Zevon goes long. Here he was, being professional and sticking around even after getting bloodied in the green room, only to have Larry bump him. Confronting Artie, who’s just tackled Phil, he vows never to do the show again—all this in front of the EW reporter. Ritter looks at him. “You want an interview? I’ll give you an interview!”
The bad press from this whole fiasco will be epic. Artie hides it all from Larry—again, the old man’s a pro—saying Ritter’s “happy as a clam” and will return next week, and he even manages to get Phil clothed and sober-looking when Larry walks backstage after the show.
But, as “Off Camera” points out so well, Artie can’t control everything—even himself, as the EW cover story (cover line: “Who’s running the show?”) notes his backstage dalliance with Ashley. Artie tries one last bit of spin—saying the writer made it up—before silently lowering his head. Busted.
- Gene Siskel explaining the Crying Game twist to Hank is great—there may be no better line in this episode than Hank asking, “How was she hung?”
- The things you learn on IMDB: Sid Newman had an uncredited part in Meet Me In St. Louis as “Boy on Trolley.” Everyone now: Clang, clang, clang went the trolley! Ding, ding, ding went the bellllll… (It has to be that scene, right? Sid would’ve been 24 when this was shot, but I’m not sure which guy he is.)
- The double entendres with Darlene just never get old, right? “Wanna see what I got down here?”
- Ritter’s agent: “These fucking people from Chicago! All they know is punching and fists.” Siskel: “Hey, cut the Chicago crap. All you people from L.A. know is how to validate your parking.” You tell ’em, Gene.
- If you’re ever in Chicago, you should check out the Gene Siskel Film Center. The Film Center for the School Of The Art Institute Of Chicago was renamed in his honor in 2000, and it has some interesting screenings every month. (But I’d still kill a man to get an Alamo Drafthouse like the ones in Austin in this city.)
- Next week: the debut of the Lookaround Café!