Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Larry Sanders Show: “Performance Artist”

Illustration for article titled The Larry Sanders Show: “Performance Artist”

“Performance Artist” (season 2, episode 14; originally aired 8/25/93)

As has been established, Larry occasionally gets bored with his show—an issue that will develop further at the end of season two—and feels the need to make a change. In “Larry Loses Interest,” that means trying to write and star in a movie. Here, he wants to have more interesting guests, because how many times a year can you really have George Segal on the show anyway?

“When I go home at night, I can’t remember what I said to these people,” Larry says to Artie after the show. “Well, that’s why the good Lord invented videotape,” counters Artie, not missing the point so much as trying to steer Larry out of his funk. For an old-schooler like Artie, the show succeeds as is—and that’s the problem. To wit: Artie’s excited about a guest who spins plates and was a hit onThe Ed Sullivan Show. As early as 20 years ago, the late-night talk-show format was getting a little creaky.

Not that Larry’s necessarily thinking of a format change. When he assembles everyone for a rare staff meeting, he blames the guests—“the same old faces plugging the same old shit,” as he had mentioned to Artie. The meeting had everyone rattled, with Hank predicting “somebody is going down,” so the relief is almost palpable when Larry talks about booking better guests. There’s a great moment when Larry notices everyone exhaling (Hank: “Guests. Thank you, Jesus”) and asks what they thought the problem was. “Guests!” they all say together sycophantically.

Oddly, when Artie mentions the booking staff, the camera shows three random people and no Paula. Well, that’s good, because they could go away: Find some new guests, or Larry’s going to find a new staff. As the meeting breaks up, Hank has some very Hank suggestions: Robert Conrad, Neil Diamond, Raymond Burr. (“With whom I once had the honor of playing golf—he’s in a new Perry Mason show!”)

The previously unseen booker Kiki Rosatti—Maureen Mueller, who only appeared in this and another season-two episode, “Off Camera”—has a bold suggestion: performance artist Tim Miller, which tees up Artie for this gold: “Performance art. You know that’s a bunch of dog poop. What does he do? Get stark naked? Is that his act? Cover himself with chocolate syrup?”


Not exactly, but when Miller is booked on the show, he does a theatrical monologue about his conception that ends with “Ecce homo, behold the fag!” Larry wanted edgy, and here it is: Some members of the audience boo Miller as he walks to the panel, but Larry sticks up for him by citing freedom of expression, yada yada. In reality, he was cringing so hard he probably pulled a muscle.

“What the fuck was he doing out there, anyway?” he says to Artie afterward. Everyone is suitably freaked, including Kiki, who explains, “The tape was not that gay!” It’s not the gay stuff, according to Larry, but the sexual themes—“He’s talking about buttplugs. He’s talking about his father’s orgasm.” Their verdict: It can’t air.


As much as The Larry Sanders Show bases itself on the real world of late-night talk shows, “Performance Artist” stumbles a bit because under no circumstances would someone like Tim Miller be allowed to perform without the producers knowing exactly what he was going to say. Bands can’t even perform on late-night shows without having the network vet their lyrics. So an “edgy” performance artist would have everyone on an even higher alert. Miller might be able to slip “buttplug” into his act while improvising on the show, but the network would want to know everything he plans to do.

Shockingly, Larry’s network has no problem with Miller’s act—Artie: “You can say buttplug? Since when?”—so if Larry and Artie don’t want to air the episode, it’s their decision. Artie sees it as a power move: The network doesn’t want to be the bad guy, so it’s forcing them to do it. Cut to an awesome scene where Artie and Larry bicker about pulling the plug: If Larry doesn’t say anything while Artie counts to 10, the show will be pulled. They decide to yank the episode but blame it on the network when they tell Tim.


Of course the truth comes out, Tim calls Larry “The Jesse Helms of late-night television” in the media, and Larry dons his crisis “low profile” outfit: sunglasses and a baseball cap. Worse, Roseanne (and then husband Tom Arnold) calls him out on the Tim Miller fiasco on the show. “You’re so square—I might as well do Leno.”

Rosanne mentions that Larry’s show is the home for edgy comedy, the kind of thing Tim Miller does, but c’mon, since when? Nothing leads us to believe Larry’s show is any edgier than Leno’s. If nothing else, Hank’s presence de-edgifies everything he’s involved with by a good 50 percent. Larry’s monologue jokes are standard “Didja hear about this?” fare virtually indistinguishable from the kind of thing Leno would do. What gives Larry’s show any kind of edge, if there is one, is Larry himself: He has a bit of Letterman’s abrasiveness, where he’s funny and charming but also cutting. No one does it better than Letterman, but Larry shares some of that sensibility.


Still, Larry likes to think his show is a home for boundary-pushing performers, so he feels a need to make amends with “Timbo” and have him back on the show—so long as the performer can tone it down, Artie says. He doesn’t bite. “I’m not angry at you. You guys are just puppets. I just don’t want to appeal to the lowest common denominator, okay? That’s all television needs. It degrades everybody on it and everybody who watches it. Fuck it and fuck television, I don’t need it!”

What comes next is obvious: Cut to Miller doing the same cringe-inducing monologue on Leno, who makes the same platitudes as Larry about everyone having a right to express themselves, yada yada.


As we’ve mentioned, The Larry Sanders Show had a habit of going for obvious jokes to end an episode, but Miller on Leno isn’t the extent of it. Kiki reappears with a guest suggestion because she’s “finally found the boundaries—this one’s in the pocket.” That it’s George Segal again also isn’t what I mean about the obvious joke. I think that ending would have been effective if they showed him on set briefly, then rolled the credits.

Instead, we get another chance to hear Segal talking about his upcoming projects, and he obliviously mentions how he really wanted to work with this performer Tim Miller. Miller is the kind of guy “who would be perfect on this show—you should book him!”


That also reminds me of “Larry Loses Interest,” which ends with a similarly obvious joke: an audience member asking Larry why he doesn’t do movies. Segal’s “You should book him!” hits the same beat. It’s a bit of a letdown, but a return to normalcy. Now that Larry’s gotten the urge to change things out of his system, everything can go back to normal.

Stray observations:

  • Tim Miller is a real performer and monologist, and an acclaimed one at that. I thought his monologue on this episode were a spot-on parody of bad performance art, but, um, no, it was a scene from his show My Queer Body.
  • Phil, on why Hank could be getting fired, not one of the writers: “We didn’t introduce R.E.M. as ‘REM’ last week.”
  • Artie: “I warned you, didn’t I?” Larry: “You say nothing!” Artie: “I warned you with my eyes!”
  • Pure Hank: “Yeah, but how do you think I feel? Two articles about the show and I’m not mentioned in either one of them.”
  • I know I’m likely projecting, but man, Tom Arnold looked coked up. Sit still!
  • Say what you want about Leno, but he was game to be a punchline in this episode. I respect that.