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The Last Word From ‘Larry’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Unlike the 21-gun salute given the departure of “Seinfeld,” there is only the occasional round of sniper fire as “The Larry Sanders Show” goes off the air Sunday after six seasons on the pay cable channel HBO.

Those shots are the lingering result of the lawsuits bandied back and forth between series star and co-creator Garry Shandling and Shandling’s former manager, Brad Grey. Shandling accuses Grey of putting the interests of his production company, Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, ahead of the comedian’s career.

Followers of the drama find it difficult to resist equating the dog-eat-dog world of the show with the dog-eat-dog world of the lawsuits--seeing a kinship between Larry Sanders, self-absorbed, perfectionist talk-show host, and Garry Shandling, the genius comedian who, according to the Grey countersuit, drove writers from his show with his neurotic, ego-driven behavior.

What nobody disputes is the enduring quality of “The Larry Sanders Show” itself, Emmy-nominated dozens of times for its smart writing and top-notch ensemble acting, hip enough to lure real-life celebrities to come on and lampoon themselves.

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On the other hand, who outside Hollywood has noticed?

Indeed, the limited orbit of the dishy legal battle mirrors the limited orbit of the series, which never averaged more than 2 million viewers per episode. That doesn’t sound bad, given that HBO is carried in roughly 25% of American households. But the network often doubles the “Sanders” audience with a movie or an event such as the recent Tom Hanks space epic, “From the Earth to the Moon.”

Still, HBO kept “Sanders” on the air, basking in the glow of its critical acclaim and Emmy cachet.

In its final season, the show has revolved around Larry’s decision to step down amid pressure from the network suits to skew his show younger; Larry’s corpse is still quite warm as the others on his staff--executive producer Artie (Rip Torn), on-air sidekick Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor) and head writer Phil (Wallace Langham)--posture their loyalty while acting in their own self-interest. In a typical episode, Hank, hoping to endear himself to guest host Jon Stewart, agrees to dress as a Nazi in a totally tasteless sketch titled “Adolph Hankler.”

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It’s fun to watch, and it begs the question: Why take the show off the air now, when there are so many more delicious possibilities still to explore?

Shandling declined to be interviewed for this article. In a “Sanders"-like turn of events, the comedian has gotten somewhat media-shy at a time when he could be relishing his crowning creative achievement, driven into semi-hiding in part by a damning story about the lawsuits in the April 13 issue of the New Yorker magazine.

For their part, “Sanders” writers and co-stars paint the image of a man emboldened creatively by his decision to split with Grey but also isolated by his singular comic vision.

The toll of writing, editing and at times directing the show became overwhelming, they say, not least because Shandling, whether through his own actions or Grey’s, kept losing writers to other shows.

“As it left him standing alone, and he had to do so much more of the work himself, the show got better,” actor Torn said. “But it took a big toll on him physically and emotionally.”

On the phone from his home in Connecticut, Torn sounded a lot like the father protector/producer he plays on the show, referring to Shandling as “the captain,” as in: “I used to tell the writers, ‘I am on this show because of Garry Shandling. He’s the captain.”

“The writers would say, ‘What does this guy want?’ ” Torn went on. “I would say, ‘He doesn’t want formula.’ When you hear that sitcom rhythm, it drives you up a wall.”

Peter Tolan estimates he wrote or co-wrote some 25 scripts in the course of his six-year “Sanders” tenure, during which he saw many other writers come and go.

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"[The show] is so specifically Garry, you have to get into his head and write his head,” Tolan said. “The show required you to do more dramatic writing than joke writing. There’s a subtlety of tone that not many people can get their hands on. That was a source of frustration for Garry. He’d often be stuck with people who couldn’t do that.”

Meanwhile, opinions differ on whether the series has run its creative course.

To co-executive producer Judd Apatow, “Sanders” was a show made relevant by the talk-show wars in the early 1990s between David Letterman and Jay Leno--a war, argues Apatow, that is now over.

“Jay Leno won,” Apatow said. “So it doesn’t feel like that’s as current as when we started. . . . If this wasn’t the last season, it would have been incredibly hard to come up with story lines.”

"[The show] does have more life left,” disagreed John Markus, a consulting producer on “Sanders” last season. “But that call is Garry’s. . . . He’s very happy. He feels empowered by his decision to end the show.” Empowered, but not financially enriched--at least not by the stratospheric standards of those who own huge stakes in their own syndicated sitcoms.

Sources have estimated that “The Larry Sanders Show” could garner $200,000 to $300,000 per episode when it goes into syndication, a modest figure by television standards. The problem, said the general manager of a Los Angeles TV station, is not only that the show’s ratings were suspect, but that “Sanders” is an unconventionally paced sitcom with characters who use language that will have to be edited out. (Columbia TriStar, the show’s distributor, declined comment.)

According to Tolan, clean versions of “Sanders” were shot for a season and a half, and then abandoned. Getting “Sanders” fit for syndication, he admits, “is going to be a mess.”

“It’s going to take some artful butchering. But it’s our fault. The actors rebelled against doing two takes of things.”

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One possibility has HBO buying back episodes for another run, while others see the show ending up on cable in edited form.

To “Sanders” devotees, taking a knife to the original episodes is tantamount to airbrushing a brighter smile on the “Mona Lisa.” The bile and pettiness among the characters are what gives the show its creative juice.

In one of the better episodes this season, for instance, Artie chews out Phil after his repeated homophobic jokes prompt a gay assistant (Scott Thompson) to hit the show with a sexual harassment lawsuit. “You know who runs this town?” Artie growls at Phil.

“The Jews?” Phil says.

“No,” Artie retorts. “The gay Jews.”

That kind of insider moment is what makes the show beloved in New York and L.A., but not such a good bet in Peoria.

“There’s nothing worse than not being in on a joke,” said Jay Leno, who as host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show” takes special delight in “Sanders.”

Leno loves the little backstage moments, but, he says, “there are a lot of things that happen on the show where I think, ‘I get that, but do people [across the country] really get that?’ ”

In a sense, the lawsuits have “Sanders” exiting on an appropriately discordant note. Hesitant to provide an opportunity for further airing of the legal dispute and Grey’s allegations, Shandling is keeping a low profile and thereby undercutting the huge send-off many feel his show richly deserves.

Mirroring real life to the end, “The Larry Sanders Show” recently offered its own wry epitaph to the whole business.

“If this gets out,” says Artie, waving the sexual harassment lawsuit at Phil, “all anyone’s going to remember about this show is the lawsuit bull----.

” . . . Oh, and 10 years of laughter.”

Make that six.

* The final episode of “The Larry Sanders Show” airs Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO.


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