Garry Shandling recalls the ‘lab experiment’ that was ‘The Larry Sanders Show’
All 89 episodes of “The Larry Sanders Show,” Garry Shandling’s influential situation comedy about a needy talk show host and the people who need him in turn, have just become available on home video for the first time. In a world in which the entire runs of “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” and “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” may be purchased whole, this finally remedies a great cultural injustice.
“I was asking everybody to go beyond what was TV comedy at that time,” Shandling said recently of his cast and crew. “I knew we were headed into different territory. I knew the philosophy of a creative process in which people were allowed to make mistakes and to play real moments and to risk. And that takes courage, the courage that I needed to find, and I think that everyone on the show needed to find. And that’s really the bond that we have: It’s that we were all in this lab experiment to find the courage just to be, not to make a ‘TV series.’”
They made one anyway. “The Larry Sanders Show: The Complete Series” (Shout Factory) follows by only three years “Not Just the Best of ‘The Larry Sanders Show,’” which joined 23 selected episodes to a wealth of new material, largely produced by and featuring Shandling himself — an unusual set of barely edited encounters with some of the show’s guest stars, including Carol Burnett, Sharon Stone, Tom Petty, Jerry Seinfeld and Alec Baldwin, described as “intimate, personal, indulgent visits with my friends that are meant for only me to see” and underlining what he called at the time the set’s theme of “a search for authenticity in life.”
Those encounters are included in “The Complete Series,” along with some newly added outtakes, Shandling’s visit to former L.A. Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg’s USC film school class, and a brief video preamble that addresses the confusion of overlapping collections. Still, though the new set incorporates the previous one, it does not exactly replace it: That was an intentional work, with a certain structural integrity, down to the onscreen menus written in Shandling’s own hand. (One option: “I don’t really want to watch this DVD. I’d rather spend my time talking to a human being.”) This is just a wonderful big box of everything.
“Larry Sanders” followed Shandling’s fourth-wall-breaking metacomedy, “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” but where the earlier series “looked outward” toward the audience, “Larry Sanders” reflected an interest in “looking internally at myself, which meant taking a show and looking at it internally. And what better show to do that with than a talk show, which pretends to be a normal conversation, half-acknowledging that people are watching and half-pretending that the host and the guest have a certain intimacy, which really revolves around plugging product.”
Shot half on video and half on film to delineate the talk show from the action backstage, the series played in the space where those realities ambiguously abutted. (Larry, says his all-knowing producer, Arthur, is like a mythical beast, “half-man, half-desk.”) The curtain from which Larry emerged to deliver his monologue “was a metaphor for how we want to be perceived by the public and how we really are,” Shandling said. “Everybody has a curtain.”
Its cast included Jeremy Piven, Janeane Garofalo, Penny Johnson, Wallace Langham, Scott Thompson and Mary Lynn Rajskub and costarred Jeffrey Tambor as Larry’s even needier TV sidekick, Hank Kingsley, and the magisterial Rip Torn as Arthur. Behind the cameras were frequent director Todd Holland (“Wonderfalls”) and writer-producers Peter Tolan, who went on to co-create “Rescue Me,” and Judd Apatow, who went on to become Judd Apatow.
Apatow, who first directed on “Sanders,” recalled, “They would shoot the entire show in two days. It was a ridiculously hard schedule — they’d be shooting a new scene every hour, with three cameras rolling at a time, sometimes one cameraman on roller blades.” (It was their budget version of a Steadicam.) He carried what he learned there to his next TV series, “Freaks and Geeks,” where, he said, “I would trick myself into thinking I was still writing for ‘The Larry Sanders Show,’ except it was happening in high school, and it would have the same level of truth and humor and drama.”
“I was very committed to the show sticking to its authentic original idea,” Shandling said. “I let ‘It’s Garry Shandling’s Show’ slip around a bit until it lost its original intent and we never learned any more about the characters in any real way. So it was a daily inspection of the process to make sure that it was honest and authentic and being born anew as much as it could be each week.”
“Larry Sanders” is inevitably a comedy — it was made by a man who philosophizes in punchlines about people who joke as a way of life — but it is not a machine to deliver gags. And though the characters can go to extremes, they are only the extremes to which humans commonly go. There is nothing “wacky” about them, nothing “outrageous” in their antics; there are no antics. The people who staff the fictional “Larry Sanders Show” are good at what they do: not always as good as they believe, but neither quite as bad as they fear. And it’s that element of fear — of being found out, cast out — that set “Sanders” apart from sitcoms that came before and influenced some that came after.
“I think the guys who really know comedy play for keeps,” Tambor said. “ ‘The Larry Sanders Show’ didn’t have its hat in its hand saying, ‘Do you like me?’ It was, ‘This is the way this thing goes.’”
There are no feel-good moments in “The Larry Sanders Show”; that sort of wish-fulfillment held no interest for its creators. Comedy eases pain because it puts pain in perspective; it doesn’t make pain disappear. But neither was the show cynical about its characters or their possibilities.
“One thing Garry used to say that had a big impact on me,” said Apatow, “was that the show was about people who loved each other but show business got in the way.”
“I was on ' Regis Philbin’ a couple years ago,” Shandling recalled, “and he asked me, ‘Now where do you go? I hear you go to Hawaii. I’m very confused — you’re a talented guy and you disappear.’ And I said, ‘Well, why you’re confused is because I go off TV.’ And he didn’t quite know what I meant. And then I spoke to Howard Stern recently and he said, ‘Why did you never take the [actual talk] shows you could have hosted?’ And I said, ‘Well, unlike you, I don’t have the gift of wanting to go on the air every day, because I need the space in between to grow.’ And I think he was confused by that, much in the same way.
“That’s what we were exploring on ‘Larry Sanders’ — the human qualities that have brought us to where we are now in the world: the addiction to needing more and wanting more and talking more. We were examining the labels put on success — is it successful to be on TV every day, to be famous, to have a paycheck? And you see what’s missing is love and heart.”