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From the Archives: Real talk shows should learn from Garry Shandling’s ‘The Larry Sanders Show’

Comedian Garry Shandling has died. Shandling starred as a fictional late-night talk show host in “The Larry Sanders Show,” a series he created with Dennis Klein that aired on HBO from 1992 to 1998. This first review of “The Larry Sanders Show” originally ran in The Times on Aug. 14, 1992.

He stands.

Behind him is the curtain, facing him the studio audience, the camera and millions of faceless Americans preparing, once again, to be sent off to bed with an hour of light amusement and verbal vapor loosely defined as communication.

He speaks.

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“Anyway, so how many of you saw Bill Clinton. . . .”

He finishes the joke, then waits for the audience to finish laughing.

He could be Carson or Leno or. . . .

But he’s not. He’s Garry Shandling, playing fictional Larry Sanders, focal point of television’s latest satiric probe of that evening institution that originated in 1951 with a short-lived NBC series called “Broadway Open House,” which was succeeded four years later by the future golden goose of the genre, “Tonight!” Later, it became “The Tonight Show.”

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Steve Allen . . . Jack Parr . . . Johnny Carson . . . Jay Leno . . . David Letterman . . . Arsenio Hall . . . Dick Cavett . . . Merv Griffin . . . Pat Sajak . . . Alan Thicke . . . Joan Rivers . . . Dennis Miller. And so on and so on, with many such shows--where the host sits behind a desk and trades lines with a blur of Zsa Zsas who spew mostly blather from the couch--congealing into an anonymous monolith.

The traditional, good old-fashioned talk show.

SCTV’s “The Sammy Maudlin Show,” the syndicated “My Talk Show” and Norman Lear’s “Fernwood 2-Night,” which later became “America 2Night,” all had their fun at the expense of the talk show.

But none gave it as good as “The Larry Sanders Show,” a 13-part parody arriving at 10:30 p.m. Saturday on HBO. Real talk shows should be as acutely funny.

In fact, “The Larry Sanders Show” at times is a twin of the real thing, from its “Tonight Show"-cloned set to its Letterman-style theme to its cameos of such stars as Dana Delany, Jon Lovitz and Carol Burnett playing themselves. Much like “Tanner ’88,” HBO’s brilliant political satire of four years ago, “The Larry Sanders Show” makes its point by smudging the line separating mockery and reality.

That is its strength--that and a very strong cast and an ability to slip behind the talk show’s curtain of forced amiability to spoof the hypocrisies, fragile egos and bottom-line pragmatism that exist off camera. To say nothing of insincerity. This is a world in which characters speak circuitously, rarely saying what they’re really thinking.

As a comic whose own career was boosted by talk shows (he even subbed for Carson on “The Tonight Show”), star/executive producer Shandling knows this turf well. His Sanders is host of a late-night network talk show that’s successful despite getting squeezed by Leno and Arsenio. Rip Torn plays his savvy, show-biz-hardened producer, Arthur, who lives for “huge laughs, huge.” Jeffrey Tambor is his insecure, Ed McMahon-type (“Yes, sir!”) sidekick, Hank, and Megan Gallagher plays his too-rarely-seen second wife.

On Saturday, Larry is anguished when ordered by the network’s tyrannical late-night programming chief to do live commercials on the show for a product called Garden Weasel. That would be “a little bit unethical,” he tells Arthur, limply. “Unethical!” the incredulous producer responds. “Larry, don’t start pulling at that thread. The whole world will unravel.”

Although frequently funny, the episode itself ultimately unravels, resolving Larry’s dilemma in an artificial way that undermines the half-hour’s many subtle truths. The second and third episodes are better.

Next week’s installment includes a devastatingly witty sequence with Burnett. Its slashing assault on phony conviviality just puts you on the floor: When the talk-show camera is on, Larry and Burnett are euphorically chummy. But when the show goes to commercial break, there is absolute silence on the set; each ignores the other as if they had never met. There is no connection, only discomfort. Burnett impatiently glances at her watch. Finally, host and guest do chat briefly, tossing each other insincere compliments.

“The Larry Sanders Show.” Huge laughs, huge.

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