Friday, November 19, 2010
Finally: Back to Larry Part 1: Season 1
By Edward Copeland
My long national nightmare is over. Given any excuse or opportunity, I've whined for years that a complete set of HBO's first great series, the comedy The Larry Sanders Show, wasn't available on DVD. Years ago, when the first season came out on DVD, I snatched it up immediately, but no further seasons followed. Then, about three years back. they released a boxed set called Not Just the Best of The Larry Sanders Show that included a sampling of episodes from all six seasons plus many bonus features produced just for the set. Other fans urged me to get it, but I remained a stubborn asshole, especially since it included several first season episodes I already had on DVD.
I heard a myriad of excuses: the lack of interest in the first season made them reluctant to release the rest, problems with the musical rights pertaining to the performers who played themselves and even that Garry Shandling's own neurotic tendencies made him believe that no one would be interested in ALL of the episodes. One time on Facebook, I even bitched to SHOUT! Factory, even though I knew they didn't have the rights to the show, but knowing what great jobs they did preserving Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared I complained to them anyway. I don't know if I put a bug in someone's ear, but now SHOUT! Factory has released a 17-disc boxed set of the complete Larry Sanders Show that contains all the bonus features from Not Just the Best of The Larry Sanders Show plus some more new features. Since I ordered it off the SHOUT! Web site, I got a discount (It is pricey) as well as a Larry Sanders baseball cap.
Now, as I slowly make my way through the series again, I plan to review it, season by season, starting with the 13 episodes of the first season. Of course, this time of year also bubbles over with new movies to review, so I probably won't finish all six seasons until well into next year.
For some mysterious reason, a lot of TV's best shows don't hit their strides until about their fourth episode. This was definitely the case with Deadwood. I mention this because on the commentary for this episode by Shandling and writer-producer Peter Tolan, they admit to the same truism and acknowledge that this episode actually was the fourth one filmed (or, more accurately, filmed and taped) though it was the first episode aired. The decision was a good one as it launched the series with a memorable outing when its three main characters: Larry Sanders (Shandling), Artie (Rip Torn) and Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor) all were well-formed.
This episode focuses on one of the most frequent and recurring conflicts that would pop up throughout the course of the show's six seasons: network hassles. Larry's talk show supposedly airs on a network, though since through the course of the show they mention ABC, CBS, NBC and even FOX as competition, we presume it's a fictional one. Given that The Larry Sanders Show stands as one of the best not to mention the longest-running, satires on television, I always liked to fantasize that it airs on UBS, the network Paddy Chayefsky created for his prescient skewering of television in 1976's Network.
Larry runs into conflict with the exec in charge of late night programming, Melanie Parrish (Deborah May), a hard-ass who Artie swears "he killed in the Korean war." When Artie says it to Larry a second time, Larry tells him he's used that line before. "It's not a line, it's a real concern," Artie tells him. The focus of the conflict between Larry and Melanie concerns one of his sponsors, the maker of The Garden Weasel, who want him to do live commercials for their product during the show. Larry hates the idea and tries to sell them on the idea of having Hank do it, since Hank basically never has met a product he wouldn't endorse, however, feel that Hank suffers from overexpoure. When Larry raises the issue of the ethics of the idea to Artie, Artie responds, "Don't start pulling on that thread. Our whole world will unravel." Though they didn't do it when the series was on the air, someone should have published a book called The Wit and Wisdom of Artie because you could just read all the great lines Rip Torn got and laugh for hours. (I do want to know if Harrison Ford does impressions, particularly Carol Channing.)
Larry caves and does it, but he ends up making jokes the company doesn't appreciate, escalating the conflict. The entire episode is funny and perfectly sets the tone of a behind-the-scenes look at a late-night talk show. It also establishes its unusual technical approaches such as filming all the off-show scenes while videotaping all the scenes of the talk show. It's also the first show to really use the tracking shot of people carrying on a conversation while walking down a hall.
In the DVD commentary, Tolan, who wrote this episode, and Shandling agreed how much they hated having to write the monologue parts of the show and those are the only parts that do seem really dated. There are other cultural references that indicate the time of the episode, but the jokes in the talk show's monologue do definitely trap it in a certain era. It doesn't matter though, the entire show is so brilliantly funny, that that's a tiny part of it. The laughs are so frequent that I think this is the comedy that finally killed my ability to watch new comedies that had laugh tracks or studio audiences where every joke seemed to get the same laugh, with no variance in size in relation to the joke.
Shandling and his creative collaborators couldn't have picked a more ideal time to launch The Larry Sanders Show than when they did. It was at the height of the talk show wars, when NBC pushed Johnny Carson out to an early retirement, Jay Leno stole his throne, a peeved David Letterman jumped networks, an unknown named Conan O'Brien leaped into the fray, Arsenio Hall had syndicated success and Chevy Chase had a Fox talk show for about a minute-and-a-half. Part of the fallout of all these shows were fierce competition for guests and booking wars and that guided the premise of "The Promise."
A pre-Saturday Night Live David Spade still eking out a living as a stand-up is preparing to make his fifth appearance on Larry's show and Sanders feels as if he sort of discovered him. Unfortunately, the night before his scheduled appearance, Larry and Artie are surprised to see Spade doing the same jokes on Leno's show. Making the matter worse, he was doing his pre-interview with Paula (the great Janeane Garofalo, who didn't really come into her own until the second season) AFTER he'd taped Leno, but he didn't tell anyone at The Larry Sanders Show. Larry's hurt, but it's also against protocol with some shows making guests sign contracts that they won't appear on other shows within a certain time span. Artie convinces Larry to give Spade the boot.
The episode also includes a very funny sideplot involving Hank taking the regional presidents of The Hank Kingsley Fan Club on a tour of the studio. There's also an underlying theme involving the general false front that Larry always puts on. When Spade is running through his act with Paula, he stops by and off-handedly tells him to stop by when he's finished. When Spade actually does come into his office to see him, Larry is horrified. He realizes he'd told him to drop in, but he didn't expect him to actually do it. At the show's beginning, Dana Delany is a guest on the talk show and as the show ends, he explains that they are supposed to pretend like they are still talking until the cameras stop rolling. Larry asks Delany how her house is coming and she starts to tell him about a lawsuit that she's had to file against the contractor, but then the cameras stop and Sanders disappears midconversation leaving Delany looking puzzled. "The Promise" has plenty of laughs and priceless Torn and Tambor moments, but it's a bit of letdown after the series premiere.
The third episode aired became what may be the first classic episode of The Larry Sanders Show, the first to have a big star doing a guest appearance and the one that made people who only liked the show become rabid fans like I was. It's generally thought that in movies, the more names credited with writing the film, the more likely it was a troubled production that will suck. That certainly isn't the case with "The Spider Episode" which credits four writers: Shandling, Tolan, Paul Simms and Rosie Shuster. The episode and all four writers were nominated for an Emmy for outstanding writing in a comedy series. The guest star in question, Carol Burnett, also would earn a nomination as outstanding guest actress in a comedy series.
The storyline completely revolves around Larry's skittishness about a bug handler set as a guest for the next night who is going to place tarantulas on each of Larry's arms in a race to see who can get to a dead fly on Larry's head first. Needless to say, Larry is less than excited at the prospect, despite Artie's urging. "It's a showbiz tradition. Gigantic fuzzy insects crawling on your body. Lions crapping in your lap. Great television."
He carries his worries home where he's taken that night's guest, Jon Lovitz, and his girlfriend for dinner with Larry and his wife Jeannie (Megan Gallagher). I haven't had the chance to mention the domestic side of Larry's life yet. In the commentary side on the first episode, Tolan says that most of the writers didn't want Larry to have a wife but Shandling insisted. Jeannie's annoyance at the intrusion of the talk show on their married life will grow as the season does.
The one plus of the episode that has Larry excited is that they he is going to get a chance to perform in a skit with Burnett, though the sketch is badly written and he's so distracted by the spiders that he can't even concentrate during rehearsals. He tries to pawn the stunt of on Hank, who's always grateful to be in the spotlight until the spider handler informs him that the worst thing that could happen is a slight allergic reaction and he always carries something with him to counteract the effects should one occur, though he didn't this time. Needless to say, they scrap the lousy skit and the spider stunt goes out of control in a scene of hilarious chaos.
Hank Kingsley, without exaggeration or embellishment, is quite simply one of the greatest creations in the history of television comedies thanks to the magnificent performance of Jeffrey Tambor. We've already seen parts of what makes Hank so wonderful in the first three episodes, but in "The Guest Host" we really get a glimpse into the full-fledged, dark side of Hank Kingsley.
As it happens, this doesn't even occur in an episode where the focus is on Hank. The story concerns Larry taking a week off for a vacation and Dana Carvey (nominated for outstanding guest actor in a comedy series) coming in to guest host. From the very first night, Carvey is a resounding success, which, of course, brings out Larry's always-near-the-surface insecurity. It's quite telling when you consider, with the exception of the time David Letterman was off for an extended time having and recovering from his heart surgery, NO talk show hosts today use guest hosts. Call it The Leno Factor. (Or would that be The Joan Rivers Factor, since she was Carson's first permanent guest host who went off to do her own talk show.)
Larry gets so nervous, he wants to call off his vacation and come back early. It gets further complicated by rumors that Carvey might be developing a late-night talk show deal at another network as Larry's competition. Artie, for the second time in the episode, says he saw it coming and Larry asks why he didn't say anything. "If I said I saw this coming every time I saw something coming, we'd never get anything done."
What makes Hank so great is that he's always believed that he should guest host when Larry is gone, going so far as to force the network president and Artie watch him do a fake interview with one of the writers, Phil (Wallace Langham). When that goes nowhere, he keeps trying to intimidate Carvey in the form of "tips." Kingsley is an idiot and asshole, but you still somehow always end up liking him thanks to Tambor's deft portrayal. The fact that he never won an Emmy is another in that award's long history of outrages.
Re-watching these episodes for the first time in a long time, I'm surprised by how well I remember them. I'm also surprised that of the first season's batch of episode, the one I liked best isn't one that I remember as my favorites from before. Shandling gets story credit but the script itself is credited to Dick Blasucci, Paul Simms, Howard Gewirtz and Chris Thompson.
Inspired by an event few of the younger readers out there even remember known simply as "The Katzenberg Memo," the story actually starts when an emergency appendectomy puts Artie out of commission for awhile and Jonathan Litman (Ian Buchanan), an old friend of Larry's, has come in to serve as acting producer, only he has plans to take the job on a permanent basis. Working with one of the network suits, he even has a higher-up co-conspirator and he writes a memo with his suggestions about changes that could be made in all the various aspects of the show to lure a younger audience and boost ratings. Somehow a copy of the memo gets carelessly left out and the entire staff sees it and makes copies, going ballistic.
The scenes with the pissed and fearful staff are funny enough as Larry, without Artie there to comfort him, tries to calm them all down assuring them that the memo does not reflect his views. Larry's been kept in the dark and, quite on purpose, was not criticized in Jonathan's memo. Larry is just worried that Artie will see the memo, but he should know better, because Artie knows everything.
One of the funniest reactions, as you'd expect, comes from Hank, who gets an earring to try to appeal to that youngest area. Larry, having fun with his sidekick, tells him he has it in the ear that means you're gay and that he better be certain a professional did the job or he might get a serious infection and teases Hank that he thinks he might see pus.
As Hank makes a beeline for his office, telling his assistant Darlene (Linda Doucett) to call an ambulance, he finds a drunk Artie waiting inside with a copy of the memo in his hand, convinced that he's out. Hank asks how he found out. "If someone farts in the Xerox room, I hear it."
Artie rants about show business (but honestly, he could be talking about any industry: newspapers, Web sites) that it's all change for the sake of change. Hank can't focus because he's still obsessing about his ear. "I can hear something inside my head," Hank tells Artie. "I can guarantee you that there's nothing in there."
Artie then insists that Hank drink with him. Hank's reluctant, because he's certain he'll be on several antibiotics later. "Drink it or I'll knock you down on the floor, put my foot on your neck and piss in your good ear," Artie shouts.
Rip Torn's drunk scenes are always a highlight and this one with the added plus of a drunken Hank as they burst into Larry's office, is a keeper, as is the entire episode.
This is really the first episode where Jeannie plays a major role. It all starts when Mimi Rogers guests on the show and very openly flirts with Larry, who gets so wrapped up in the flirting he returns the banter. He even makes the unprecedented move of inviting her back for the next night's show, despite the fact that because her segment ran over they had to bump Michael Richards.
One of the running gags on the show in the home scenes is that Larry is so obsessed with himself that he has to watch himself every night, even though he taped the show just a few hours earlier, much to the annoyance of his wife Jeannie. That night, of course, is a bit different. He's not so eager to watch, but Jeannie wants to see it and when she watches him invite Rogers back, she's naturally concerned.
Larry already had been feeling guilty since immediately after the show wrapped, since frequent affairs broke up his first marriage and he'd been working hard to make this one work. He tries to reassure Jeannie that she has nothing to worry about. "Larry, I trust you. I just don't know if I trust him," she says as she points to the TV set.
At the second show, he tries to cool things down, even having Paula tell Mimi Rogers not to flirt, but others such as Hank try to tempt him as in the old days by dangling the keys to Kingsley's Malibu pad in front of him in case he needs it for a tryst.
Another Jeffrey Tambor showcase as Larry's sidekick's contract is set to expire and Hank, always convinced that he's more vitally important to the show than he is, has engaged in very public negotiations with the network, making huge demands that no one takes seriously because no one ever takes Hank seriously in general.
At one point, he even blows up at Larry asking about why people find things he do so funny (as when Wynonna Judd appeared solo and he introduced her as "The Judd") "What about the time I broke a tooth on a urinal? Tell me what was so funny about that?" "It was a back tooth, Hank." He even lies and says he has an offer to be Dick Cavett's sidekick on his new CNBC show. Artie asks what CNBC is and Hank says it's on cable. "My TV stops at 13 the way it's supposed to," Artie tells him.
Eventually, Larry has to step in and save Hank from himself to save his job and get him some of what he wants.
Head writer Jerry (Jeremy Piven) is carrying on a torrid affair with a new intern on the show and he can't keep his hands off her, boinking her anywhere, anytime, even in the sacred land behind Larry's talk show desk. Everyone knows about this, except for Larry and when he finds out, he decides that he needs to be more "in the loop." Artie advises him against it, but Larry insists and soon everyone feels free to come to him with their problems such as Paula with her relationship problems and her indecision over whether to place her mother in a nursing home. Still, it's Jerry's fling that dominates, especially when they go at it on a platform above the studio audience during taping, distracting guest Peter Falk. Eventually, Larry's begging Artie to remove him from the loop once again.
This is by far the most Jeannie-centric episode, only it takes place at the office rather than home. Shortly before airtime, Larry and Jeannie are having a rather subdued fight and she hits him with the news that she's planning to go home to Chicago. Larry goes into panic mode, but the show must go on, so at every break, he's rushing backstage to try to continue the conversation, though he's either getting interrupted there bumping into guests such as Catherine O'Hara or being so distracted on the show with guests such as Billy Crystal that instead of asking him about his new movie he's going back to old SNL skits and Jack Palance at the Oscars. It's quite a change-of-pace episode and while certainly interesting in terms of playing wth the series form, not big in the area of laughs and not one you really want to return to to that often. They use this format much better in a comic mode when Larry spends an entire taping tryng to get to a bathroom during every break.
This continues the Jeannie problems, but moves it to the home setting and in a much more entertaining context. Jeannie complains to Larry that they never have anyone over, so Larry invites Artie and his wife over to dinner, but somehow it metastasizes into a large-scale party with the entire office coming as well as next-door neighbor Martin Mull dropping by to see why there are so many cars.
It's another occasion for a great Rip Torn drunk scene (Really, any episode with an Artie drunk scene should be watched while you drink salty dogs). During the middle of the party, Larry and Jeannie end up in a huge fight and she locks herself in the bedroom with all the guests' coats. It's a fairly funny outing.
A new demographic report the network hits Larry's desk rating personalities' likability and it puts him into a panic. He runs through the list comparing himself to everyone. "Where's Rush Limbaugh? Oh, he's below Mengele." He even asks Jeannie if he's likable and she responds that he is, in a way. "People watch your show because you're partly an asshole."
Despite Artie warning him that he'll drive himself crazy like Arsenio does in trying to please everyone, Larry agrees to hold a focus group. In another subplot, Hank is doing an on-air weight loss challenge which prompts a visit by the always hyper Richard Simmons.
My other favorite episode of the first season perfectly encapsulates the ability of the media to make a mountain out of a molehill, something that has only grown worse in the 18 yaars since the episode aired. Larry, suffering from tunnel vision and a bad headache, goes to a grocery store to buy some over-the-counter medicine and artichoke hearts and because he doesn't see her, knocks another shopper in the checkout line into the magazine stand, an incident caught on video tape and which becomes a media juggernaut.
Larry feels awful because he really didn't see her while a network P.R. guy (delightfully played by David Paymer) sees it as a wonderful opportunity for publicity that they can milk into ratings gold, suggesting that they invite the shopper onto the show so Larry can apologize to her in person. The idea excites him so much that he tells them, "I think I'm wetting myself," which becomes his catchphrase. Even Artie can see the wisdom of his plan while Larry just wants it all to go away. At one point, Larry calls Paymer's character "a sick fuck" and he takes it as a compliment.
Larry grows so despondent that he locks himself in his office, just sighing and pacing. Another great member of the ensemble I haven't praised yet is Penny Johnson as his no-nonsense assistant Beverly who tells Artie that Larry has even refused an Excedrin. They finally get him to unlock the door by bringing Jeannie in and having her threaten to tell everyone his pet name for his penis. It's a hysterical episode that's even timelier now that it was then.
The final episode of the season is actually the first one that was shot and the only other episode that season to earn an Emmy nomination for outstanding writing in a comedy series for Shandling and co-creator Dennis Klein. It concerns friction between Larry and Hank, when Larry catches Hank napping during the middle of the show.
Larry and Artie blame it on Hank overextending himself by playing pitchman to anything to the detriment of the talk show, so much so that Larry takes it out on Hank's trademark catchphrase "Hey now" and tells him to stop using it. The tension is so palpable, it even makes guest Robin Williams feel nervous.
By show's end, they've reconciled and Larry admits that he's turned into a real asshole the past few years. Hank adds that he's become a real moron and he should just go with it. It was a great start for a classic comedy, but the best was yet to come.
At the Emmys, it scored a lot of nominations, but lost comedy to the fourth and best season of Seinfeld, Shandling lost lead actor to Ted Danson on Cheers, Tambor and Torn both lost to Michael Richards on Seinfeld, Dana Carvey lost to David Clennon on another HBO comedy, Dream On, Carol Burnett lost to Tracey Ullman on the long-forotten series Love and War and "The Spider Episode" and "The Hey Now Episode" lost comedy writing to Larry David for writing the Seinfeld classic "The Contest," which no one can really argue about. The Emmys do get some things right.