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While there’s never a particularly good time to have someone inform you, “I saw your balls,” hearing it from legendary comedienne Carol Burnett while you’re in the midst of hosting a TV talk show is the sort of thing that showbiz nightmares are made of. It’s also the sort of squirm-inducing hilarity that lurks at the flopsweat-soaked heart of The Larry Sanders Show.
If you missed much of The Larry Sanders Show’s original run—from August 1992 to May 1998—you are not alone. Such were the perils of being an HBO series in the dark days before The Sopranos, The Wire and Curb Your Enthusiasm massively boosted the premium cable channel’s subscription base. As a result, the show never managed to transcend its “cult” status, despite winning 24 major awards (including three Primetime Emmys) during its lifetime.
Still, the passage of time hasn’t diminished its biting satire. Inspired by Shandling’s experiences as a guest host on The Tonight Show during the Johnny Carson era, The Larry Sanders Show offers Shandling’s look at life on and off the set of a late-night TV talk show. And knowing what we know now about the cut-throat insanity of the late-night TV wars, the show’s main characters—neurotic and insecure talk show host Larry Sanders (played by Garry Shandling), his dimwitted and desperate sidekick Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor) and his ebullient and manipulative producer Artie (Rip Torn)—seem even more real than they did when the series first ran.
If you’ve never seen the show, here are three scenes to get you started:
In “The Spiders,” a classic episode from the show’s first season, Artie cajoles Larry into doing a live bit with the poisonous spiders from the horror film Arachnophobia; then, when Larry’s own arachnophobia gets the better of him, Artie artfully convinces Hank (who’s as desperate for time in the spotlight as he is for even the tiniest grain of positive reinforcement) to take over the segment despite its possible dangers.
Shandling’s character was married during the first season, but The Larry Sanders Show moved to an even more cringe-tastic plateau once the breakup of Larry’s marriage allowed the series’ writers to place Larry (and his neuroses) in a variety of deeply uncomfortable dating situations. “The Mr. Sharon Stone Show,” an episode from the third season, is one of the most memorable examples, with Larry agonizing endlessly over his barely-nascent relationship with Sharon Stone because he can’t handle dating someone who’s more famous than he is.
Not surprisingly, Larry is even less comfortable with attention from famous men. In Season Five’s “Everybody Loves Larry,” rumblings that guest host Jon Stewart is being groomed by the network to take over the show don’t freak him out nearly as much as the raging man-crush David Duchovny appears to have on him.
Frankly, it’s hard to imagine the self-reflexive likes of Curb, 30 Rock, The Office, Arrested Development or Entourage existing without The Larry Sanders Show (whose writing staff included a young Judd Apatow) having first paved the neurotic way.
Like those series, the more you watch The Larry Sanders Show, the more the characters’ individual and collective dysfunctions reveal themselves—and with Sanders the deeper you go into their darkness, the funnier the show becomes.