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nostalgia fact-check

Nostalgia Fact-Check: How Does The Larry Sanders Show Hold Up?

The Nostalgia Fact-Check is a recurring Vulture feature in which we revisit a seminal movie, TV show, or album that reflexively evinces an "Oh my God, that was the best ever!" response by a certain demographic, owing to it having been imprinted on them early. Now, years later, we will take a look at these classics in a more objective, unforgiving adult light: Are they really the best ever? How do they hold up now? We've already reconsidered a number of once-beloved entertainments. This week, we revisit HBO's and Garry Shandling's The Larry Sanders Show.

Background: After a short gig guest-hosting The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the early nineties, Garry Shandling took a page out of Jerry Seinfeld's book to create a show based on his real life as a comedian. The Larry Sanders Show ran from 1992 to 1998 on HBO. Technically a sitcom, it's more often called a satirical talk show, because half was filmed before a live studio audience and half was not, which allowed for improvised celebrity gaffes to exist within a scripted show. Though the show’s highest-rated season — its last — averaged a little under 2 million viewers (its highest-rated episode ever was watched by 3,174,000 people, and was the episode that aired right after Garry announced the show would be ending), it was nominated for 56 Emmys (it only won three), featured guests including Jim Carrey, Billy Crystal, Roseanne, Michael Bolton, Letterman, Winona Ryder, Chris Farley, and dozens more, and has heavily influenced every sitcom starring a curmudgeon or show-business type since.

Nostalgia demo: Guys who were in their thirties and forties when the show aired and had a cable subscription. Former Seinfeld fans, current 30 Rock fans, people who spend hours on YouTube looking up clips of Alec Baldwin and Rob Lowe in their early days, and anyone who loves Jeffrey Tambor.Sanders is one of those shows many people discovered after the fact, which is to say, nostalgists could be almost anyone.

Fact-Check: I was never the key demographic for The Larry Sanders Show. I watched it as a kid so I could stay up late with my dad. Most of the jokes were way too adult and lacking in the slapstick that appealed to me at the time. And then there’s Shandling himself, whose particular deadpan, prickly humor takes a bit of maturity to recognize. Rewatching as an adult let me in on the jokes, the ones I remember my dad laughing at, but I began to revisit it as a matter of coincidence rather than any active desire when all six seasons showed up on Netflix Instant this year.

Until then, I had been letting 30 Rock sate my appetite for satire and celebrity appearances (even if those appearances were sadly mullet free). And that makes sense: The Larry Sanders Show was 30 Rock before there was 30 Rock, though it's miles less absurd. Where 30 Rock has straight-up surreal goofiness, Sanders has an element of realism that no behind-the-scenes-type show has since attempted. While the drama of Larry's life and the backstage antics of the show's production were taped like any other sitcom, The Larry Sanders Show itself was very real. It was taped in front of a live studio audience with celebrity guests improvising on the spot and full-length musical performances (by acts we almost certainly don't remember today). It's as if we got Jimmy Fallon's late-night show and a well-scripted, naturalistic sitcom about Larry’s life wrapped into one half-hour.

This semi-improvised non-format is having a moment right now. The UCB alums commandeering the prime-time comedy slots (Amy Poehler on Parks and Rec, Tiny Fey and Scott Adsit on 30 Rock, Ed Helms and Ellie Kemper on The Office, and so on) are known to improvise on the sets of their respective scripted shows, and the partially improvised Arrested Development (which Tambor also stars in) is making a comeback. But rather than leaving the improv to the pros, Sanders scripted Shandling and often left guests to their own devices. The result isn’t always funny, but it works because it feels natural. Talk shows are one of the few venues where stars are — just like us! — unscripted, and Sanders gets a charge from letting us see celebrities both ways. It’s delightful to wonder which is the real Jeff Goldblum: the smooth, jazz pianist on the Sanders show or the jokey matchmaker we see backstage.

Sanders is more than just modern conceptually: It's modern thematically. Sanders is an antihero in the anxiety-ridden neurotic mold, constantly checking his reflection, asking guests if he looks fat, divorcing wives, hooking up with ex-wives, dating 18-year-olds, and draping it all in a thick cloak of sardonic jokes. Of course his contemporaries, Seinfeld and his pals, were the greatest neurotics of all, but his influence can be felt on the many characters who have come after him, from Larry David, David Brent, and Liz Lemon, to, eek, the fellas of Entourage and Two and a Half Men's Charlie Harper, who was not a neurotic, but did have a thing about women. A throwaway bit of dialogue from the fifth season sounds like it could be on an episode of CBS's How to Be a Gentleman, which we don't mean as an insult to the dialogue: "Buddy, I'm tellin' ya, you hit one outta the park tonight!" "Yeah, I'm not choking up as much on my penis."

Also, because Sanders was on HBO, it covered a lot of topics in a cheeky way the networks wouldn't get around to for a decade. In the final season, Jon Stewart guest-hosted, and the show tackled race (and offered a pretty solid dig at Conan) when Stewart books the Wu-Tang Clan on the show. The result is a gut-clenching portrayal of white-run media's attempt to cover rap in the nineties. The network is terrified of alienating their flour-white audience; Stewart refuses to bump "a band that's packing heat"; and Hank, while dutifully studying up on his guests, remarks, "My God, they look like car jackers!"

Many of the more socially and politically charged episodes were directed by Judd Apatow, including an impassioned gay make-out scene in the second to last episode that was written by Shandling and would cause a frenzy even today. In it, the homophobic head writer, Phil (Wallace Langham), realizes he's been mocking Hank's gay assistant out of self-hatred and hidden feelings, and when we say he goes for it, he really goes for it. (Unfortunately a clip of this does not exist on the Internet.) The writers also poked fun at the cast's alleged homophobia early in season five, when a running joke that David Duchovny is in love with Larry comes to a head:

If these examples give you the sense that the show is bathed in commentary, it wasn't. These episodes were few and far between, and while individually strong, it often felt like the writers were doing the requisite "gay episode" and the requisite "black one," a pair they turned into a threesome when they did the requisite woman-in-the-workplace episode when Sarah Silverman was hired as a writer in season five. I'm of two minds about this episode. It's not that the issue isn't handled gracefully, but it seems too convenient that a man's lifetime of prejudice is wrapped up nicely in one half-hour. And yet, the sort of causal exclusion Silverman's character faces exactly presages the real-life debate about women in writers' rooms that has since become such a hot topic.

But for all that is still razor sharp about Sanders, it suffers from perhaps too much Garry. Sanders doesn’t make as much use of its ensemble as you would hope. The show was a breeding ground for great young comedians playing just as great supporting characters, but they are often pushed out in favor of more Larry, and the show suffered for lack of their development. (Several wonderful actors credited their premature departures from the cast to not enough screen time, Janeane Garofalo and Jeremy Piven among them. Writer-producer Apatow didn't have this issue and was one of the few original staffers to stick it out to the end.)

Rewatching the show, the sidekicks are very often the highlights: The inflated egomaniac boss played by Rip Torn is Jack Donaghy with a different vocabulary (and an affinity for the phrase, "Well, tough titty!"). The surly underling played by Garofalo is a more three-dimensional April Ludgate. And if anyone could upstage Phil Dunphy at "aging fun guy clinging to coolness," it's Jeffrey Tambor's sweet, enthusiastic Hank, maybe the most winsome character in the history of the sitcom. Anyone who need proof of that, see here:

Another strength of Sanders was its way with a celebrity cameo. Despite having every newsworthy celebrity of the mid-nineties appear on the show in some form or another, Sanders always made it feel natural within the framework of the show, not forced like the celebrity appearances on Glee or even 30 Rock can. And one of the main pleasures of watching it now is getting to see things like Chris Farley joke about his inspirational speaker character, Jim Carrey be Jim Carrey, and Jon Stewart be kind of a jerk as a guest host.

Sanders as a whole plays under a big time stamp that reads, “Made in the Nineties.” The hair! The windbreakers! The sarcasm! But the acting (and improvising) is excellent, the naturalistic structure en vogue, and the writing is edgy even for 2011. So while you probably don't go around reminiscing with old friends about late nights watching The Larry Sanders Show and giddily shouting “No flipping!” in unison, maybe you should be. At the very least, it’s a shame this isn't in syndication: Even though it’s a faux talk show, it’s definitely a better watch than Leno. Hey now!

Photo: HBO/IGN