This year the IFC channel started showing reruns of The Larry Sanders Show, which will hopefully introduce one of the best, most influential sitcoms of all time to a new generation of bored stoners, Greg the Bunny fans, agoraphobic movie snobs, and whoever else is watching IFC at 11 pm on a Monday. It’s a strange show to watch in syndication, however, and I can picture someone — even a comedy geek who peppers conversations with Mr. Show and Spaced quotes — finishing an episode of Larry Sanders and wondering what the big deal is. So: this is why Larry Sanders is a big deal.
We should start by saying that the HBO-produced The Larry Sanders Show is a workplace comedy, the workplace in question being the late-night talk show called “The Larry Sanders Show.” The main characters are the titular talk show host, played by series creator Garry Shandling as a deeply neurotic, narcissistic, self-loathing train wreck of a man; Larry’s on-air sidekick “Hey Now!” Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor of Arrested Development fame), who is like Ed McMahon but dumber, angrier, and consumed with a need for approval from Larry; and Arthur the producer (Rip Torn), who keeps the show going by feeding and manipulating Larry’s and Hank’s egos and occasionally losing his temper in short, hilarious bursts.
A behind-the-scenes-of-showbiz comedy isn’t anything special; the reason Larry Sanders deserves singling out is the attention Shandling and the other producers paid to making the show realistic. The scenes where Larry stands in front of the talk-show cameras were shot on video while the “off air” scenes with the talk show’s staff were shot on film. And where a lot of entries in the “behind the scenes” genres don’t pay attention to the specifics of the front of the scenes — is 30 Rock still about a television show? — the “Larry Sanders Show” that we see glimpses of in The Larry Sanders Show is a pretty good mock-up of a (not all that successful) network talk show in the 90s. The jokes are topical, hey-didja-hear-about-this one-liners, and the guests are real celebrities from the 90s, playing themselves.
This realism means that the show dates itself, sometimes pretty severely. Remember Mimi Rogers or Bobcat Goldthwait or Bruno Kirby? No? How about some jokes about OJ Simpson or Connie Chung? Even the idea of a talk show seems pretty old and lame to us in 2011; it’s easy to forget that 50 million people watched Johnny Carson’s last show, which aired only months before Larry Sanders premiered in 1992, and that the ratings wars between Leno and Letterman and Arsenio (who was that?) got a whole lot of coverage in the newspapers (what were those?). Some episodes, like the one where Dana Carvey appears as the next hot young comedian destined for talk-show stardom, take Wikipedia to put in the correct context.
The show’s commitment to realism extends to the way scenes were written, acted, and filmed, and this is where it’s important to remember that this is a sitcom that was made in the early- to mid-90s. Larry Sanders doesn’t have a laugh track or a live studio audience (except during the talk show scenes (more realism!) and the jokes are delivered casually in conversation, with no “beat” or pause to signal a punchline. That style sounds familiar to fans of Arrested Development or Curb Your Enthusiasm, but in 1992 no one was doing this. Sitcoms — even critically beloved Seinfeld — were slowed down by the need to pause for laughter, and most took place in the familiar timeless sitcom universe, bounded by the traditional three cameras. Larry Sanders wasn’t the first single-camera sitcom, but it was one of the first to do away with audible laughs, which gave them more time to cram in jokes and plots.
What this means is, when you watch an episode of Larry Sanders, you really have to pay attention. For years, sitcoms — and TV in general — seemed designed to be the kind of thing you could eat or have a conversation over. A show like Sanford and Son (where Garry Shandling got his start, incidentally) is great, but it’s not something you need to devote yourself to — in fact, if you watch some of those old sitcoms really closely, you’ll discover that there is very little you won’t miss if you are simultaneously checking your email or peeling carrots. The Larry Sanders Show requires careful viewing, it requires a knowledge of what’s happened in earlier scenes, and sometimes it requires you to know things about earlier episodes or 90s pop culture. It’s as complex as a half-hour comedy show can get, and it appeared at a time when television was afraid of complexity. Remember, when Larry Sanders started, Homicide: Life on the Street, the primordial ancestor of The Wire, was a year away. The current golden age of television we’re living in started with the idea that television could demand just as much from its viewers as a movie, and that idea began, arguably, with Larry Sanders.
The direct influence of the people behind the show probably deserves a mention too. Judd Apatow was a producer and a writer on Larry Sanders, and I always though that this scene from Freaks and Geeks paid homage to his old boss. Paul Simms, another writer, created NewsRadio, a brilliant show that’s practically the stylistic opposite of Larry Sanders. Sarah Silverman appeared for a few episodes as a writer for “The Larry Sanders Show,” including one that tackles the still-relevant issue of the lack of women in comedy writing rooms. A pre-Mr. Show Bob Odenkirk had a recurring role as Larry’s agent, Dave Chapelle appears as himself for an episode, and Jon Stewart plays himself too, as Larry’s replacement and the next big thing in the talk show world. Then there’s the young Janeane Garofalo who plays the show’s talent booker, and I know there’s a whole group of people who will watch the show just for a young Janeane Garofalo.
But all that trivia is just window dressing. Like any great show, Larry Sanders is more than just a combination of funny people who worked on other funny things. It was a new kind of sitcom, a sitcom that trusted its viewers to figure out the punchlines on their own. Shows as diverse as Arrested Development, Community, and the British Office owe something to The Larry Sanders Show. It went off the air in 1998 after six amazingly consistent seasons — unlike all those unjustly-cancelled shows it influenced — and Shandling hasn’t done much work since, probably because he didn’t need to.