Vulture is holding the ultimate Sitcom Smackdown to determine the greatest TV comedy of the past 30 years. Each day, a different notable writer will be charged with determining the winner of a round of the bracket, until New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz judges the finals on March 18. Today’s battle: Author Heather Havrilesky pits meta against vérité, deciding between Community and The Larry Sanders Show. Make sure to head over to Facebook to vote in our Readers Bracket. We also invite tweeted opinions with the #sitcomsmackdown hashtag.
What would Larry Sanders do? I ask myself this question often. Because, unlike Jesus — whose behavior is far too erratic to mimic unless you have a thing for touching strangers, overturning the discount shoe table at Foot Locker, or referring to public spaces as “my house” (which makes you sound more like Kanye than Jesus anyway) — HBO’s fictional talk-show host Larry Sanders navigated life with the counterfeit cheer and pragmatic caution of a true survivor. His strategy was simple: Approach with a strained smile, shake hands swiftly, then back away, nodding without fully engaging, and throwing out an exit zinger. When trapped, whether by an earnest fan or a pushy network executive, whimper “Artie? Artie?” until help arrives.
Apply this behavioral strategy to the chaotic, ever-expanding universe of Community, though, and you might find yourself in a pickle. What would Larry Sanders do, for example, if he were lost in the Turkish district of the giant blanket fort created by Troy and Abed? Would he grimace uncomfortably, accept a puff from a hookah, then curl up in the corner, hallucinating and crying out for Artie’s help? Or would he nervously search for an exit until cornered by David Duchovny in the red-light district, then frantically dial Beverly on his gigantic cell phone?
Such questions are best left to the masters of fan fiction, but they underscore how deeply the worlds offered by The Larry Sanders Show and Community are inscribed in their disciples’ brains. Both shows walk an engaging line between realism and farce, deadpan and melodrama, capturing the mundane irritants and deep stupidity of life within an institutional microcosm (Hollywood and community college have a lot in common, as it turns out), but without underselling the high-stakes battles and semi-imaginary clashes that play out therein. Both show’s characters are flawed but hypersensitive, needy but resourceful, and they pursue their (often shallow) goals with striking tenacity, from sidekick Hank Kingsley’s (Jeffrey Tambor) compulsion to own a rotating restaurant to Troy Barnes (Donald Glover) and Jeff Winger’s (Joel McHale) ego-driven battle to save Greendale from an invasion by City College’s Storm Troopers.
No wonder pitting Larry Sanders against Community feels patently absurd, like trying to predict a match-up between the ‘92 Chicago Bulls and the ‘13 Miami Heat. Twenty years ago, as Michael Jordan was tongue-flapping his way to the second of six NBA championships, Garry Shandling and co-creator Dennis Klein were mapping out the future of TV comedy. The pair took the combative banter of Seinfeld and threw in more awkward silences, more uncomfortable misunderstandings, and more outright contempt, setting the wincing template for future comedies The Office (U.K. and U.S. versions) and Louie, among others. They turned the fluffy celebrity cameo of Love Boat on its head by allowing stars to appear as surly, egomaniacal versions of themselves, making the world safe for the unflattering cameos of Curb Your Enthusiasm, 30 Rock, and Entourage. Shandling’s daring move to create a character in his own neurotic, ego-driven image felt cutting-edge back in 1992, but eventually begat some of the best semi-nonfictional comedic turns on TV, from The Comeback to Girls. The twisted aggression of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the rapid-fire intelligence of Arrested Development, the buffoonish fumblings of Modern Family, the soulless corporate surrealism of 30 Rock, the self-deprecating slapstick of The Hangover, Borat, Anchorman, and Bridesmaids: All find strands of their DNA in Larry Sanders.
From shifting back and forth between video and film footage to embracing naturalistic chatter between characters, almost every dimension of Larry Sanders formed the lexicon of TV comedies to come. What Shandling and Klein did best, though, was stoke our affection for their gaggle of hapless misanthropes. Even as Larry, Artie, and Hank are revealed as self-centered miscreants who could never thrive outside of their rarefied habitat, our fondness for them grows. After Larry quits his show at the end of season two, moves to Montana, and then admits that the whole thing was a big mistake, Artie tells him he knew he’d come to his senses. “You’re a talk-show animal,” Artie says. “You’re like one of those goddamn creatures out of Greek mythology: half-man, half-desk!” This ability to mine the enormous gap between a character’s self-perception and how he’s encountered by the outside world is best epitomized by Hank yelling at Larry, “What about the time I chipped my tooth on the bathroom urinal? What the fuck is so comical about that?!” The tension between Larry and Hank forms the comedic center of the show, as when Larry tries to get Hank to drop his annoying “Hey now” catchphrase, and Hank balks: “It’s part of our whole interplay on camera!” To which Larry replies: “By interplay, do you mean the times we’re both awake?” More than anything else, Larry Sanders captures Hollywood’s ability to drag its inhabitants over the red-hot coals of existential crisis, over and over again.
But if HBO’s Larry Sanders was the comedy of the future twenty years ago, today that accolade goes to NBC’s Community. Dan Harmon’s creation takes the rapid-fire wit, aggression, and unabashed weirdness of some of the smartest, most imaginative TV comedies of the last two decades — The Simpsons, Arrested Development, South Park — and crams all of that chaos and genius into the very simple story of a community-college study group. Perversely, it may have been the show’s total lack of narrative promise that led Harmon into the creative wilderness, where he and the show’s other writers found themselves concocting elaborate conspiracies, zombie nightmares, spaghetti Western spoofs, Heart of Darkness–style documentaries, claymation Christmas specials, and the story of one very special wisdom-granting trampoline. Like a magician pulling a musk ox out of a handkerchief, the show’s writers took a provincial microcosm and extracted from it a vast web of comedic madness featuring cartoonishly odd characters who still manage to capture our sympathies by the end of each episode. As with the infinite (and infinitely trivial) blanket-fort maze of the Internet, there’s something undeniably modern about Harmon’s amalgamation of parody, psychosocial commentary, and pop references. When the study group makes a diorama of themselves making a diorama, or Abed proclaims, “The kid’s gonna be a star. He’s a young the Asian Guy From Lost,” we peer into a pop-cultural hall of mirrors, where every reference expands exponentially into the abyss.
Along the way, some essential tether to the linear sitcom narrative is misplaced forever. Community disrupts our appetite for conventional plot and makes us crave digressions — sure-footed and bizarre, unhinged and a little foolish. But if an affinity for parody and references were enough to make a show great, then Family Guy would be in the running here (and clearly it’s not). What separates Community from the lesser stars in its galaxy is the haunting realism of its most farcical depictions. Each absurd twist echoes some unnerving aspect of modern life, from the groundskeeper-guru who turns out to be a racist to the anti-anxiety pharmaceuticals that send Jeff into a narcissistic tailspin. And each character’s challenges, no matter how bizarre, are firmly planted on familiar emotional terrain: Shirley struggles to redeem her bullying past by teaching Jeff to play expert foosball; Annie attempts to quell her high-strung nature by moving in with Troy and Abed.
So how do you pick between these two? When this pairing was first assigned, I figured the groundbreaking, genre-bending brilliance of Larry Sanders was the obvious choice. After all, without yesterday’s show of the future, today’s show of the future wouldn’t even exist. And because Community is a network comedy and is therefore at the mercy of a breakneck network production schedule, the very worst episodes of Community sometimes fall lower than the worst episodes of Larry Sanders.
But the more episodes of Larry Sanders and Community I rewatched, the more I found myself chuckling at the former, but laughing loudly (and repeatedly) at the latter. By reimagining the TV comedy without a couch and a laugh track, Larry Sanders offered an unforgettable snapshot of life in Hollywood. But by reimagining the comedic narrative outside the boundaries of gravity, taste, and sanity, Community has evolved into a show that’s so smart and unpredictable, it will leave you awe-struck — delirious, even. Watching Community sometimes feels like entering an alternate world designed by David Foster Wallace, Stephen J. Hawking, and Butthead, a dizzying nowhereland that loosely resembles the It’s a Small World–like Duff Beer ride from The Simpsons. Its jokes are sharp, super-charged, depraved, relentless. It’s almost too much for one human to bear. Larry Sanders is obviously one of the best TV comedies of all time, but Community transcends the boundaries of space and time, and quite possibly binds the galaxy together. Or, as my 16-year-old stepson puts it, “There are three episodes about paintball. And they’re all awesome.”
Heather Havrilesky writes the existential advice column Turning the Screw for the Awl, and she is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness.
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