sitcom smackdown

Jeffrey Tambor Shares Eight Behind-the-Scenes Stories From The Larry Sanders Show

The Office’s Michael Scott, Community’s Pierce, 30 Rock’s Jenna: Each of these hilariously, wrong-headedly arrogant and slightly dim characters owes a debt to The Larry Sanders Show’s buffoonish sidekick, Hank “Hey now!” Kingsley (played by Jeffrey Tambor). His overinflated sense of his own celebrity and obliviousness to how little people thought of him helped take cringe humor to new, uncomfortable heights, whether Hank was pretending to be more of an observant Jew to hit on a female rabbi (who then rejected him) or having one of the show’s writers circulate his sex tape. On the occasion of Sanders taking on Community in today’s installment of Vulture’s Sitcom Smackdown, we called Tambor (who is currently reprising his role as the Bluth family patriarch on Arrested Development, one of the many shows that owe a large debt to Larry Sanders) to share his favorite behind-the-scenes moments from the show’s six-season run.

On his audition:
“You want to hear a story? Of course you do,” Tambor chuckled. “No one ever says no to that question.” Calling his audition “one of the great auditions of my life” and “one of the most joyous times I ever had,” Tambor thought at the time that he had nailed it. “Garry and I clicked immediately, and he loved going past the joke to a deeper moment.” But then, like his character Hank Kingsley, he felt a pang of doubt. “That evening, around 5 p.m., I called and I said, ‘May I speak to Garry?’ They said he’s at the gym. ‘Would you connect me?’ ‘Oh, sure.’ Click, click, and then he came on the line. I said, ‘I’ve never done this in my entire career, but I really want to play Hank. I would normally never call … ’ And Garry said, ‘No, but Hank would.’ And that was great. That sealed it. I was in the mindset of my character. Hank would have done that.”

On the time Garry took him to see Johnny Carson:
At the beginning, Tambor didn’t feel like he had the talk-show part of the show down: “I was not good at that. Garry had to take me to school.” One of Shandling’s lessons involved taking Tambor to sit in the stands and watch Johnny Carson tape an episode of The Tonight Show. “I learned the biggest lesson just watching Ed McMahon, watching him watch Mr. Carson’s monologue,” Tambor said. “It didn’t seem like Ed was more than eight or ten feet away, although it looked almost like a football field away on-camera. And I realized, Ed is totally there for Mr. Carson. His appreciation, his laugh — that fantastic laugh, it’s all a support position. And then they went to break. The two of them turned upstage and walked to places where they could sit in a half-light, in total silence, for two and a half minutes. That’s a long time. And they did not communicate. When the lights came back on, they were on again. I learned the whole scope of their relationship during that break … What’s there to talk about? It’s a form of love that few of us know.” Hank and Larry usually scowled at each other during that break, because their relationship was “the exact opposite.” “I begged Garry at one point to have a moment like that Carson-McMahon break, and to Garry’s credit, we did,” Tambor said. “There is a moment where we paused for an inordinate amount of time.”

On making “Hey now” work:
Shandling helped calm Tambor’s nerves during the first episode when he was trying to figure out how to say what would become his character’s catchphrase — “Hey now!” (a knock-off of McMahon’s “Hi-O!”). “I remember walking around my house in Encino, going over the lines,” Tambor said, “And I was like, ‘What if they don’t get it?’ And Garry was great. He sensed my nerves, and he calmed me down. And when I said it front of the audience, it really got a laugh. You can see me going, ‘Thank God,’ inside. ‘This is going to work.’ And that’s quite a moment.”

On using the C-word:
Tambor did not visit the writers’ room often, save for one time when he disagreed with John Riggi about something. “I didn’t quite understand what he was doing, so I came to the writers’ room and he came to rehearsal, so it was instructional on both our parts, and we learned some give and take,” he said. But for the most part, the cast did not improvise their lines — “Why go to the designer of Mercedes-Benz and tell them what to do?” he asked. “I respected their process, how they always went beyond the joke to something more situational.” Still, Tambor did manage to sneak in a few improv moments over the years, including a bombshell in the season-two episode “The Hankerciser 200,” when Hank refers to Larry’s wife as “that cunt.” “I’m pretty sure that’s the first time that word was ever said on the show, or even on HBO,” Tambor said. “It was ‘that bitch’ in the script, but for shock value, I said the four-letter word, which is still shocking to this day. But to Garry’s credit, even though it shocked him, he is such a consummate performer that he kept that moment, for the choice for Hank to say it, for how it was received in the room, for the manifestation of what it would do to the characters. My reaction to it is one of my favorite moments on the show, like, ‘Oh, no! No, no, no! That’s the end of his life!’”

On meeting Gloria Steinem, and waiting to meet the Wu-Tang Clan:
The Larry Sanders Show was a nonstop parade of celebrity guest stars who appeared on the show-within-a-show’s couch, “so it sort of had the feeling that we were on the air, not just taping the darn thing.” But at first Tambor didn’t usually do what the rest of the cast did, mixing and mingling for photo ops. “Rip [Torn] was just very comfortable with all of the guests, and he would put his arm around them and take a picture,” Tambor recalled. “I was too proud to do that: ‘Oh, I’m not going to do that.’” But then one day he got a peek at Rip’s dressing room, and saw all his pictures, and realized he was missing out on an opportunity and he decided, “I have to change my ways. My snobbery had created my empty walls.”

After that, he made sure to snap himself with the guests, starting with Elvis Costello and the late Gene Siskel. For the latter’s scene, “Hank had gone to the bathroom during the crucial moment in The Crying Game, so [Siskel] had to explain it to him.” Tambor chuckled remembering it, and added, “But Gene, he looked at us and said, ‘You’re like the Beatles!’ And I said, ‘No, you’re the Beatles.’ I had to squeeze myself that he was on: Wow, is this happening? I just got sad thinking about him.” Another idol he was excited to meet was Gloria Steinem. “You have to understand, this is Gloria Steinem! I had to hold that for a second. This is beyond celebrity. This is social history.” When the Wu-Tang Clan came on the show, however, Tambor asked to not meet them beforehand, so Hank’s visit with the group would feel like a “total surprise.” But to this day, Tambor is the first to suggest photos with fans, to make up for his years of not taking photographs. “When people come up to me to talk, I ask, ‘Would you like a picture?’ Because the picture is the new autograph.”

On roller skates and the other “magic ingredients” of shooting the show:
Ever wonder how the show got some of its unusual fly-on-the-wall moments? Cinematographer Peter Smokler followed the cast on roller skates, Tambor said. “He would be backpedaling, booking down the hallway, which was a mini-revelation to me. He just knew how to book on down and shoot all sorts of things.” The other technique that amazed Tambor was how the cast never knew which camera in the room was grabbing them. “When we first shot this on film, it was painful, and I underline the word painful, because when you acted, you didn’t know who was covering you,” he explained. “It was brilliant. There were three or four guys in the room, all with cameras on their shoulder, and it didn’t matter where the camera was. You played it as if you were in the theater. And that’s one of the magic ingredients of the show.”

On his fight with an assistant director:
Although the cast and crew tried to be nicer to each other than the cast and crew they were depicting on the show-within-the-show, they weren’t always successful. The good thing, however, was that they could use it as raw material later. Tambor said that three years into the program, he had an off-camera moment when he was short-tempered to an assistant director. He apologized, but when discussing it after the fact, Rip Torn suggested he add it to his character. “That was a good idea,” Tambor said. “It helped add that darker aspect to Hank.” The technique came in handy during the “Hank’s Night in the Sun” episode in season three, when Hank gets a chance to sub for Larry as the host and his ego gets even more inflated. “That episode really pushed the envelope for Hank, pushed his appetite for power,” Tambor said. “So I did a funny thing that week. I acted inappropriately on the set. I just got kind of rude with people on purpose, got short with people, just to see what it would be like to get to that egotistical place. I think everyone knew what I was doing, so they let me do it, although there were some eye rolls. But I was going to that place, to be like Hank.”

On the moment that got cut from the series finale:
Remember the series finale, “Flip“? The show-within-the-show is coming to an end, and Hank wants to give a “heartfelt and deeply sincere” tribute to Larry so that he can publicly say thank you for the last ten years. When this segment is cut, he instead says “Fuck you” during a quiet postshow moment when Larry and Artie were taking one last look at the stage. “I spent the last ten years being the butt of your jokes!” Tambor says, remembering the moment. “One more remark, and I swear, I’ll fucking choke you with my hands! All I got to say is fuck you! Fuck you for the way you treated me and the joke you made me out to be! Fuck you!” But then Hank comes running back, crying, taking it all back, as Larry and Artie comfort him, and then Larry heads out to the zoo for a date with Illeana Douglas. “It wasn’t in the final cut, but about eight to ten seconds after that, Hank comes chasing after Larry,” Tambor says. “He didn’t let on that he was there. It was very telling. He’s the same guy who said ‘Fuck you’ and then cried, but he’s still walking after him. I like to imagine that’s where he is today, still walking after Larry.”

Jeffrey Tambor Tells Eight Larry Sanders Stories