Rip Torn Was an Unforgettable Force on The Larry Sanders Show

Garry Shandling and Rip Torn on The Larry Sanders Show. Photo: HBO

If only we could all have a show-business friend like Artie. Watching Garry Shandling’s The Larry Sanders Show as a child whose parents were naïve enough to give their son unfettered access to HBO, I conceived of the relationship between high-strung talk-show host Larry Sanders and his doting producer Artie as the platonic ideal of male relations. Where Seinfeld’s male characters spent just as much time envying and sabotaging each other as they did actually enjoying each other’s company, Artie seemed to do nothing but assuage Larry’s guilt, anxiety, self-loathing, and need for approval. In other words, he was the perfect friend, even to a boy who chose his social circle based on who had Night Trap on Sega CD.

That Rip Torn could bring a character to life who was both a complete sycophant but also intensely likable was a testament to his genius as an actor. Artie’s smile — the same overwhelmingly broad smile Torn would deploy throughout his storied career — was certainly insincere. At least it was when attached to a line in which Artie had to assure Larry that, in fact, his ass wasn’t that big. Artie’s dedication to the show, and to its eponymous host, was so complete and unwavering that he wouldn’t even let a cancer diagnosis get in the way. Rarely is that more clear than in how Artie relates to Janeane Garofalo’s character, Paula.

The season-two episode “Artie’s Gone” is a showcase for both Garofalo’s comedic presence and also for Torn, despite the fact that he spends most of the episode stuck in a limousine surrounded by traffic on the Pacific Coast Highway. Artie knows he’s not going to make it to the studio for that night’s taping, so he picks Paula to fill in. It doesn’t go well. Paula is young, and though it’s never directly stated, a woman in a misogynist work environment. No one takes her seriously when Artie asks her to produce the show while he’s away. And yet, Torn’s performance remains one of almost eerie calm as Paula slowly melts down from the pressure of command.

Torn was an actor who could level hellfire onto a scene if it called for it. (Watch his performance in the deeply underrated Tom Green film Freddy Got Fingered to see Torn at his most contemptuous.) With most of the characters not named Larry Sanders, Torn’s Artie could be a true monster, unleashing bile and venom without remorse, because he saw everyone else as an impediment to the star’s ultimate success.

But in this Larry Sanders episode, he’s the picture of poise, even though his beloved Larry Sanders Show has a decent chance of falling apart. Everyone on the staff, from Larry and sidekick Hank Kingsley to the writers and the cue-card guy, seem off their game without Artie around to manage them. It’s the classic “shark in Jaws” scenario, with the character gaining more power by not being seen. Larry just needs to know Artie is in the room, so when Paula lies and says Artie is up in the balcony watching the show from what might as well be heaven, Larry operates at something resembling efficiency.

Torn as Artie is like a comedy version of the stereotypical Tony Robbins motivational guru, assuring you that you’re good enough in the most insincere way possible. Some of Artie’s advice is downright terrible in this episode, like when he suggests that Paula walk around with a glass of wine to calm down the studio audience. Inevitably, Paula, a teetotaler, finishes an entire bottle of the stuff due to stress. Like the real-life Rip Torn, Artie was a masterful consumer of alcohol.

By season four’s episode “I Was a Teenage Lesbian,” Artie is still dispensing fairly awful advice. This time, Paula has found a lump in her breast and is nervous she’s got cancer. Artie once again shows that his allegiance is to the show first, as he regales Paula with a tale of his time producing for Bob Hope. He found a lump in his testicles, told Hope, and the news ruined the monologue because Bob simply couldn’t concentrate. For Artie, regular human emotions like empathy can only get in the way of comedy.

In the mirror universe of the entertainment industry, that’s the Rosetta Stone of “making it,” or at least it was in the 1990s, when The Larry Sanders Show first aired. You can’t be good at your job if you spend all day worrying about someone else’s well-being. You have to focus on making love to the entire state of Nebraska through the camera. Artie’s job was almost the opposite of the therapist. It was to make sure you didn’t feel anything except joy at being lucky enough to work in television. This is why Artie is the ultimate show-business friend, the person who comes in the gift bag when you are finally invited to the good parties. He will flatter you, yell at underlings on your behalf, and never once ask you for anything. He’s like an agent, but less predatory. Torn won awards and became even more famous than he already was by playing perhaps the rarest creature in all of Hollywood: a man who wanted none of those things.

As a little tribute to the great man himself, from now until the day I join him in whatever greenroom awaits us on the lot at CBS Pearly Gates (I better get a drive-on), I will look into the mirror and proclaim that no, my ass does not look fat in those pants. In fact, my ass looks amazing, as it always does. I’ll know the truth, but so did Artie. That didn’t stop him, and it won’t stop me.

Rip Torn Was an Unforgettable Force on Larry Sanders Show