Larry Shandling lives in a reverse universe from that of Woody Allen’s mutable antihero, Zelig: He shows up and the rest of the world metamorphoses around him, adapting to his low-energy cosmic perspective. In Shandlingland, relationships with women probably won’t work out; relationships with haircuts probably won’t work out; hell, relationships with dogs barely work out. This philosophy of the Low Expectations Guy—that the underwhelmed life is the life worth examining—may have been what kept the 42-year-old Tucson, Ariz.-bred stand-up comedian out of the finals as a successor to Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show after his 1986-88 stint as a permanent guest host: Where a certain cheerleaderly liveliness was needed, Garry offered a low scorer’s shrug.
But TV’s talk-show loss is TV’s comedy gain: In leaving the host desk to create the 1986-90 Showtime series It’s Garry Shandling’s Show with Saturday Night Live writer Alan Zwiebel, Shandling hit upon an ingenious and inventive format for his talents: a sitcom in which the seemingly reluctant star stepped out of the sit to acknowledge the limitations of com to the viewer. And now, in The Larry Sanders Show, Shandling and cocreator Dennis Klein take ingenuity one step further—and make valuable use of Shandling’s Tonight Show experience while they’re at it. Now Garry is Larry Sanders, the depressive host of an imaginary late-night talk show bitingly, exquisitely, maniacally like The Tonight Show. Or what The Tonight Show is like to someone who knows it from the inside. Someone with a lively sense of paranoia, indigestion, insecurity, and fatalism. Someone like Garry Shandling as Larry Sanders.
Larry’s show arrives just in time to rescue exhausted viewers from all the actual talk-show hosts’ yammering on the set and in these very pages nowadays—scrambling for each other’s guests, competing for each other’s time slots, grabbing each other’s gimmicks, kicking each other’s body parts. Larry arrives scrambling, competing, grabbing, and kicking too. But on his show, the kicking and grabbing is more uncensored. This, viewers can happily and readily believe, is what really happens between monologues.
Larry suffers a foolish sidekick, Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor from Hill Street Blues and Mr. Sunshine), a big, fawning, (rich) scaredy-cat—an Ed McMahon mutant!—willing to pitch any damn product, don any dumb costume just so long as he isn’t left on the sidelines. He has a second wife, Jeannie (Megan Gallagher from Hill Street Blues and China Beach), who must put up with tedious nights spent in the company of his fellow comics Jon Lovitz plays a comedian pal called Jon Lovitz). He has writers and bookers and real-life guests including Carol Burnett, Dana Delany, Bob Saget, and Richard Simmons.
And he has his producer, Arthur—part protector, part shrink, part confessor, part weenie—played with unhinged glee by Rip Torn. Torn is a specialist at playing deadpan eccentrics (he was an offbeat Higher Power in Defending Your Life). And he’s in full bloom in Larry, navigating between a suck-up’s smarminess and a coward’s shiftiness under pressure. Arthur’s reactions are always one beat off, as his brain tumblers constantly click click click in rapid calculation—to agree or disagree? To joke or reassure? (”It was broad physical comedy!” he assures Larry of an on-air disaster in which real-life spider wrangler Steven R. Kutcher’s tarantulas spooked the host. ”It made the Ed Ames tomahawk throw look like a big piece of s—!”)
The beauty part of The Larry Sanders Show is its subtlety—a kind of sophistication and knowing wickedness that compliments its knowing audience. There is no wisenheimer humor here, like Dabney Coleman in 1983-84’s Buffalo Bill, no obvious jerks and dolts and goof-ups, no broad laughs. Larry’s opening monologue, laced with timely references—to Bill Clinton’s appearance on Arsenio Hall’s show, to Ted Kennedy’s marriage—are just reasonable enough to be real, just awful enough to be thrilling. His interviews with guests are just routine enough to be lulling, just excruciating enough to be remarkable. (Carol Burnett does a perfectly skewed, earlobe-pulling, Tarzan-yodeling Carol Burnett.) There’s glee just under the surface of Larry and a healthy helping of revenge, too.
Because his persona is so laid back, so laconic, so shruggish, it’s easy to miss the fact that Garry Shandling is a surprisingly deft actor—far more at ease in a dramatic setting than, say, his fellow Everyman, Jerry Seinfeld, or his distant cousin in neurosis, Richard Lewis. On The Larry Sanders Show, Shandling acts out his richest fantasies and makes use of every aggravating moment he ever experienced in all those years in Johnny Carson’s Beautiful Downtown Burbank. This is his graduation project. For which he gets an A.