Bruce Fretts
June 04, 1993 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Is he live or is he Larry Sanders? Garry Shandling sweeps onto the Studio City, Calif., soundstage where he is filming the second season of his behind-the-scenes talk-show parody for HBO, The Larry Sanders Show, in the middle of one of his trademark neurotic paroxysms. He’s reeling off a rapid-fire stream of anxious questions worthy of his supremely insecure Sanders.

”Did I miss Los Lobos?” he whines in his nasal, needy voice. ”Were they good? Did it look like a talk show?”

One glance at the faux late-night set where the Chicano rock band has just finished lip-synching a segment for the series’ June 2 season premiere quickly answers Shandling’s question: It couldn’t look more like a talk show. There’s a large wooden desk for the host (just like Johnny’s, Jay’s, and Dave’s). And a tacky couch for the guests and sidekick. Poised to the right of the stage is ”The Larry Sanders Band,” real-life musicians all, including a sharp- dressed African-American sax man (a Branford Marsalis doppelganger) and a lithe, clingy-clothed female bassist (a dead ringer for Arsenio Hall’s aptly named keyboardist, Starr Parodi).

But since it premiered last August, the cult-hit sitcom has consistently crossed over beyond mere dead-on parody into eerie, chill-bump prescience. As Dana Carvey was flirting with NBC last summer about taking over Letterman’s time slot, an episode of Sanders was filmed in which guest star Carvey was offered his own talk show. Before Leno’s manager-producer Helen Gorman Kushnick got herself axed by NBC for her cutthroat booking practices, an episode of Sanders was filmed in which Carvey’s SNL colleague David Spade triggered a late-night booking war.

In the past six weeks, Sanders‘ and Shandling’s shading over of fiction into reality has entered a whole new twilight zone. A few days before Los Lobos’ mid-April taping, Shandling had surfaced as the latest ”first-choice” candidate to replace Letterman at NBC, after Carvey had passed and several other comics, including Dennis Miller, had been passed over. Shandling mulled a four-year, $20 million deal for several weeks, but he says he declined the offer ”at the last possible day” because NBC wanted him to start the new show in September, the same month he will complete postproduction on Sanders’ second season.

”I take painstaking precautions in conceptualizing projects,” Shandling, 43, explains. ”I would have needed a few months to thrash out the concept and start writing and assembling the people. When push came to shove, it felt a little rushed. Period.”

After Shandling demurred, NBC went into a heavy spin cycle. First it named unknown comedy writer Conan O’Brien to the Letterman slot, then, in an attempt to make O’Brien look like The Number One Guy All Along, the network denied ever having offered Shandling the show. ”That didn’t upset me because I used to date women who tried to deny it,” Shandling says, joking comfortably about the incident. In fact, he has already begun to incorporate the neophyte night-talker’s name into Sanders‘ scripts. ”After a joke bombs,” Shandling says, ”Larry looks into the camera and says, ‘And Conan O’Brien thinks this is going to be easy?”’

But this twisted tale isn’t over yet. CBS is said to be currently negotiating with Shandling for a talk show for its 12:35 a.m. slot after Letterman’s new show. Shandling will neither confirm nor deny these reports. He also won’t say whether he plans to do another season of Sanders, and it’s doubtful he could do both shows at once. ”I see the toll this show takes on Garry and I can’t imagine him doing this and something else,” says Wallace Langham, who plays one of Sanders‘ writers. ”He would have to start slamming heroin with a turkey baster.”

Shandling may be mum on details, but back in April, when he was still pondering NBC’s bid, he did share this much about his future plans: He has come up with a few innovative concepts for late-night talk shows recently (he says he turned down the franchise that became The Dennis Miller Show in 1992 because he didn’t feel then that he could bring anything new to the format). He is hesitant to leave Sanders because he ”gets to stretch as an actor and a writer in ways that I never could on a nightly talk show.” And he may want to do movies next. (He has a cameo in the current comedy The Night We Never Met.)

Shandling may not be ready to jump into the real-life late-night fray yet, but he is more than happy to handicap the future of the real-life hosts. ”There will be more fear than ever,” he says, clearly relishing the satirical possibilities. ”David is moving to a new time slot and a new network — very disorienting. He’ll be magnificent, but frightened. Jay Leno now has to deal with a man whom he respects enormously in Dave, as well as Arsenio, so he’ll be fearful. Arsenio also has to be more fearful that Dave’s coming on. And Chevy Chase is in the Dennis Miller position — he’s the new guy on the block just trying to scratch out a decent enough rating to stay on.”

The evening after Los Lobos did their Sanders gig, Shandling conducts an informal poll among the live audience of 196 (mostly college kids) who have come to the studio to watch him tape the talk-show segments of Sanders. ”When David Letterman is opposite Jay Leno, how many people will watch David Letterman?” he asks. Wild cheers. ”Jay Leno?” A fair smattering of applause. ”Arsenio Hall?” Stony silence, followed by loud laughter. Shandling doesn’t bother to inquire about Chase.

”I’d like to go on at 11:42,” he says, in a presumably humorous aside. ”Just when everyone watching the other shows is saying, ‘Jesus, this stinks. What else is on?”’

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