Near the start of the long-awaited, how-have-we-lived-without-it second-season premiere of The Larry Sanders Show (HBO, June 2, 10-10:45 p.m.), Rip Torn’s Artie, the long-suffering producer of the fictional talk show, walks into Larry’s office. He finds the host (Garry Shandling) curled in a fetal position on the sofa, his face buried in a cushion.
”Kid, you need a hot towel,” says Artie with forced jollity, trying to rouse the doleful Sanders from his sour funk. Larry, you see, is in a very bad way. His wife is divorcing him, and she has hired lawyer Marvin Mitchelson to represent her (”Oh,” groans Larry, ”now I’m not even gonna end up with the dog!”). Then, too, Sanders’ name is nowhere to be found among the just- released Emmy nominations, and David Letterman’s move to CBS is getting all the press attention. Not only that, the station in Phoenix that now carries Larry Sanders is dropping him when Chevy Chase’s talk show premieres in the fall.
Suddenly one of the show’s writers (Wallace Langham) bursts in on Larry and Artie and urgently announces, ”Kathy Ireland’s trying on wardrobe!” and the three men scuttle down the hall to have a goggle-eyed chat with supermodel Ireland, a guest on the Sanders show that night.
The Larry Sanders Show is all tension, cynicism, profound shallowness, and naughty-boy bonding — it’s just the way you imagine life behind a big-time TV talk show to be, except infinitely funnier. And in the seven months since the last original episode of Sanders aired, its jaundiced ironies have become all the more rich and timely. The CBS-Letterman deal, the sudden arrival of Conan Who? to take Dave’s place, the ongoing awkwardness of Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, and the rumors that have Shandling himself launching a CBS venture to follow Letterman’s-well, talk shows have become the most volatile element in television, which makes The Larry Sanders Show’s thorough, relentless satire of them so giddily thrilling.
The first season of Sanders was pitch-perfect in tone, with one exception: Larry’s mirthless marriage to his second wife, Jeannie (Megan Gallagher) — one of those awkward TV situations where you can’t tell whether this character isn’t funny because she’s supposed to be not funny, or because the actress playing her isn’t giving the lines the proper comic punch.
For this or whatever reason, Jeannie is gone — she’s now just someone Larry yells at on the phone — and that’s opened up new territory on the series: dating. In this expanded, 45-minute season opener, Larry tries to cheer himself up by spending his evenings going out with some of the actresses who have appeared on his show, including Teri Garr, Mad About You’s Helen Hunt, and Dana Delany, to whom Larry says with a Groucho leer, ”I’ve been known to have wild palms myself, you know.” Larry’s magnificent goofball of an announcer-sidekick, Hank ”Hey, now!” Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor), fixes Larry and himself up with what Hank considers a dream double date: ”two girls who work at the Gap, Katya and Brie.”
Filled with in-jokes about everyone from Jerry Van Dyke to über-agent Michael Ovitz, the premiere is called ”The Breakdown.” In a show filled with small surprises, it’s not giving too much away to say that in the course of this one, poor Larry suffers a heart attack-excuse me, a heart episode, as our hero insists on calling it to emphasize its mildness — during the taping of a show. Sanders is the sort of insecure celebrity who measures his audience’s love for him by weighing his fan mail — he’s cheered a bit when his heart condition yields 71/2 pounds of get-well cards.
Shandling continues to give his character new little tics — I particularly like the way Larry feverishly scratches his chest when he’s depressed and nervous. At the same time, Shandling, who co-writes many of the shows, is always careful to keep this self-absorbed whiner a likable fellow. Forty-two and frazzled, Larry Sanders is a smart guy caught up in a business that cancels smart guys after four weeks. I wish Shandling all the best if he chooses to drop the facade of Larry and perform as himself for CBS, but it certainly seems as if he’s doing the ultimate talk show right now. A