Josh Rottenberg
October 19, 2012 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Garry Shandling was a little bit late to EW’s Larry Sanders Show reunion photo shoot. Okay, he was more than a little bit late. All right, he was two hours late. But he had a really good excuse: He needed to dig up some props from the groundbreaking HBO comedy he created and starred on — including the actual talk-show set, which he’s kept in storage ever since the series ended in 1998. ”I only do the show maybe once a month from the storeroom,” jokes Shandling, 62, who received five Emmy nominations for his performance as the show’s titular self-absorbed late-night talk-show host. But it’s a testament to the deep love and respect the former Sanders cast members have for Shandling that the moment he finally arrived, any shred of irritation there may have been about his tardiness instantly dissolved. ”We’re all there, and it was like, ‘What the f—?’ ” says Mary Lynn Rajskub, 41, who played the show’s assistant talent booker Mary Lou. ”Then I see Garry, and I swear, once he’s two feet across from me, I start giggling. He’s like, ‘Was I late?’ And you just start laughing.”

This is the man, after all, who was the creative force behind one of the most critically acclaimed TV comedies of the past quarter century, and arguably the most influential. When it debuted 20 years ago, The Larry Sanders Show‘s brand of single-camera comedy — deeply flawed characters behaving badly, with no laugh track and every awkward moment captured with documentary-style realism — represented a radical break from the dominant network sitcoms of the time, like Roseanne and Home Improvement. Today the show’s fingerprints can be seen all over the television landscape, on everything from The Office to Modern Family to Parks and Recreation to 30 Rock and beyond — as the creators of those shows will happily attest. Shandling is way too self-deprecating to toot his own horn, but he concedes he sees some of those fingerprints: ”Sometimes I’ll be watching TV and I’ll flip [to a show], and within two seconds, I feel like I’m in the writers’ room again — that’s when I know there’s some similarity in the sensibility,” he says. He pauses for a beat. ”Mostly The Price Is Right.”

Hey now!

For Shandling, the initial spark of The Larry Sanders Show came from his own experiences as a recurring guest host filling in for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. The idea of exploring human behavior through the prism of a TV host and the petty, narcissistic people around him just seemed rife with comedic possibilities. ”I realized that the curtain is a good metaphor for how we want people to see us versus what we’re really like,” says Shandling. Having already skewered the conventions of TV comedy once with his fourth-wall-breaking Showtime series It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, he wanted to go even further with Sanders, blurring the line between real life and showbiz fakery until it virtually disappeared. ”When I explained the show to HBO, I couldn’t give them many examples of what it would be like,” he says. ”But it was fully formed in my head.”

To the cast and crew, it was immediately clear Sanders was a new kind of TV comedy. ”I knew on the first reading it was a game changer,” says Jeffrey Tambor, 68, who played Sanders’ buffoonish, self-important sidekick, Hank Kingsley. ”We were just different. I remember the first time I watched the show, I went, ‘God, the camera is jiggling so much — is everyone going to get used to that?”’ The shooting process was fast-paced and loose, and the actors were given the freedom to improvise. ”It was like a live show,” says Rip Torn, 81, who played Sanders’ bulldog producer, Artie. ”We didn’t say, ‘Oh, I didn’t get that line right — I’d like to take that again.’ We just kept on trucking. It was very zestful — stressful, but zestful.”

The portrait Sanders painted of Hollywood wasn’t a pretty one, unless you consider superficiality, pandering, backstabbing, and megalomania pretty. ”We were diving deep into that psychological morass because Garry had lived it,” says Wallace Langham, 47, who played the bitter head writer, Phil. ”Hollywood is high school with money, and Garry wanted to implode these inflated egos. It was just mind-bogglingly close to the bone.” But the more brutally cutting the show’s satire became, the more the entertainment industry fell in love with it, and as the series went on, a parade of well over 100 celebrities (Ben Stiller, Jim Carrey, Sally Field, Jennifer Aniston, Robin Williams…) came on to play less-than-flattering versions of themselves. ”The people who did it couldn’t talk enough about how liberating it was,” Langham says. ”By the end, there was a line around the corner.”

Ask the show’s cast about their favorite episodes and their answers tell you a lot about just how edgy and button-pushing Sanders could be. Tambor cites the one in which Hank has a religious epiphany and insists on wearing a yarmulke on the air: ”When he gets the first anti-Semitic letter, he immediately takes it off like a coward. As a Jew, I just loved it.” Langham chooses ”Putting the ‘Gay’ Back in Litigation,” in which Hank’s gay assistant, played by Scott Thompson, sues the show for sexual harassment as a result of Phil’s relentlessly homophobic jokes. ”I look at Phil [in that episode] and it’s like, ‘Just shut the f— up already!”’ Langham says. ”But we’ve all been around those people who just can’t stop what they’re saying and it gets worse and worse.”

For the Sanders cast, the series hasn’t always been an easy act to follow. ”It set the bar so high for writing that oftentimes I’ve been disappointed,” says Penny Johnson Jerald, 51, who played Sanders’ straight-shooting assistant, Beverly. ”Not everybody is coming from that place of honesty and truth.” And for a generation of comedy writers who were inspired by the show, it didn’t prove to be the easiest model to emulate. ”Everyone wanted to be the next Larry Sanders, and in the beginning people stole all the wrong things from it,” says Sarah Silverman, 41, who played writer Wendy in the final seasons of the show. ”Everything was a behind-the-scenes look at a sports thing or a TV show or the news. But that’s not the thing to steal. The thing to steal is brilliant writing and well-drawn characters. But that stuff takes work.”

And what about Shandling? How does he follow up a landmark series like The Larry Sanders Show? ”What do you suggest?” he asks, laughing. Shandling continues to perform stand-up and played a politician in 2010’s Iron Man 2, but he hasn’t done another television show since Sanders (the last major thing he wrote was the 2000 big-screen comedy What Planet Are You From?), and many now see him as a kind of semirecluse. The problem, he says, is that unlike his TV alter ego, ”I have to sit down and write something. Larry just has to go and do some jokes. I have to do something that matters to me.” Asked whether he would ever consider bringing Sanders and the other characters back for another go-round on television or in a movie, Shandling thinks for a while before answering. ”My only thought,” he says finally, ”is that when Larry dies maybe we’ll do something on Access Hollywood. We can get a bunch of stars to go on and on about Larry and what it was like to be on his talk show.” He pauses again, then adds with a quiet laugh, ”I think we could probably fool a number of people.”

Update: The Larry Sanders Show Cast

Garry Shandling

In recent years, aside from the occasional acting job (most recently in Iron Man 2), Shandling’s primary creative outlet has been his stand-up. ”I think I’m better than ever,” says the actor, 62. He hasn’t embarked on any new TV series since Sanders went off the air: ”Larry Sanders is a very special show to me, and I learned a lot of lessons from it,” he says. ”I need to find something where I can learn some more lessons, and then I’ll do that.”

Jeffrey Tambor

Tambor, 68, is currently reprising his role as George Bluth Sr. on the series Arrested Development for Netflix. He will also star on NBC’s midseason comedy Next Caller. As for his Sanders alter ego, Hank, he says, ”I think Hank is in Malibu in a little apartment with a lot of memorabilia. I think he’s alone, and I think he emails Larry a lot.”

Rip Thorn

As a result of Larry Sanders, Torn, 81, found himself being offered more comedic roles than ever before — most notably as Zed in the first two Men in Black films. ”People said, ‘Whoever thought that Rip could be funny?’ Because I’d played a lot of villains,” Torn says. ”But people who knew me said, ‘Just everybody that knows him.”’ Torn will appear in the upcoming indie film Bridge of Names.

Penny Johnson Jerald

Johnson Jerald has appeared on numerous other TV series, including ER and 24. She now plays Capt. Victoria Gates on Castle. ”I’ve been in some wonderful shows,” says the 51-year-old actress, ”but nothing holds a candle to The Larry Sanders Show.”

Wallace Langham

Langham, 47, has worked steadily in film and TV and currently plays David Hodges on CSI. When he imagines where his Sanders character, Phil, might be today, though, it’s not nearly so happy a place: ”I think, sadly, Phil would have devolved into being twice divorced with two kids, working on a Nickelodeon show, and just a raging alcoholic.”

Mary Lynn Rajskub

Five years after Sanders ended, Rajskub was cast as Chloe on the hit series 24, and comedy nerds aside, that is still by far what people most recognize her for. ”Every time [someone] knows Larry Sanders, it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re special!”’ says the actress, 41. ”Not that loving 24 isn’t great, but it’s a totally different thing.” Rajskub will next be seen in the indie film Toy’s House.

Sarah Silverman

Silverman, 41, has gone on to become one of the best-known comics of her generation and worked regularly in film and TV. But she traces a great deal of her success back to Sanders. ”It was huge,” she says. ”I learned so much from Garry about acting — and life.” She will next lend her voice to the animated kids’ movie Wreck-It Ralph.

Praise for The Larry Sanders Show

”There’s only a handful of shows I would consider the most influential on me and my generation — and Larry Sanders is at the top. It was the first single-camera comedy that felt like it was really happening: You happened to be in the room with these people and this was the way they behaved when no one was looking. It was the ultimate warts-and-all show.” —Michael Schur, co-creator of Parks and Recreation

”It was just a brilliantly observed show. The accuracy of the way those characters were drawn — their insecurities and their jealousies and their showbiz needs — it was just so specific and wonderful. You had to pay attention to it. It didn’t come grab you by the face. You had to actively watch it.” —Tina Fey, creator of 30 Rock

”A lot has been written about the awkward pause, but they were geniuses at that on Larry Sanders. My guess is it comes from the furnace of angst that burns at the center of Garry Shandling. Building to those really embarrassing moments and just letting them sit there was excruciating and fantastic to watch, and that got imitated a lot after they started doing it.” —Christopher Lloyd, co-creator of Modern Family

”I watched Larry Sanders from the start, and I was a superbig fan. It just felt more real than what was on at the time. I really wanted to get hired there, and I actually did two days of punch-up. Two days was all I got on the show, but it certainly had an influence on the later work I did. I saved my pay stubs.” —Greg Daniels, executive producer of The Office and co-creator of Parks and Recreation

The Larry Sanders Show was a pure original and proved to everyone that you can make a huge noise and punch above your weight on pay TV. Baryshnikov said about Fred Astaire: ‘We are dancing, but he is doing something else.’ Garry was doing something else, and people saw that.” —Richard Plepler, co-president and future CEO of HBO

Additional reporting by Dan Snierson

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