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.''
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.''