For months, Jay Leno has been making ratings hay on The Tonight Show with constant jokes about the O.J. Simpson trial. These have ranged from the relatively mild the silly, annoyingly repetitive ''Dancing Itos'' to the grotesque. On his June 29 edition, Leno made a few cracks about Hugh Grant's car sex with an L.A. prostitute and then concluded, ''And you thought there were a lot of stains in O.J.'s car!'' As usual in matters of taste, it's all subjective; if you believe that the funniness of a joke exceeds its tastelessness, then you're not offended. (The perfect bellwether for this sort of thing: Howard Stern.) In the case of Leno's punchline, I replayed the tape twice to make sure genial Jay had actually said what I thought he said, and then shuddered.
After months of avoiding the Simpson case, David Letterman has felt it necessary in recent weeks to join the fray, but to his credit, his heart's just not in it. His Simpson jokes carefully avoid the killings and try to spin the subject into other, more harmless areas. Example: The same night Leno committed his ''stains'' remark, Letterman said, ''In the O.J. trial, the prosecution has said it will wrap up its case next week with a surprise witness. Oh, boy I hope it's Batman!'' Not offensive, but not funny, either.
What does all this have to do with the season opener of The Larry Sanders Show? Everything. As the series' fourth season begins, we see talk-show host Larry (Garry Shandling) in his office surrounded by staff members, everyone's gaze fixed on the television, which is airing Court TV's coverage of the Simpson trial. When producer Artie (Rip Torn) tries to discuss ''the general malaise'' of the Larry Sanders talk-show-within-the-show (now supposedly in its 10th year), the staff couldn't care less. Sidekick Hank (Jeffrey Tambor) bemoans the ''real victims'' of the Simpson case: ''I live on Rockingham,'' he says soberly, ''and my property values have just gone right into the toilet.''
There's a lot more in this vein, all of it howlingly funny, about a situation that is morally appalling. Unlike real talk-show hosts Leno and Letterman, Shandling is in the perfect position: He's not making fun of the Simpson tragedy he's making fun of the way talk shows cannot seem to avoid exploiting the Simpson tragedy.
The ostensible plot of this Sanders episode is that Roseanne has been booked on the show, and Larry wants her appearance canceled. As you might recall, Larry had a fling with Roseanne last season, and now that she's newly remarried and pregnant, he finds the whole situation uncomfortable. But Larry doesn't have the nerve to defy Artie and bump her, so he goes to see a psychiatrist (Charles Cioffi) about his neurotic cowardice.
It's a beautifully written episode, featuring wonderfully deadpan performances from Torn, Tambor, and Janeane Garofalo. Shandling is now by far our best stand-up comedian-turned-sitcom actor; he seems to have an infinite number of ways to convey shadings of insecurity and bottled-up rage. And Roseanne is typically terrific at making sour rudeness seem witty. If you think Garry Shandling must be running out of ways to deconstruct show business, you're wrong. This will probably prove the most fearless half hour of comedy all year. A+