The Larry Sanders Show at 30: The ‘forgotten’ TV classic with a strange, scandalous legacy

WWhen was the modern sitcom born? It is often said that the American television drama came of age in 1999 when The sopranos debuted on cable channel HBO, freeing it from the networks’ play-it-safe formulas. Sketch shows have been transformed by Monty Python in the late 60’s/early 70’s and have never looked back. But when was the sitcom’s great renaissance? When was it decided that cutting-edge comedy could do without studio audiences, broad one-note characters, and wacky, unbelievable plots? To this end, many people quote The office (2001-03) or Curb your enthusiasm (from 2000). Both left an indelible mark on the medium. But eight years before either of those shows, there was another series that changed the genre forever. That was The Larry Sanders Show.

Larry Sanders debuted on HBO on August 15, 1992, 30 years ago today. Created by writer/producer Dennis Klein and comedian Garry Shandling, the series focused on a fictional late-night talk show closely modeled on Johnny Carson’s hugely popular chat series The Tonight Show. After gaining notoriety as a stand-up comic, Shandling had previously established himself on television It’s Garry Shandling’s show (1986-90), an experimental multi-camera sitcom for Showtime that deconstructed the format with constant fourth-wall breaks and meta-jokes. After being substituted in for an absent Johnny Carson The Tonight Show a couple of times Shandling decided his next project would be Larry Sanders, an insider’s showbiz satire satirizing fame and the world of television. Shandling himself played the show’s vain but whimsical host Larry (who was once memorably described as “a talk show beast… like one of those goddamn creatures from Greek mythology: half human, half desk”). Jeffrey Tambor played his less talented sidekick from Baden, Hank Kingsley. Rounding out the central trio was Rip Torn, who played the show’s upbeat producer, Artie.

The series was born into a fertile time for American television comedy. The simpsons and His field were just making their respective advances; cheers had one year left of his 11-season run. Tonal, Larry Sanders was something entirely new – it completely eschewed the artificiality of more traditional sitcoms like cheersbut not shared His field‘s aversion to sincerity. And, crucially, it eliminated canned laughter. The result was brilliant – laughably funny, deceptively clever and brilliantly acted. Despite the focus on the neuroses and petty feuds of the Hollywood elite, the storylines were somehow shockingly relatable; Episodes about Hank leaking a sextape or Larry investigating too close a relationship with David Duchovny somehow managed to find raw human truths under their showbiz-centric premises. It’s no exaggeration to say that Tambor and Torn deliver two of the best comic book performances of all time. (Shandling has always been reticent about his acting qualities, but he, too, was perfect in the role.)

Larry Sanders All TV comedy of the following decades left his fingerprints Curb your enthusiasm to 30 rocks, to The office (UNITED KINGDOM). (Elements of Tambor’s desperate Hank character are particularly evident in David Brent, although Ricky Gervais is a self-confessed fan of Shandling.) The series’ practice of parodying high-profile celebs themselves came long before it extras (again Gervais) or entourage made it a trend. (As a matter of fact, Larry SandersThe list of guest stars is almost unprecedented: Robin Williams, Helen Hunt, Alec Baldwin, Adam Sandler, Burt Reynolds, Jerry Seinfeld, Danny DeVito, Sharon Stone, Sarah Jessica Parker, Chevy Chase, Jeff Goldblum, Jennifer Aniston, Sting, Ben Stiller, Winona Ryder, Laura Dern, Jim Carrey, Sean Penn and the Wu-Tang Clan are just a fraction of the big names who have played themselves on the show. That’s not even counting the show’s regulars — which included a brilliantly sarcastic Janeane Garofalo — and recurring guest stars like Jon Stewart and Bob Odenkirk.)

And yet, Larry Sanders remains obscure to modern audiences than any of these other touchstones – both his major comedy contemporaries and the many subsequent sitcoms he influenced. That’s not to say it went without acclaim: The series has been nominated for 56 Emmy Awards over its run, winning three times (for writing, directing, and a win for Best Supporting Actor for Torn). But it never went mainstream like others. This is particularly true in the UK. When it first aired, Larry Sanders never had much of a chance to thrive as he was buried late at night on BBC2. Now it’s even less accessible for anyone who doesn’t want to pay for a DVD box set (which almost everyone is these days). The first season can be purchased digitally from Prime Video. The other five have nowhere to stream. It’s a show that feels useless to recommend to people.

But there may be other reasons for this Larry Sandersslip into oblivion. Since the 1997 finale, a staggering number of its cast have either died or been publicly held accountable. Shandling died of a pulmonary embolism in 2016 at the age of 66. Torn died of complications from Alzheimer’s in 2019 at the age of 88 after years of making headlines for substance abuse and legal troubles (the darkly amusing climax of which was breaking into a bank with a firearm after mistaking it for his home , police claimed). Phil Leeds, who played Hank’s agent Sid, died a few years after the series ended.

Tambor, on the other hand, has been persona non grata in Hollywood since several women made allegations of sexual misconduct in 2017. (He has denied wrongdoing.) Jeremy Piven, who played the role of head writer Jerry for the first two seasons of the show, went on to star on HBO’s Hollywood Bro-Athon entourage before being accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women in 2017 and 2018 (accusations he has also denied). Wallace Langham, the actor who played writer Phil, has been charged with assault after he punched a gay tabloid reporter and allegedly yelled homophobic slurs in 2000. (Langham said he supported gay rights and claimed to have been provoked; his career was recovering from the incident.)

Perhaps the most surprising post-show fate befell comedian Scott Thompson, who played Hank’s assistant Brian for the show’s final three seasons. Thompson had his home set on fire by a terrorist cell in 2000 after a pro-Saddam Hussein radical group criticized a film his friend, French documentary maker Joel Soler, was making about the then Iraqi president. The incident left the couple physically unharmed, but Soler went into hiding in France and endured several subsequent assassination attempts. Thompson used the experience for a one-man terror-themed show, which was abruptly shut down after 9/11.

Left to right: Rip Torn, Jeffrey Tambor and Garry Shandling on “The Larry Sanders Show”


Many of the Larry Sanders Cast members have spoken enthusiastically about their time on the show. (Garofalo, whose career took off midway through the show’s run, later said she “madly regrets” leaving before the final season.) But the show, which gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at a star-hitting TV show was itself the subject of unusual behind-the-scenes drama. The fluctuation in the office was always unusually high. After the series ended, Brad Grey, one of the show’s executive producers and Shandling’s manager, became embroiled in a heated legal battle with Shandling regarding the show. In 1998, Shandling sued Gray for $100 million for breach of duty claims; Gray countered and the matter was eventually settled out of court. Another legal battle took place during the show when Linda Doucett, Shandling’s longtime friend who played Hank’s gullible assistant Darlene, left the series following her split from Shandling. She sued for sexual harassment and wrongful dismissal and received a severance payment in the millions.

Despite the series’ countless odd agings over the past 30 years — the grief over Shandling’s death, the numerous offscreen scandals among the surviving cast members — it’s held up amazingly well. There may be a certain level of uneasiness for many watching Tambor bring down the house on screen, but I dare anyone to watch him angrily utter a line like this: “What about her Time I broke my tooth on the urinal in the bathroom? What the hell is so weird about that?” and not laughing. (“It was a back tooth, Hank,” is Larry’s reply.)

Out of whichever reasons, Larry Sanders has become a niche relic in Britain, a jewel never seen far enough to even be considered ‘forgotten’. For a show with such a weird, messy legacy, this was still pretty much as good as television has ever been. The Larry Sanders Show at 30: The ‘forgotten’ TV classic with a strange, scandalous legacy


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