I’ve never subscribed to HBO. There may have been a month or two when it was provided to us here in New Gloucester, by mistake, or as part of some promotion, but when the cable monolith inevitably attempted to charge us, we balked. The movie-watching we missed as a result of this cultural diminishment we don’t see as relevant.
However, many is the time I wish I had actually seen all those episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Larry Sanders Show.
Last year, from some Bangkok street vendor, I procured up first four seasons of Curb, for a ridiculously small sum. It was good; I had seen the odd show here and there. But I had trouble watching them en masse, to be frank. After 5-6 episodes, not even a full season, I found myself worn out but the sameness of each plot: No, Larry. No, don’t do that. Oh geez…
IFC started rebroadcasting The Larry Sanders Show in January and with a deft flick of my DVR settings, I have proceeded to record each episode, in order, from the very beginning of the show’s run in 1992. It’s hard to keep up. My family rolls its eyes when they glimpse the list of recorded shows and spy the sea of Larry. And I’ll admit that what I believe were the first two seasons were only slightly better than average and something of a letdown when contrasted with the glowing tributes this series routinely garners from
TV cognoscenti. The episodes didn’t suffer from a sameness, a la Curb, but I did find myself wondering why it was I was supposed to care about any of the main characters.
Well, I can report that in season four the show officially hits its stride. It’s not merely easy for me to sit down and watch 2-3 episodes in a sitting; I make time for it. Indeed, I recently watched the fictitious talk show’s 8th anniversary special, and it struck me that a number of things have come together, revealing the show’s genius and explaining all the accolades I’d read and listened to over the years.
First and foremost, the cast has turned over a bit and now, in the fourth season, a glut of young comic talent (well, they were young in the ‘90s, when the show ran) has been assembled and appears regularly. Phil the writer and Larry’s assistant Beverly have been joined by:
• Janeane Garafolo plays Paula the alt talent booker (in one recent episode, she’s obliged to appear on the show and, though ambivalent about the exercise, takes heart that it might be seen by members of Pavement);
• Sarah Silverman has just come aboard as the new writer;
• Scott Thompson of Kids in the Hall fame has taken over as sidekick Hank Kingsley’s personal assistant, replacing the shapely but boring Darlene; and
• Bob Odenkirk, alum of both Mr. Show and The Ben Stiller Show, “guests” recurringly as Larry’s prick agent.
These characters, along with Gary Shandling’s Larry Sanders, Jeffrey Tambor’s Ed McMahon homage, Kingsley, and Rip Torn’s Artie the Producer, form the comic core of the show. As an ensemble, this small group is superb. Kingsley is one of the more hilariously execrable characters ever created for television, a vain, callow, greedy, ultimately obtuse prick who, as we learned in a recent episode involving a sex tape he made, happens to be hung like Affirmed. Shandling and Torn are priceless. It just works.
And this isn’t really the half of it, because what truly makes the show is the constant stream of talk show guests who come on and parody themselves, show business, and their particular shows/films with startling honesty, irony and profanity. Four seasons in, many of these celebrities have appeared often enough, or been pilloried by other cast members frequently enough, that they come off as minor show characters in their own right.
The 8th anniversary show drove much of this home for me. The fictitious show writers have concocted a sketch whereby guests Noah Wylie (from the ‘90s hit hospital series “ER”) and Mandy Patkinkin (from its contemporaneously rival hospital drama “Chicago Hope”) are to participate in a mock shit-slinging match, on camera, on the couch, sending up a contrived rivalry between the two shows and their respective casts. When they are briefed on all this in the Green Room, backstage, Patinkin refuses and ends up shitting all over “ER” for real: calling it superficial and a day camp for beautiful actors and actresses. What’s a put-on in this show within a show, this green room within a green room, and what’s not is difficult to discern, which is a scream. Meanwhile, another guest, CBS sportscaster Pat O’Brien, is across the green room trying to watch the show on a monitor and keeps yelling, “Would you two shut the fuck up?!” Another guest, Rosie O’Donnell sashays about, pissed off that her limo never came, obliging her to drive herself to the taping and park her own car.
KD Lang is a guest, too, and apparently she’s Hank’s neighbor in Malibu or something. They hate each other, because squirrels living in a tree on her property are dropping acorn shells into Hank’s pool — and he has responded by downing the entire overhanging branch with a chainsaw. They bump into each other backstage, getting coffee, and she dresses him down, salty as can be — adding that she wishes he’d stop vacuuming his pool in the nude. The casual profanity combined with the audience’s knowledge of Lang’s bisexuality (real), not to mention Hank’s giant schlong (?), is hysterical.
Linking all these disparate bits in a 30-minutes episode is the fact that Larry is so keyed up for the show, he forgets his ritualistic pre-show whiz. So he keeps trying to slip out between guests, or when Lang is performing, only to be foiled each time. During one break, he runs into Fred Corcoran, legendary producer of the Tonight Show and the model for Artie’s character. Larry tries to pull away, cuz he HAS to go, but Corcoran offers, offhandedly, that “Johnny says hello.” Larry’s supreme vanity trumps any discomfort, preventing him from leaving. “Johnny says hello? Really? Does he watch the show? If you could arrange a lunch sometime…”
20 seconds, Larry!
Another attempt is scotched right at the bathroom door when Farrah Fawcett shows up. She has apparently hit Rosie’s car in the parking lot and is trying to find her. She’s quite flirty with Larry, and this doesn’t help when Ryan O’Neal emerges from the bathroom — still angry with Larry for bumping him from an earlier show (the subplot of an earlier episode). This is just the sort of celeb character history that continually loops through the series. (In this same anniversary episode, George Segal stands around in a tux shamelessly hoping to fill in, in case a guest no-shows). The whole Ryan/Farrah vignette takes all of 45 seconds, and you gotta love the fact that these two would agree to show up, if only to send themselves up, for less than a minute of face time on The Larry Sanders Show. Even so, it takes long enough to foil Larry’s plan to piss.
15 seconds, Larry!
For fans of the show, none of this is news. Indeed, it’s more than a decade late. However, I’m telling you, it’s all very well done and to those who’ve been similarly remiss, I can heartily recommend a DVD purchase or perhaps the IFC/DVR route. Another sanguinary aspect? The show is set in the 90s, when some of us were still young, OJ was still on trial, ER still ruled the Thursday time slot, Boris Yeltsin jokes were still current, and Farrah still lived. It’s an entertaining window on the Clinton Era and, with season four behind me (wherein Larry slept with Ellen Degeneres and fends off the sexual advances of the X-Files’ David Duchovny), I’ve got a feeling the best may yet be to come.