No TV show has ever skewered the world of showbiz — and the wider concept of celebrity — as brutally or hilariously as the influential Nineties satirical sitcom “The Larry Sanders Show.”
The late Garry Shandling plays the titular late-night talk-show host — a needy man-child whose constant quest for love and approval to assuage his monstrous ego continually brings him into conflict with his loved ones and his own morals. The series follows his life in documentary style, interspersed with ‘footage’ of the (fictional) talk show, on which numerous celebrities appear as (often-exaggerated) versions of themselves — a ground-breaking concept at the time — talking about real-life projects. Lines get blurred.
The result is a masterpiece: Fearless writing that poked fun at the celebrities, but was equally fierce towards the main characters; pitch-perfect performances from a stellar ensemble of supporting talent who play it straight throughout, allowing the scripts to shine; and subtle but striking commentary on the creeping menace of commercial influence on content. For example, when Larry questions the ethics of product placement, his producer Artie (played with wonderful weary authority by Rip Torn) fires back, “Unethical? Jesus, Larry, don’t start pulling at that thread, our whole world will unravel.”
The third wheel to Larry and Artie is sidekick Hank, played by Jeffrey Tambor (who would go on to star in another brilliant ensemble show clearly influenced by this one, “Arrested Development”). Like Larry, Hank is a mess of insecurities that are only exacerbated by the fact he is firmly cemented in the number two role. His main ambition is to gain a compliment or kind word from Artie or Larry, and his desperation to achieve that goal is both tragic and very funny.
Special mention should also go to a couple of stars of the show’s ‘B-team’: Janeane Garofalo as the talk show’s fantastically sarcastic booker Paula, and Wallace Langham as socially inept writer Phil.
The show is at its best when it allows us to glimpse the fragile humanity behind the showbiz masks, and makes us empathize with people who are seemingly incapable of empathy themselves. That’s a neat trick to pull off, and creators Shandling and Dennis Klein, do it time and again throughout this compelling comedy.