Case Study 49: The Larry Sanders Show, Episode 4–“Guest Host”

Original Airdate: September 5th, 1992 on HBO

There wouldn’t be a golden age of television without HBO. They were pioneers in making uncompromisingly original TV in the 1990s and 2000s—major characters would die without warning, sex and politics would be addressed explicitly and frankly and Detective Stabler’s anus would be aggressively displayed for all the world to see. But HBO’s comedies often lag behind its dramas in terms of critical acclaim. Veep and Silicon Valley have begun rehabilitating the network’s reputation for humor, but unless you love Chris Lilley, Ricky Gervais or Entourage, pickings are otherwise slim. One notable exception would be The Larry Sanders Show and its spiritual successor, Curb Your Enthusiasm. Premiering in 1992, Sanders is something of a deep cut—apparently, HBO even let the rights slip away from them for a while, because I first caught the show on Netflix before it migrated to Crackle. (For those of you returning from Wikipedia, I’d like to welcome you to the exclusive club I joined seconds ago: People Who Know What Crackle Is.) Anyway, HBO is in the process of bringing Sanders back, and according to The Hollywood Reporter that started before star Garry Shandling’s untimely death. It’s also worth mentioning this wasn’t Shandling’s first trip around the pay cable maypole: the late 80s saw Showtime, the b-list HBO, hosting It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which offered a meta take on the sitcom, as opposed to Sanders’ meta take on the late night show.

Strengths

  • Sharp show-biz satire. This episode, along with many episodes like it, tells the story of egotistical, childish, self-serving celebrities being wrangled by patient, long-suffering handlers. They present an effortlessly smooth face to the adoring public, but all that charisma evaporates when they go behind the scenes to engage in petty squabbling. They’re enabled and actively encouraged by their overseers at the network or studio, who urge them to prioritize ratings, money and their career above friendships, family and fulfillment. Sure, it’s been done before and since–Hollywood writers writing what they know–but it’s reliably entertaining, because we all watch TV and movies and who wouldn’t want a peek at how the sausage is made? Because it involves entertainers and celebrities—big personalities, with a flair for the dramatic gesture and the witty putdown—it’s more intrinsically amusing than watching people fight over, say, a vice-presidency position at a bank. The particulars here involve talk show host Larry Sanders (Shandling) taking a week off, being replaced by guest host Dana Carvey (Saturday Night Live.) As soon as Larry sees that Dana isn’t a terrible host, he’s immediately filled with insecurities, and these are only amplified when the network discovers that Dana has been offered a permanent hosting gig at NBC. Meanwhile, second banana Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent) is furious that he wasn’t considered for the guest host position, despite the fact that his audition makes it very clear that he would not thrive behind the desk. In the final scene, Larry is planning to go out and host an episode, thereby returning from his vacation early and unseating Dana. Eager to mend fences, Dana reassures Larry and tells him the NBC deal would be for a primetime talk show, meaning they wouldn’t be competitors. Mollified, Larry offers him the opportunity of replacing Hank for the night. With seconds before the show starts, Dana comes clean and tells Larry that the deal was for late night all along. Cut to credits. Dana’s career may be on the upswing, but he’s just as much of a petty asshole as Larry and Hank—and yet Larry and Dana are committed to trying to maintain the illusion of their friendship, because theirs is a business where vicious competition is painted with the veneer of camaraderie and fine fellowship.
  • Dead-pan comedy. There’s definitely an art to dry humor. It’s hard to compete in a crowded comedy landscape where there’s many things that are lapel-grabbingly wacky. This is even more pronounced in a post-laugh-track scene—you can cram in more laughs per minute if you’re not waiting for the roaring to subsist after Sheldon’s latest riposte. But if you’re going for a realistic vibe and your characters aren’t over-the-top caricatures, you have to make yourself stand out. Sanders is droll as opposed hysterically funny, but on that scale it does reasonably well. There’s lots of small moments, like when Larry offers Dana a Coke and absently tosses it in his direction—Dana makes no move to try and grab it and it bounces off the couch. There’s the look on Larry’s face as his wife (Megan Gallagher, Millennium) sings the praises of Dana’s interviewing skills. There’s the moment when Hank convinces his producer Artie (Rip Torn, Men In Black) to give him feedback on his disastrous audition and he storms off in a huff after one piece of benign criticism. There’s not a lot of knee-slapping, but it’s decently amusing.
  • Strong characters. The real highlight on this show is Rip Torn’s performance as Artie, who has an air of authenticity as a realistic, experienced Hollywood producer. He’s gentle and patient with the talent—he lets Hank audition even though he knows there’s no hope—and he’s fiercely protective, turning on Dana hilariously quickly. He walks the line between network management and the creative staff with ease, but he’s also self-aggrandizing enough to claim that he “saw it coming” every time there’s a new development with Dana’s rival show. Hank’s character is also a well-drawn portrait of power-hungry mediocrity. He’s obsequious with Artie, Larry and Dana, but when he senses that Dana’s not inclined to take his lame advice about the intricacies of late night, he rants to assistant (Linda Doucett) about how Dana’s a “snotty little shit.” It’s mentioned that Hank’s previous job was as a cruise director, which is just about perfect for his corny sense of false cheer.

Weaknesses

  • Bloodless on-air segments. I’d almost be willing to forgive this as close observation. Late night comedy is seldom very funny. But we see Larry and Dana’s opening monologues, and they’re supposed to be good. Larry jokes about Dan Quayle and potatoes, saying that Quayle is used to pointing to the pictures when he orders his lunch. He observes that in light of rappers like Ice-T, Ice Cube and Vanilla Ice, he’d make his rap name “Hey, Put Ice On That.” This material would be wretched even if it weren’t hideously dated. Dana’s is even worse—it’s a mishmash of his various unfunny bits from SNL. Generally, Saturday Night Live is pretty overrated—I could live my entire life without ever seeing Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri in cheerleader outfits again—but the early 90s was a pretty solid time for the show. It’d be easy to forget that if you were just going off Hans & Franz, though. And the fact that Dana’s monologue is supposed to be spellbinding is central to the plot!

Motivation: Money. The network and Larry are worried that Dana would siphon off all his viewers, so they want to cut his week of guest hosting short so as not to give a leg up to the competition.

Final Judgment: 7/10. It’s far from the best HBO or even HBO comedies have to offer, but it’s worth watching.

NEXT TIME: Did you know that the NFL sponsors a cartoon? I review NFL Rush Zone, and we’ll see if the villain is a doctor with a defamatory concussion study.

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Case Study 49: The Larry Sanders Show, Episode 4–“Guest Host”