Garry Shandling deserves more than a passing mention and a perfunctory eulogy. The comic who died Thursday at 66 was absolutely instrumental in the maturation and development of HBO — and by extension many other cable channels.
His series, “The Larry Sanders Show,” which launched in 1992 and ran six seasons, was HBO’s first real success with scripted programming. What Shandling did with the sitcom series concept was reimagine it for adults, not just adults watching with their impressionable children.
Set behind the scenes of a more or less typical late night talk show, Shandling played Sanders, a talented but morbidly insecure rival for ratings and audience affection to real world stars like Jay Leno and Arsenio Hall. (“Sanders” premiered just as Johnny Carson retired and before David Letterman moved to CBS, two tectonic shifts within the small and intensely competitive world of standup comics.)
The conceit was that despite having achieved an apex for any professional comic — my own network show! — every day presented Sanders with another assault on his ego, his sense of security and self-worth. Well-connected with the show biz community from his years on the club circuit and as both guest and guest host for Carson, Shandling and his team had no trouble pulling both D-list and A-list stars for cameo appearances.
A classic we-have-arrived moment came in the third episode of the first season when Carol Burnett guest-starred in a hilarious bit built around Larry’s fear of a tarantula his producers wanted to crawl up his arm and eat a dead fly off his head. Over the years, with repeat appearances, people like Jon Stewart and David Duchovny became part of the supporting cast, their popularity, ambitions and success constant corrosives roiling Larry’s fragile psyche.
The show’s insidery take on show business was an essential part of its appeal. “The Biz” being a land where even your closest friend not-so-secretly hopes your act crashes and burns, and where every enabling, ego-stroking assistant and producer is countered by a half-dozen craven network suits whose only measure of comedy is the numbers in front of the decimal point. To Hollywood insiders, “Larry Sanders” was cathartic. To lay people, it was every day at the office, with better looking people.
As good as Shandling was at playing a neurotic success, he understood theater well enough to cede an enormous amount of camera acreage to Jeffrey Tambor as his even more insecure and narcissistic Ed McMahon-like sidekick, Hank Kingsley, the rare TV creation genuinely worthy of the term, “iconic.”
Hank’s shameless, compulsive maneuvering for attention and respect far beyond his actual worth was the sort of thing that started you laughing the second he walked into a room. (Fuming over the attention his Brentwood neighbor O.J. Simpson was getting during the murder trial, the filter-free Hank made a loud point about how truly insightful people would see that hewas the real victim in the case, based on the clutter of satellite trucks and tourists on his street.)
Likewise, veteran actor Rip Torn was superb as Larry’s long-suffering producer, Artie, one of those indispensable characters in the collision of perpetually teetering egos and crass economics. Torn was nominated for an Emmy every year the show was on the air. (Fans of Torn really should seek out his 1972 film, “Payday,” where he was ideally cast as a carousing country western singer.) Also among the regular “Sanders” cast were Jeremy Piven, (later shifting to carnivorous management as Ari Gold on “Entourage”) and Janeane Garofalo.
A strong case can be made that the TV landscape would be far less evolved than it is today without Shandling and “Larry Sanders.” Every heretofore unexplored or unexploited territory — in this case premium cable and the license that comes with it — needs not just someone to dive in and give it a valiant shot, but someone who does it right. Someone who brings the ideal product, packaged with precisely the right ingredients (vanity, insecurity, celebrity glamour) and delivers it all with pitch perfect timing and panache.
Shandling achieved all that with “Larry Sanders,” which provided HBO with motivation to push their ambitions harder, and the likes of AMC, Showtime, FX and the rest to step up as well.
It took over a decade after “Larry Sanders” ended for it to become available on DVD, but it is today. Also, HBO has announced that at long, long last it will make it available for streaming on HBO Go and HBO Now. You really owe it to yourself.