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April 3, 2008 |

By Miscellaneous | Guides | April 3, 2008 |

The 15 best TV seasons of the last 20 years? An embarrassment of riches this assignment was. Choosing one, a near impossible task. Like Florence Arizona trying to pick her favorite kid — you know, if there were like, 37 of them instead of five. I knew Carlson would break my heart and take little Nathan Jr. (aka “The West Wing” Season Two), so I was left crawling around on the floor, chasing a whole bunch of equally adorable babies. My knees hurt. After changing my mind a good 10 times, I settled on the groundbreaking, pure brilliant “The Larry Sanders Show.” Now I just had to pick a season….

Dustin doesn’t pay me enough to make these sorts of Solomon-like choices. As far as I’m concerned, every season is worthy of a “Best Of…” list. Each time I’d settle on one I’d think, “Oh no! Then I don’t get to talk about the Garden Weasel or Hank’s golf cart or Bob Odenkirk as coked out agent Stevie Grant or Hank’s sex tape or… or… or….” Oh the humanity! In fact, as I type this, I’m tempted to change my mind again. I have such commitment issues.

That this decision is so difficult is a testament to the brilliance of this show. While it’s style and tone (single camera, often handheld; character-based comedy) feel right at home in today’s TV comedy landscape, it was a gale of fresh air when it premiered on HBO in 1992. It was like nothing that had been on TV. In many ways it put HBO on the map. This was the beginning of “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.” Most everything I love about the genre these days can be traced back to “Larry Sanders.” It was a comedy boot camp of sorts for the likes of Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman and Judd Apatow. Tina Fey and Ricky Gervais wax all kinds of reverent when talking about it (Gervais cites Hank “Hey Now” Kingsley, played by Jeffrey Tambor, as an inspiration for David Brent). One of my favorite running gags in “Arrested Development” was lifted straight out of a scene set in the Larry Sanders writers’ room. And Tambor has talked at length about how his experience on the show forever changed his process as an actor. Each and every episode is rich with raw, uncomfortable, heartbreaking behavioral comedy. To pick 13 to laud out of 89 is a Herculean task. But pick I must.

I settled on Season Five as it starts off with my favorite episode of the series, “Everybody Loves Larry.” We open on Artie (Larry’s shiv-you-with-a-smile producer played by the irrepressible Rip Torn) in a meeting with the network. They’re discussing the week’s line-up for guest host Jon Stewart. Artie tap dances, “Well, on Monday we have the bad boy of drive time radio, Don Imus. We have the irrepressible Jacque. And we have one of the stars of ‘Friends.’” “Really? Which one?” asks an excited Melanie Parrish (the lone female exec whom Artie threatened in the pilot, “Don’t take this as a threat, but I killed a man like you in Korea. Hand to hand.”) Artie replies, “George Macatee. He’s a wonderful character actor. He played the janitor with the shaky leg in episode 14.” The execs are chagrined. It’s clear they’re setting Stewart up to take over for Larry when his contract expires, and giving him a shitty line-up is no way to build his following. It’s also clear Larry and Artie have no interest in going quietly. They spend the episode doing a not so subtle job of undermining Dear Jon. At once point, Artie tries to split the difference, throwing Stewart a couple strong guests only to have Larry take them back, saying, “Usually I’d do this behind your back, but you’re a nice guy.” One of the many joys of the show is watching Larry attempt to balance his need to appear a good guy with his selfish desires. He’s neurotic, a tad pathetic and a bit of an asshole. But while his selfishness always triumphs, watching the battle makes it almost impossible to hate him.

Then again, in comparison to Hank Kingsley, sidekick extraordinaire, Larry seems graceful and confident. Hank is a heartbreaking sad sack. A mangy mutt belonging to an abusive owner. No matter how many times he’s kicked, he ends up back on his hind legs, doing a little dog dance, begging to be loved. He’s not only far more pathetic than Larry, he’s also far more loveable. Though that’s a bit like saying Hitler was more loveable than Pol Pot.

When first we see Hank in this episode, he’s bragging about the limited edition Jensen Healey he just purchased from Elvis Costello who is, he claims, a terrible negotiator. But as is always the case with Mr. Hey Now, he got the shit end of the stick. The car barely runs, and at one point it catches fire in the parking lot. In an attempt to get back at Elvis, Hank dons Costello-style glasses for the entirety of his set. Larry makes him take them off before Elvis returns to the couch. Hank can’t contain his rage and snaps…

The pure pathos contained in the moments when Hank slides from attention-whoring court jester to brokenhearted, rage-filled chump is overwhelming. As much as I love George and Oscar Bluth, Hank Kingsley was the role of Tambor’s lifetime. An honest to God tour de force performance.

But the piece de resistance of the episode is the introduction of David Duchovny’s man crush on Larry. On the amazing DVD Not Just the Best of the Larry Sanders Show, there’s a conversation between Shandling and Duchovny where we learn that they have a real-life, platonic man-love type relationship and that David pitched working it into the show. He is so grounded, so committed to his heterosexual man-crush that it’s not at all surprising it comes from someplace real. The humor comes not just from Duchovny’s stellar performance but from watching Larry squirm in the midst of the unwanted attention.

While “Everybody Loves Larry” is certainly a high point of the season, there are numerous moments of hilarity to be found through out Season Five. In “Where Is the Love,” we see Larry at his most raw, needy and insecure when Tom Shales writes a review of his show calling his monologue “a desperate cry for love.” The genius of the set up is that it’s absolutely true, and the juvenile downward spiral it sets Larry on only proves it further. Larry writes Shales a fax that starts out, “Dear Dumb Fuck,” but when his assistant refuses to send it and he can’t figure out how to use the fax machine (“I’ll just turn it on, stick it in and hope for the best…”), he accidentally sends it to Hank. That night, Larry’s guest is Sally Field. (This took place shortly after her, “You like me! You really like me!” Oscar acceptance speech, and she proves a perfect foil for needy Larry.) They go out to dinner after the show, where Larry runs into Shales. In confronting him, we learn that the harsh review came out of the fact that Shales harbored hurt feelings over never having been asked on the show. Naturally. Bless Shandling for never letting us forget that just about everyone in Hollywood is an insecure narcissist.

There’s “Ellen, or Isn’t She,” where Larry has Ellen Degeneres on the show and pulls out all the stops to get her to come out (she doesn’t). In “The New Writer,” Sarah Silverman is hired on staff but is shut out by head writer Phil, who contends that “women aren’t funny.” She takes her jokes straight to Larry, disrupting the entire writing process and prompting Artie to rip them both brand new assholes. It ends with Phil asking Sarah out on a date. An offer she pointedly declines.

Hank has a brilliant arc in “The Roast.” He desperately wants to be Roastmaster for Larry’s big night, but Artie refuses, citing Hank’s inability to handle hecklers as the reason. In one of my favorite scenes in the series, Hank calls Phil into his office to get pointers in the hopes of proving to Artie he’s capable. Phil offers a comeback, “Yeah, I don’t come down to your job and knock the dick outta your mouth while you’re trying to work.” Hank’s response, “Hey, that’s a good one because it both zings the guy’s job and his dick.” Hey now!

Like “Arrested Development,” “The Office,” or “30 Rock,” “The Larry Sanders Show” is a gift that keeps on giving. The more you watch, the more you catch, the funnier it becomes, the deeper the understanding of just how broken these fuckers are that make us laugh so hard. Sadly, only Season One and the “Best Of” are available on DVD, but thanks to some fabulous fan, you can watch the entire series on YouTube. Please don’t hold me responsible for decreased productivity at work.

You may flip now.

‘Beckylooo Who’ is an aspiring television writer, aka an assistant. She has a deep understanding of the importance of a pleasant phone manner and a well-stocked fridge. Further rantings and ravings can be found at If A TV Falls in the Woods.

Guides | April 3, 2008 |


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