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April 25, 2007 |

By Seth Freilich | TV | April 25, 2007 |

Running for six seasons, from 1992 through 1998, HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show” was, quite simply, brilliant. And the four-disc “Best of” DVD series released last week is a fitting tribute to what is arguably the father of the modern sitcom. In fact, I realized something interesting while watching these discs over the weekend — before watching the DVDs, if you had asked me to list the best sitcoms of the last 15 years, my list would probably look something like this: “Seinfeld,” “The Office” (both the U.K. and U.S. versions), “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Action,” “Sports Night,” “Entourage,” “Scrubs” and, of course, “Arrested Development” (this is not meant to be a definitive list, just an off-the-cuff example). Noticeably, that list would not have included “The Larry Sanders” show, despite the fact that I watched it pretty regularly when it aired and always thought it was a particularly good show. But watching the 23 episodes included on this four-disc set from a modern-day perspective, I realized just how groundbreaking and influential “The Larry Sanders Show” was.

For those unfamiliar with the show, it gives us a backstage view of a fictional talk show hosted by Larry Sanders (played in bitingly dry and nasal form by Garry Shandling). The fictional show is an old-school late night talk show airing at 11:30 p.m., opposite Letterman and Leno (and while the talk show is similar to both the “Late Show with David Letterman” and Leno’s “The Tonight Show,” it is most reminiscent of Carson’s “The Tonight Show” which, I sadly realize, is something a fair portion of the Pajiba readership may only know of through clips and anecdotes, having never actually seen an episode). One of the other principal characters is the nurturing, protective and caustic producer, Artie (played gloriously by Rip Torn). Artie has always been my favorite character, and Torn really knocks it out of the park in this role. However, the best performance comes from Jeffrey Tambor as Sanders’ talk-show sidekick, Hank “Hey Now” Kingsley. Tambor puts on a virtual clinic of comedic acting throughout the series’ run, due to his level of commitment and ability to take Hank through a wide variety of characterizations and emotions (mostly, though not always, falling somewhere on the spectrum between “bumbling idiot” and “asshole”).

As Shandling says on one of the episode commentaries, the nature of the series was to show character flaws unabashedly, and the show was often at its shining best when its characters were suffering through their greatest flaws. This is just one of the ways that the show was really a forefather of many of the modern great comedies, which often turn to character flaws for their comedy. And I could go on and on with the technical and stylistic ways this show broke ground — among other things, “Sanders” took advantage of the comedy that comes “between the moments,” in the silent reactions and awkward pauses of life, something which has probably been most popularized by “The Office” (particularly Ricky Gervais’ original version); it was a mostly single-camera comedy (although the “single-camera” scenes were actually shot with three cameras running simultaneously) long before anyone knew what a single-camera comedy was; it featured the “walk-and-talk” long before Aaron Sorkin’s “Sports Night” and “The West Wing”; and “Sanders” mined comedy gold out of celebrities making guest appearances as themselves, often poking fun at their own “character” without any shame or embarrassment, something which is all-too-common nowadays.

In fact, one of the most well-known and revered moments of the show’s entire run stems from such a celebrity cameo — namely, David Duchovny’s turn in the season five episode “Everybody Loves Larry” (as well as the two-part finale), where Duchovny is crushing on Larry even though he’s straight. It’s an absolutely hilarious performance, as are many of the celebrity spots, whether they’re brief (such as … and I can’t believe I’m typing these words … Jim Belushi’s great little bit in one episode) or are integral parts of the episode’s overall storyline (like Ellen’s spoofing all the “will her character come out” hooplah that was going on at the time). But more than taking advantage of great turns from the celebrity guests, the show featured a bevy of comedians, writers, directors, etc., as regular cast members and behind the scenes, many of whom have since gone on to excellence of their own. For example, the first season featured Jeremy Piven as a writer, well before he was known as anything other than John Cusack’s sidekick. The show also featured Janeane Garofalo, and then Mary Lynn Rajskub, as the show-within-a-show’s booking agent. Scott Thompson (“Kids in the Hall”) shone in the later seasons as Hank’s assistant, and Penny Johnson (the first President Palmer’s wife on “24”) was fantastic throughout the show’s run as Larry’s assistant. Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Silverman, on and on, the show was loaded with on-screen talent.

But the show was also pretty stacked behind the scenes. Judd Apatow (“Freaks and Geeks” and The 40-Year-Old Virgin) was a co-executive producer and writer, and got his directing break on the show. Peter Tolan was a writer and consulting producer before joining up with Denis Leary for “The Job” and “Rescue Me.” Jon Stewart featured in a prominent on-screen storyline in the final season, and was involved behind the scenes as a creative consultant and writer. Steven Levitan (“Just Shoot Me”) wrote a couple of episodes, Todd Holland (the exec producer of “Wonderfalls”) directed over half of the show’s episodes, etc.

“Sanders” was really a breeding ground for all sorts of talent, and my overall point here is that this is illustrated throughout the show — it’s an amazing piece of comedy, and deserving of the royal DVD treatment. So I’m happy as hell that this is exactly what it has now gotten. In fact, the quality of the treatment is apparent right from the get-go, as the discs feature classy and simple menus devoid of the unnecessary glitz and crap that many DVD menus feature these days (as an aside, I absolutely hate when the disc makes me watch some 5-10+ second clip from the movie that morphs into the menu — just give me the damn menu for fuck’s sake). Now much has been said about the fact that only the first season is fully available on DVD, and fans are bemoaning the appearance of this “best of” set, instead of the release of the other seasons (particularly as it’s been five years since that first set came out). And there is certainly something to be said for that. But I have to admit that while I’d love to own all 89 episodes of this show, this thoughtful selection of 23 episodes (a quarter of the show’s full run, hand-picked by Shandling himself) is entirely more manageable from a viewing perspective. The episodes skew significantly towards the last season (there are between two and four episodes from each of the first five seasons, while there are eight from the show’s final season), but this is in large part because the last season was really the only one that featured more of an ongoing storyline. But this imbalance doesn’t hurt the viewing in the least as the full slate of episodes manage to provide a very well thought-out sampling of the show as a whole, giving all of the regulars at least one moment in the sun, and including most of the well-known episodes.

But beyond choosing which episodes to include in the set, Shandling went out of his way to make this collection a truly loving tribute to the show. There are over eight hours of extras, mostly put together by Shandling himself, and they’re all quite fantastic. Several episodes include deleted scenes, and four of the episodes include commentaries. And though I rarely listen to DVD commentaries anymore, I found all four of them particularly entertaining and insightful. There is also a feature-length documentary about the making of the show, the quality and entertainment of which I will have to take on faith (with over 20 hours of material on these discs, I just wasn’t able to watch everything over the weekend, but I have every intention of watching this documentary as soon as I can get to it). And there are also nine interviews with various actors and comedians who appeared on the show, including Piven, Garofalo, Odenkirk, and Thompson, among others, which openly and honestly provide insight into their experiences with the show.

However, the real highlights of the DVD extras are the various “personal visits.” Shandling arranged for little get-togethers with various folks from the show, and the resulting videos, which run anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes and are largely unedited, are each fascinating for different reasons. Some are just fun, like his visit with Duchovny, which takes place while the two of them shoot hoops. His visit with Alec Baldwin is similarly sports-themed, as it takes place while the two of them are sparring and training (and it’s actually quite interesting in light of Alec’s recent voice-mail debacle, because his divorce comes up during the filming). Not all of the visits are so “out there” — for example, his surprisingly personal visit with Sharon Stone takes place over a simple breakfast in her guest house (and while she appears to be laying it on thick for the cameras, it becomes apparent by the end that she’s actually being as earnest and sincere as possible, something which Shandling has said in later interviews).

But perhaps the most interesting moment comes from the surprise visit Shandling receives from Linda Doucett while getting ready to do another interview (or possibly a commentary). Doucett played Hank’s first assistant, before Scott Thompson’s character took over the role, and she was Shandling’s real-life girlfriend when the show started. After the two broke up, she was eventually let go from the show and ended up suing them. They have apparently mended things, more or less, in the intervening years, but from both the standard interview with Doucett and, especially, from her drop-in on Shandling, it was apparent that things aren’t necessarily fully resolved (internally, at the very least) and it was quite fascinating to see people so willing to let their raw nerves be seen in what is nothing more than a simple DVD extra. Although, Shandling sees this as quite a bit more than that. As he told the Los Angeles Times:

It isn’t just a look at old shows — there’s a progression, and this experiment in leaving the camera on [as he revisits the show he left almost a decade ago]. I don’t know how it’s going to integrate into what I do next, but I think I’m evolving. I’m curious to see what I do — I don’t want to have to work on it, but I’d be interested in seeing it.”

In a separate interview, Shandling says that he thinks Sony will be releasing other DVDs (presumably season-sets), although he says he is not likely to get involved again. And frankly, there wouldn’t be any need for his further involvement. This set contains pretty much everything a fan could hope for. If it’s not apparent at this point, I can’t recommend these DVDs enough — add them to your Amazon wishlist, stick them in your Netflix queue, do whatever … but get your hands on them one way or another.

Seth “the Orangutan” Freilich is Pajiba’s television columnist. No flipping.

"Sometimes I Do Wish that I Was Gay, Recently, Because I Find You Very Attractive"

"Not Just the Best of The Larry Sanders Show" / The TV Whore

TV | April 25, 2007 |

Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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