The Larry Sanders Show at 30: The ‘forgotten’ TV classic with a strange, scandalous legacy

·7-min read
Garry Shandling as ‘talk show animal’ Larry Sanders in the groundbreaking HBO comedy ‘The Larry Sanders Show' (HBO)
Garry Shandling as ‘talk show animal’ Larry Sanders in the groundbreaking HBO comedy ‘The Larry Sanders Show' (HBO)

When was the modern sitcom born? It’s often said that American TV drama came of age in 1999, when The Sopranos debuted on cable channel HBO, freeing it from the play-it-safe formulas of the networks. Sketch shows were transformed by Monty Python in the late Sixties/early Seventies and have never looked back. But when was the sitcom’s great renaissance? When was it decided that cutting-edge comedy ought to do away with studio audiences, broad one-note characters and zany, implausible plots? To this end, lots of people cite The Office (2001-03) or Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000 onwards). Both left an indelible mark on the medium. But eight years before either of these shows, there was another series, one that changed the genre for good. This was The Larry Sanders Show.

Larry Sanders debuted on HBO on 15 August 1992, 30 years ago today. Created by writer-producer Dennis Klein and the comedian Garry Shandling, the series focused on a fictional late-night talk show, modelled closely on Johnny Carson’s hugely popular chat series The Tonight Show. After gaining prominence as a stand-up comic, Shandling had previously established himself in TV with It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (1986-90), an experimental multi-camera sitcom for Showtime that deconstructed the format with constant fourth-wall breaks and meta jokes. Having subbed in for an absent Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show a handful of times, Shandling decided his next project would be Larry Sanders, an insider’s showbiz satire lampooning fame and the world of television. Shandling himself played the show’s vain but droll host Larry (once memorably described as “a talk show animal… like one of those goddamn creatures out of Greek mythology: half man, half desk”). Jeffrey Tambor played his bathetic, less talented sidekick Hank Kingsley. Rounding out the central trio was Rip Torn, who played the show’s bullish producer, Artie.

The series was born into a fertile time for American TV comedy. The Simpsons and Seinfeld were just hitting their respective strides; Cheers had one year left of its 11-season run. Tonally, Larry Sanders was something entirely new – it completely dispensed with the artifice of more traditional sitcoms like Cheers, but didn’t share Seinfeld’s aversion to sincerity. And, crucially, it did away with the canned laughter. The result was brilliant – laugh-out-loud funny, deceptively clever and brilliantly acted. Despite focusing on the neuroses and petty feuds of the Hollywood elite, storylines were somehow shockingly relatable; episodes about Hank having a sex tape leaked, or Larry scrutinising a too-close bromance with David Duchovny, somehow managed to find raw human truths beneath their showbiz-centric premises. It’s no exaggeration to say that Tambor and Torn deliver two of the finest comic performances of all time. (Shandling was always self-effacing about his qualities as an actor, but he too was perfect in the role.)

Larry Sanders has its fingerprints all over the following decades of TV comedy, from Curb Your Enthusiasm, to 30 Rock, to The Office (UK). (Elements of Tambor’s desperate Hank character are especially detectable in David Brent, with Ricky Gervais being a professed fan of Shandling.) The show’s practice of having high-profile celebs parody themselves came long before Extras (Gervais again) or Entourage made it a trend. (In fact, Larry Sanders’s list of guest stars is almost unparalleled: Robin Williams, Helen Hunt, Alec Baldwin, Adam Sandler, Burt Reynolds, Jerry Seinfeld, Danny DeVito, Sharon Stone, Sarah Jessica Parker, Chevy Chase, Jeff Goldblum, Jennifer Aniston, Sting, Ben Stiller, Winona Ryder, Laura Dern, Jim Carrey, Sean Penn and the Wu-Tang Clan are just a fraction of the big names to have played themselves on the show. That’s not even counting the series regulars – who included a superbly sarky Janeane Garofalo – and recurring guest stars such as Jon Stewart and Bob Odenkirk.)

And yet, Larry Sanders remains more obscure to modern audiences than any of these other touchstones – both its big comedy contemporaries and the many subsequent sitcoms it influenced. That’s not to say it was without recognition: the series was nominated for 56 Emmy awards over the course of its run, winning three times (for writing, directing, and a Best Supporting Actor win for Torn). But it never crossed over into the mainstream the way others did. In the UK, this is especially true. When it first aired, Larry Sanders never had much of a chance to thrive, being buried late at night on BBC2. Now, it’s even less accessible, for anyone who doesn’t want to shell out for a DVD box set (which, in this day and age, is just about everybody). The first season is available to buy digitally on Prime Video. The other five are unavailable to stream anywhere. It’s a show that feels fruitless to recommend to people.

But there are, perhaps, other reasons for Larry Sanders’s slide into obscurity. Since its 1997 finale, a shocking number of its cast members have either died or faced public reckonings. Shandling died of a pulmonary embolism in 2016 at 66. Torn died of complications from Alzheimer’s in 2019 at 88, after years of making headlines for substance abuse and legal troubles (the darkly amusing highlight of which saw him break into a bank carrying a firearm, having mistaken it for his house, or so police claimed). Phil Leeds, who played Hank’s agent Sid, died a few years after the series ended.

Tambor, meanwhile, has been persona non grata in Hollywood since multiple women came forward with sexual misconduct allegations in 2017. (He has denied wrongdoing.) Jeremy Piven, who played the character of head writer Jerry throughout the show’s first two seasons, went on to star in HBO’s Hollywood bro-athon Entourage before being accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women in 2017 and 2018 (allegations he has also denied). Wallace Langham, the actor who played Phil the writer, was charged with battery after beating and allegedly shouting homophobic slurs at a gay tabloid reporter in 2000. (Langham said he supported gay rights and claimed to have been provoked; his career recovered from the incident.)

Perhaps the most startling post-show fate of all came for comedian Scott Thompson, who played Hank’s assistant Brian in the final three seasons of the show. Thompson had his house firebombed by a terrorist cell in 2000 after a pro-Saddam Hussein radicalist group took issue with a film his boyfriend, French documentarian Joel Soler, had made about the then Iraqi president. The incident left the couple physically unharmed, but Soler went into hiding in France and endured multiple subsequent assassination attempts. Thompson would go on to mine the experience for a terror-themed one-man show that was abruptly abandoned after 9/11.

Left to right: Rip Torn, Jeffrey Tambor and Garry Shandling in ‘The Larry Sanders Show’ (HBO)
Left to right: Rip Torn, Jeffrey Tambor and Garry Shandling in ‘The Larry Sanders Show’ (HBO)

Many of the Larry Sanders cast have spoken glowingly of their time on the series. (Garofalo, whose career took off part way through the show’s run, later said she had “huge regrets” about leaving before the final season.) But the show that gave viewers a glimpse behind the scenes of a starry hit TV show was itself the subject of an unusual amount of behind-the-scenes drama. Turnover in the writers’ room was always uncommonly high. After the series ended, Brad Grey, one of the show’s executive producers and Shandling’s manager, became embroiled in a fierce legal battle with Shandling concerning the show. In 1998, Shandling sued Grey for $100m for claims surrounding breach of duties; Grey countersued, and the matter was eventually settled out of court. Another legal battle occurred partway through the show’s run, when Linda Doucett, Shandling’s long-term girlfriend, who played Hank’s credulous assistant Darlene, departed the series following her breakup with Shandling. She sued for sexual harassment and wrongful termination, and was awarded a million-dollar settlement.

Despite the myriad weird ways the show has aged over the last 30 years – the sorrow at Shandling’s death, the multiple offscreen scandals among its surviving cast members – it has held up strikingly well. There may be, for many, a certain level of discomfort in watching Tambor bring the house down on screen, but I defy anyone to watch him furiously deliver a line such as: “What about the time I chipped my tooth on the bathroom urinal? What the f*** is so comical about that?” and not laugh. (“It was a back tooth, Hank,” goes Larry’s reply.)

For whatever reason, though, Larry Sanders has become a niche relic in the UK, a gem that was never widely seen enough to even be deemed “forgotten”. For a show with such a strange, messy legacy, this was still more or less as good as TV has ever been.