26 May 2003 | paul2001sw-1
The Larry Sanders show was the best, nastiest, and funniest comedy program on either side of the Atlantic during the 1990s. Filmed without a laughter track, it features Garry Shandling as TV talk show host Larry Sanders (motto: "No flipping!"), who we follow on and off camera.
On camera, the Larry Sanders Show is slick, professional, and vacant, as celebrities appear pretending to be best of friends with Larry and delighted to be on the show when all they're really doing is plugging their latest product and when everyone in the paranoid entertainment industry actively hates everybody else. Exactly like real talk shows, in fact. As a parody, Larry Sanders is extremely subtle, aided by the fact that many A-list celebs from real life appear, showing a surprising willingness to send themselves up (David Duchovny, for example, features in one episode where the main storyline centres on his crush on Larry!). It's bad, but not obviously: you can really imagine it on air (in sharp contrast to Steve Coogan's Alan Partridge, who in real life would never make it even to hospital radio).
But the funniest material comes backstage. The leading characters (Larry, his loser sidekick Hank, and his alternately tough-talking and sycophantic producer Artie) are all so horrible, the main joke is basically that everyone continually behaves in a manner both in character, and yet also worse than you could possibly expect. The sheer unpleasantness of these individuals is jaw-dropping... you continually wonder "did he really just say that?" Hank, for example, after his agent has been hospitalised and he hasn't been allowed to visit, comments: "It's so unfair! I mean so much to him!" then immediately starts phoning potential successors. The character of Hank is perhaps the best of all, his role on the show is to appear talentless and genial alongside Larry, a role he fulfills with partial success because he is naturally talentless but not in the least genial! But all the cast (including many regulars) are wonderfully portrayed, Shandling is great but at the end of each brief episode you almost wish you had seen more of the others... in fact this is probably just another sign of the show's strength, instead of wheeling out our favourites each week for a familiar laugh, this show is always looking for fresh ways to make us uncomfortable.
In some ways this is a very un-American program (there's not an ounce of sentiment, or a hint of redemption for its characters). In the UK, Peter Kay's "Phoenix Nights" is perhaps the closest thing to a successor. But the Larry Sanders show remains a major loss from the late-night schedules.