‘A step away from life’: Why you should watch Larry Sanders on Netflix right now

Carol Burnett and Garry Shandling on an episode of The Larry Sanders Show. (HBO)
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The last episode of "The Larry Sanders Show" begins with the camera trained on a TV screen showing Jack Paar's 1965 farewell to the audience of "The Jack Paar Program." Paar is sitting on a stool.

"There are great opportunities for new talent in television," he says. "I know from my own beginnings in radio how important that first break can be, and I've tried to offer such a beginning to new performers on this program.

"In a sense that's what I'm doing now, too. Having run out of fresh, exciting new ideas to bring you myself, I feel I should give somebody else a turn.

"At any rate this is in no sense a valedictory. In fact, if anything, it's more of a valentine, to a network and a profession that have been very good to me. I hope I've given them a good run for their money.



"And who knows: Someday I may reenter the lists with a new saber, either broken or bent, and plow up the field all over again.

"So now, thank you. Goodbye. Good night."

The camera pans to the seats in the audience, which are empty except for his German shepherd, Leica.

"Come on, Leica!" Paar calls to him. "We're gonna go home! Come on! Come on!"

On his way offstage, almost as an afterthought, he takes the stool with him.

It's a brilliant beginning to the brilliant end of a brilliant show, and here I mean "The Larry Sanders Show." It makes plain what would otherwise have been an insider's reference point, and just gives it to the audience like a neat whiskey. 

But it's brilliant in not just the obvious ways. Garry Shandling, creator and star of "The Larry Sanders Show," which ran from 1992 to 1998 on HBO and one year was nominated for 16 Emmy awards (before losing almost all of them to "Frasier"), was saying something about television, and the peculiar way the clash between talent, and ego, and commerce plays out there. 

It plays out all over life, but it's only in the very specific that you have a shot at finding the universal, and this is something that Shandling knew even then, as a budding Buddhist. And so we see Sanders, legal pad and pen in his lap, studying Jack Paar, as any responsible and audience-minded late-night talk-show host who was leaving would have to do.

Though Shandling got his start by getting George Carlin to look at a sheaf of his jokes backstage at a Los Angeles club, in some ways Shandling was also student of Johnny Carson, who tried to make him a contender to take over his show by asking him to alternate with Jay Leno guest-hosting the Monday night show. At that point Carson was only doing three shows a week; Monday was for a permanent guest host, a spot Joan Rivers had just left behind, leaving only Leno as a regular, which was a bit too much for one man in Carson's view; Tuesdays were "Best Of" repeats.

But Shandling was always more interested in late-night talk-shows as an observer of the human comedy that played out there. He had just begun his Showtime sitcom, "It's Garry Shandling's Show," as if to create a laboratory environment to continue his studies free of the contamination of field conditions. He turned Carson down. 

Carson himself was a student of Paar, and in 1992, after 30 years as host of "The Tonight Show," famously replicated Paar's farewell with his own. He too sat on a stool and faced his audience directly.

And so it has come to this: I, uh... am one of the lucky people in the world. I found something I always wanted to do and I have enjoyed every single minute of it. I want to thank the people who've shared this stage with me for thirty years. Mr. Ed McMahon, Mr. Doc Severinsen, and you people watching. I can only tell you that it has been an honor and a privilege to come into your homes all these years and entertain you. And I hope when I find something that I want to do and I think you would like and come back, that you'll be as gracious in inviting me into your home as you have been. I bid you a very heartfelt good night.

So, fittingly, the end of the series finale of "The Larry Sanders Show" has Larry sitting on a stool, facing his audience. "Television is a risky business," he begins. 

You wanna entertain, you wanna do something new, you wanna say something fresh every night. Nine times out of 10 you end up with "The Ropers." But hopefully, occasionally, there are nights when we're not, uh, one of those nine.

 He thanks his colleagues, and continues: "And to you at home, thank you so much"—here he breaks down a bit before continuing—"for letting us be in your house every night to entertain you. It's an honor, and to tell you the truth, I don't know exactly what i'm going to do without you. Thank you so much. God bless you, and you may now flip.

Artie (Rip Torn) comes up and tells him he did a great job, and comes in for a big bear hug, when Larry whispers to him: "I can't get off the stool. I can't get off the stool!"

"What?" says Artie.

"I can't get off the stool."

Artie carries him backstage.

THE FAREWELL EPISODE OF "THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW" marks Shandling as the father of modern comedy. Usually when people say that, the word "father" is mistaken for "inventor." But Shandling is not the inventor of modern comedy. It's his bequest, as it was bequeathed to him, too. A piece about the current life of Garry Shandling by Amy Wallace in the 2010 comedy issue of GQ will tell you everything you want to know about where Shandling is now, trying out new material that is as formally challenging as it is uncommercial, from the sound of it, and hosting weekly basketball games in which young comedy writers and actors gather to toss ideas around after the game.

Even as Judd Apatow, a writer on "The Larry Sanders Show," runs scenes by Shandling to figure out what's working and what isn't, it's something broader, too, that Shandling has passed on and continues to pass on: his understanding of the underlying meaning of comedy, which is, essentially, a cultural practice of sharing pain, to lighten the load on everyone. (It's a sentiment underlined by Louis C.K. in this excellent group discussion on HBO's "Taking Funny," with Jerry Seinfeld, Ricky Gervais and Chris Rock.) 

"I think Larry was absolutely struggling," Shandling told an interviewer about his character on "The Larry Sanders Show" not long ago. "While the television side of that curtain revealed his real need to be liked, he was struggling deeply within himself to not be that guy that was struggling to be liked, and somehow to be something deeper, and knew that there was something deeper that he was on the precipice of."

In the same interview, he describes how he made a Buddhist monk of his acquaintance watch an episode of "Larry Sanders." (It's mind-boggling that the people he depends on most for guidance are totally unaware of and uninterested in his show.)

"Oh, everybody should be the way they are in front of the camera," the monk observed to him, "where they are open and loving with nothing at stake, but behind the curtain everything is at stake and it drives them crazy."

This is what he counsels: Total honesty on stage. The stage, in fact, demands more honesty than real life, for any comic worth his or her salt (and it's important to note that Shandling counts among his disciples women comics as well as men).

His acting coach, the famous Roy London, had a philosophy, Shandling once said:

"You can't walk around in life constantly deconstructing it, but you can on TV, because it's a step away from life. Do you have the courage to discover something about yourself while the camera's rolling?"

He did.

Bob Odenkirk, who plays the noxious young agent Stevie Grant, remembers the role as primarily an adaptation of Ari Emmanuel (who would later be played on "Entourage" by another "Larry Sanders" costar, Jeremy Piven), but mixed with the new breed of agent coming into Hollywood in the late '80s and early '90s.

The old guard of agents, like the one who works for Larry Sanders' sidekick Hank Kingsley (played masterfully by Jeffrey Tambor, about whom I have more to say than I can in this article) have their roots in the networks and the old studio system. Nothing is available with Sid, Hank's agent, that isn't already on the menu for the Hollywood power centers. But television was changing, comedy was changing,  music was changing and movies were changing. 

In real life a young man named Brad Grey came to town at the age of 21, fresh from the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he'd served as gofer to a powerful local music booker who would also finally relent and come to Hollywood: Harvey Weinstein.

Grey had three clients, but one of them was Bob Saget. His muscularity in contract negotiations was already the talk of the town, and Garry Shandling, then 10 years older than Grey, signed on. Shandling got his start in Hollywood writing episodes for "Sanford & Son," but now he was the cable guy. He wanted to defect from the industry's aging royal house and be a part of the revolution. It can be hard to remember looking at the industry chronicled in "Entourage" that a revolution took place, and that figures like superagent Ari Emmanuel were, 20 years ago, insurgents. But it did, and they were, and Shandling was among the first to enlist.

In a second-season episode of "The Larry Sanders Show," which Shandling put together with Grey and sold to HBO, Larry switches agents. His old guy, Leo, is everyone's "family friend," knows how to work the phones, and shakes hands and doesn't chew gum like a cow chews its cud. But the numbers he's bringing back to Shandling during contract negotiations with the "network" are all weak. Network heads keep bugging him about doing live commercials and reminding him that his show doesn't work out on the balance sheet as it stands.