Garry Shandling Cuts Close with Larry Sanders
Matt Shedd - 3/9/2016
This is part of an ongoing series focusing on Peabody-winning HBO shows.
Flawed, narcissistic, yet surprisingly lovable, the complicated fictional characters of The Larry Sanders Show would change the sitcom in the 1990s in a way that Louis C.K. is currently doing with Louie.
The fictional talk show host Larry Sanders (played by Shandling) and his staff inhabited a world with real-life celebrities, who would actually appear on the show as exaggerated and unflattering versions of themselves navigating the cutthroat world of show business. By cutting so close to the bone in its depiction of the main characters and its celebrity guests, the show made it difficult to sort out fact from fiction.
But its genius is in its compassion amidst the satire. As Shandling described in the PBS special America in Primetime, the engine that made the show work was that these people weren’t monsters. They simply wanted to love and be loved. It’s just that they kept letting fame and the show get in the way of being authentic and connecting with each other.
Although the show was a critical success and remains influential and a cult favorite, it never broke through to the mainstream like Shandling’s contemporary, Jerry Seinfeld, did with his sitcom. However, it was an important sign of what was to come at HBO: daring programming with racy content and heroes that looked more like real people. As Brett Martin notes in his book Difficult Men, it let other creators know that HBO was the place to come if you wanted to realize your vision on TV.
Larry Sanders was also an early example of a sitcom without a laugh track, a trend that has now nearly taken over the genre. Imagine how much better the already powerful and groundbreaking M*A*S*H could have been had CBS given that freedom to the show’s creators, which they requested, 20 years prior to The Larry Sanders Show.
The Peabody Board praised it for “a level of realism and insight unusual in television comedy” where “the wall between reality and illusion is blurred.” This clip below showcases what The Larry Sanders Show does best. When the cameras are on, Larry tries to project a well put-together version of himself to the world—although in this clip, he can’t quite keep up the illusion. When the cameras switch off, he drops the front and the vulnerability of the actual human being with all of his needs and insecurities immediately comes out.