Comedian and actor Garry Shandling died unexpectedly yesterday, and tributes to both the man and his work have already begun pouring in. At the center of many of them is The Larry Sanders Show, Shandling’s second scripted series, after It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. Running on HBO from 1992 to 1998, the television show about a television show continued It’s Garry Shandling‘s healthy meta streak while adding a style of humor driven by awkward and not-so-slightly pathetic human failings rather than punchlines. For both its sensibility and its alumni, who went on to be some of today’s most influential figures in both television and comedy, Larry Sanders is a titanic presence in contemporary culture. Here are some of the series it made possible, many of them trailblazers in their own right.
Freaks and Geeks
For the scene above alone, which cemented Freaks and Geeks’ status as a show by and for comedy nerds with lonely childhoods, as well as the involvement of erstwhile Larry Sanders writer Judd Apatow. But Freaks and Geeks’ uncompromising tone, of a “comedy” with real pathos and an unhurried pace that fed into it, owes much to Larry Sanders, which abandoned laugh tracks and conventional comedy rhythms in favor of a painful disconnection that’s far closer to the unintentional humor of real life.
Absurdist sketch comedy and hyper-naturalistic narrative sitcoms may not appear to have much in common. Yet Mr. Show and Larry Sanders shared a fearless tendency to experiment with borderline anti-comedy, not to mention a willingness to challenge their audiences and a mutual home on HBO. Most importantly, however, Larry Sanders was an early turn in the spotlight for Mr. Show co-creator, and current comedy legend, Bob Odenkirk, who had a recurring role as Larry’s agent.
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Mutual Larrys aside, practically everything about Curb, from its comic rhythm to its hapless hero, feels as tied to Larry Sanders as it does to Larry David’s own Seinfeld (a show that itself premiered a full three years after Garry Shandling’s original sitcom-about-a-comedian). The self-inflicted embarrassments, the ridiculously inflated stakes of decidedly first-world problems: it’s all there — and unlike Sanders, at least for now, available to stream on HBO Go.
Both British and American versions of the show told the story of a dysfunctional workplace with an anything-but-fearless leader, using a mockumentary style that feels like the next evolutionary step forward from Sanders’ deliberately unglamorous behind-the-scenes moments. It may be about a humble paper company rather than a television show watched by thousands, but The Office feels exactly as petty, and hilarious, as any hotbed of egotistical comedians.
Years before the concept carried over into drama, Larry Sanders demonstrated something revolutionary in comedy: nobody has to be the hero. Freed of the need to make anybody “likable” in the traditional sense (recognizable? Sympathetic, even? Sure. But definitely not likable), creators like Mitch Hurwitz went on to give us the Bluths, a band of irredeemable, oblivious, selfish, clueless narcissists we will never stop watching. Also: Jeffrey Tambor!
An inferior show for sure, but as a platform for the comic genius of Jeremy Piven and a regular pit stop on the endearing celebrity self-parody publicity tour, Entourage has shreds of Larry Sanders DNA between all the misogyny and partying and bromance and more misogyny. Just never watch the movie.
Take the story of a couple of self-centered comedians and the dysfunctional writers’ room it takes to make their show happen. Crank up the pace, cutaways, meta factor, and identity politics (can Liz have it all?!?!?!) to 11. Put it on a major network, because 2006 is a tiny bit more receptive to the “terrible people make entertainment” genre than 1992. Enjoy.
Of all the actual talk show hosts, as opposed to fictional ones or comedians pointedly impersonating their mannerisms (see next slide), Conan O’Brien feels the most indebted to both Larry Sanders and his creator. Not only was O’Brien personally close with Shandling, as he recounts in his tribute above; in his remarkable openness about the behind-the-scenes drama that led to his Tonight Show ouster — something Shandling was able to give him some hard-won advice on — and generally irreverent style, O’Brien brought some of Sanders’ sensibility into the very genre it was mocking.
Comedy Bang! Bang!
A sort of hybrid of Larry Sanders’ and Mr. Show‘s — where Scott Aukerman was a writer — sensibilities, Comedy Bang! Bang! dispenses with the behind-the-scenes element altogether and goes all-in on deconstructing the talk show until there’s nothing left to break down. From the comedians in character as various “guests” to the obviously scripted but deliberately disjointed celebrity interviews, Comedy Bang! Bang! hijacks a format that’s perhaps even more ripe for satire than it was in the Sanders era.
The current heir to the “probing the existential emptiness of showbiz” throne. The title character of BoJack is desperately unhappy with his life in Hollywood, yet doesn’t know any other means to happiness apart from the fleeting validation his life there provides. Sound familiar? The antihero’s twin extremes of total self-absorption and crushing self-awareness feel directly passed down from Larry Sanders himself.