by Isaac Butler
Everyone wants to be famous. They think being famous will change their life. I’m here to tell them it doesn’t.
At some point in the early 16th Century, the meaning of the verb to succeed began to shift. Prior to this, the word referred to succession. The Prince succeeds the previous King, now dead. But in the 16th century, the word also comes to mean achieving a goal. Shakespeare plays with this double meaning in Macbeth, a play that suggests that achieving success simply means you are the next one to be replaced.
Few television shows understood this truth like The Larry Sanders Show. Born out of the Johnny Carson succession fights at NBC, and from Shandling turning down a $20M contract from that network to develop his own talk show, The Larry Sanders Show existed in a world in which nearly every character’s position was threatened, a world in which people had success, but could be succeeded at any moment. Larry faced this threat from Dana Carvey in season one, and from Jon Stewart in multiple seasons after that, and this threat trickled down to most of his staff. If Larry were fired, Rip Torn’s Artie would go too, as would much of his staff. Artie, the booze-swilling, skirt chasing, producer, fixer, and ego-massager of The Larry Sanders Show almost gets pushed out himself a few times. Jeffrey Tambor’s Hank, the old-fashioned dinosaur side-kick, Ed McMahon as nebbish, often found himself on the chopping block. The writers constantly worried about being fired, or angled for better jobs. Even the guests weren’t spared the fear of succession, as scheduling changes constantly caused people to be bumped from one night to the next. Larry couldn’t even protect his friends from this gravest of tv-land insults.
When you watch The Larry Sanders Show today, its influence on comedy is undeniable. Along with The Simpsons, The Larry Sanders Show—a meta-show about a show featuring guest celebrities playing what one hopes are needier, shittier version of themselves—helped usher in a kind of approachable postmodern comic sensibility that is everywhere today. As an early single camera sit-com shot much like a documentary, its visual influence also echoes throughout our post-laugh-track world. It’s hard to imagine Sports Night or Curb or The Office or Extras or The Thick of It or Veep or Arrested Development existing without it. 30 Rock is essentially The Larry Sanders Show meets The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Dan Harmon has often cited both Larry Sanders and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show as key influences on Community and, one presumes, the rest of his work. The show also provided an important launching pad for Judd Apatow (Shandling gave Apatow his first job writing for the Grammys), Steven Levitan (creator of Just Shoot Me), Peter Tolan (creator of Rescue Me), Paul Simms (creator of Newsradio), Sarah Silverman, and more.
One key difference between The Simpsons and The Larry Sanders Show, however, has to do with success, and has to do with pathos. The Simpsons, for all its weirdness, drew firmly from the tradition of Norman Lear and its Executive Producer, James L. Brooks. In its golden age, it genuinely cared about its characters, and wasn’t above the tearjerker (“Mother Simpson,” “And Maggie Makes Three”) or the life lesson (“Bart’s Girlfriend”), or a true expression of deeply felt love (“Secrets of a Successful Marriage”) even while mocking these things at the same time.
The Larry Sanders Show, which chronicles more successful characters who live in constant fear of being succeeded, is far more excoriating, drawing from the self-deprecating school of Shandling’s comedy and the wry self-loathing of Albert Brooks. The show’s take on its characters is frequently heartless, and excoriating in its constant revelation of their flaws. Everyone on The Larry Sanders Show is a bundle of exposed nerves, insecurities, and needs both unfulfilled and unfulfillable. Nearly every episode contrives to make these bundles rub up against each other until they're raw, and then mines the result for laughs instead of pathos:
Hank’s on camera catch phrase is hey now! but his off-camera one is a forlorn, pained fuckers! Here, Tambor delivers a performance that in any other context would be a dramatic tour de force, while Shandling slowly deflates the tire with his reaction shots and mumbled, “it was a back tooth, Hank.” Larry cannot handle honest displays of emotion. Hank is incapable of emotional restraint, yet his entire livelihood depends on his willingness to be humiliated. Hank thinks he is capable of more, Larry—and The Larry Sanders Show—knows that he is not. And, since Larry has plucked Hank from obscurity and given him a career, Hank’s position is always perilous. Hank is dependent on Larry and this dependence has created a prison for them both. Adjust the tone ever so slightly and you have the stuff of profound drama: irreconcilable desires that create conflicts, demanding tactics, fueling plot, causing pain.
The Larry Sanders Show is often cruel and rarely warm. It works in part because this cruelty is inflicted on characters who are rich. It also works because clearly everyone involved is in on the joke. The celebrities who show up often portray themselves as venal, needy, conniving, status-obsessed and mean, and the show’s treatment of the character played by its auteur/star is unsparing. Yes, he beds a lot of famous actresses in the show, but doing so is as likely to backfire on him as not.
Often the show’s best moments are fueled by its jaundiced view of Larry. In “Make A Wish,” a personal favorite, Larry wants to be on People’s “Ten Sexiest Men” list and contrives to get his friend (and guest) Ben Stiller bumped off it. When Stiller confronts him, furious, Sanders, with a kind of calm cruelty, responds, “If you could only see how Jewish you look.” Stiller can only sputter, “Oh that’s great coming from a self-hating Jew like yourself!” before Artie steps in to break up the fight.
The word “satire” gets thrown around a lot, but The Larry Sanders Show is a satire in the classical sense of the term, using irony, exaggeration and ridicule as a form of social and political commentary. Classically, satires weren’t exactly known for their heart. In Moliere’s plays, usually only the King (who never appears) is very sympathetic. Candide is filled in equal parts by buffoons and rapists. Satyr plays mocked Dionysus and his followers, in the midst of the feast of Dionysus. Satire, thus, relies to some extent on the same force that fuels drama: recognition. We recognize ourselves in Macbeth as he gazes upon death and wonders if life has any meaning in the Tomorrow speech, or Oedipus when he discovers much to his horror that self-knowledge can destroy you. We recognize ourselves in Hank as he rails against the degradations of his job, or Larry as his need for approval and love lead him into more and more trouble, or Artie as he plasters a sycophantic grin on his face one more time to try to calm the swirling madness around him as yet another marriage goes south off camera.
Many of the shows that come after The Larry Sanders Show took this satirical rawness and combined it with the Norman Lear heart of The Simpsons, even as The Simpsons lost its heart (and its way) after its ninth season. Community loves its characters in a way that The Larry Sanders show can’t. 30 Rock is often deeply affectionate. The British The Office grew sentimental in its Christmas special, and the American version had a soupy warmth to it that made the show frequently as vague and bland as the food the characters microwave in the break room.
Today, we see the influence of this strain of The Larry Sanders Show on a string of what Slate’s Willa Paskin dubbed traumadies. Rick and Morty, Review, Blankets, Girls, Louie, the fourth season of Arrested Development etc. Comedy in which the darkness of the world, and the self is not only present, but is the source of the laughs, half of which stick in your throat anyway. Of these, the real successor to The Larry Sanders Show might be Bojack Horseman, which maintains Sanders’ elements of showbiz satire, meta-jokes about the characters’ personas, and a protagonist who is very much like Larry might be ten years after retirement. The big difference is that both Bojack and the show he is on gradually accrete a heart. This growth may end up being Bojack’s very slow multi-season journey.
Larry Sanders doesn’t have that arc. As a character, he barely grows or changes as the show goes on. Instead, in its final season, he gets tired of fighting to stave off the succession that he knows will eventually replace him, and retires. The move is portrayed within the show as both brave and imperiling the livelihoods of all who work for him. But as Larry comes towards retirement, glimpses of the better man he could be become visible. He warmly congratulates his staff as they get new jobs. He cries as he tells the audience now you can flip. Artie, Hank, and Larry get drunk and cry and curse each other out and recognize both the meaning and limits of their relationship with one another.
Bojack Horseman and The Larry Sanders Show also take place in worlds where their protagonists want for nothing, which leaves their needs only starker. Larry can buy anything he wants, get sex whenever he wants, and gets validation every night as he walks out in front of the audience. He has success, but it hasn’t helped him. He is still himself. Bojack takes this one step further, linking this dynamic to chemical dependency. As they say in AA, if a horse thief goes sober, you’ve still got a sober horse thief.