30 Years Ago: ‘The Larry Sanders Show’ Breaks New TV Ground
On Aug. 15, 1992, HBO premiered The Larry Sanders Show, a series that would change the face of television comedy forever.
The cable network had been looking to launch a project with Garry Shandling since his brief but successful run with Showtime’s It’s Garry Shandling's Show.
“I thought It’s Garry Shandling’s Show was terrific, and he was someone we should be in business with,” executive producer Michael Fuchs recalled to The Ringer. “I spoke at an ACE Awards. [Shandling] was in the first few rows with his girlfriend Linda, and I congratulated him on his awards, wooing him right there on fucking TV.”
Shandling had been a frequent guest on Johnny Carson‘s The Tonight Show, even serving as an occasional fill-in host. The comedian was intimately familiar with the goings-on of late-night television. Within that world, he saw the good and bad of Hollywood, something he believed was a further reflection on humanity.
”I realized that the curtain is a good metaphor for how we want people to see us versus what we’re really like,” Shandling explained to Entertainment Weekly in 2012.
Watch Larry and Hank on 'The Larry Sanders Show'
He pitched HBO a series based around his late-night host alter ego Larry Sanders. ”When I explained the show to HBO, I couldn’t give them many examples of what it would be like,” Shandling admitted. ”But it was fully formed in my head.”
Egotistical, vain, shallow, neurotic — depending on whom you ask, Sanders and his fictitious late-night team were either highly exaggerated personifications of Hollywood types or the most accurate representation ever put on TV.
But The Larry Sanders Show was far from a solo vehicle. Among the ensemble cast, Jeffrey Tambor played Hank "Hey Now" Kingsley, Larry’s Ed McMahon-like TV sidekick, Janeane Garofalo played Paula, the Larry Sanders talent booker, and Rip Torn, at the time a well-established character actor who had yet showcased his comedic side, played the show-within-a-show's producer, Artie. The latter character’s bulldog, no-nonsense personality was based on Torn’s father. "He taught me when I was very young, 'Say what you mean, mean what you say and cover the ground you stand on,' and that's kind of the way Artie was,” Torn explained. “I wouldn't let anybody push him around."
Beyond its unflinching depiction of Hollywood, The Larry Sanders Show was also revolutionary in its presentation. At a time when the airwaves were flooded with traditional three-camera studio audience-style sitcoms, the HBO series was single-camera without an audience or laugh track. Being on the premium-cable giant also gave the show liberties to use profanity and delve into subject matter deemed too dark or taboo for mainstream television.
Watch the First Episode of 'The Larry Sanders Show'
“We shot 17 pages a day for two days to get the show in the can,” recalled Judd Apatow, who was a writer and producer on the series beginning in 1993. The exhaustive schedule meant a lot of the pressure fell on Shandling’s shoulders. “No one really knew how to shoot single-camera comedy in a way that made the star’s life livable,” Apatow noted. “Garry was one of the first people who was the writer, director, producer and star.”
Debuting Aug. 15, 1992, and running for six seasons, The Larry Sanders Show became one of the most popular - and influential - comedies on television. The show was nominated for 56 Emmys during its run, though it took home only three awards (at the time, major network television dominated the awards and it was far less common for cable series to win major hardware).
Interestingly, the show’s consistent skewering of the entertainment industry didn’t alienate it from the Hollywood crowd but instead endeared it. Guest stars flocked to the show, often excited to play exaggerated - and in many cases unflattering - versions of themselves. The more than 100 guest stars who appeared on the show included Warren Beatty, Jim Carrey, Chevy Chase, Jennifer Aniston, Billy Crystal, Drew Barrymore, Chris Farley, Jerry Seinfeld, William Shatner, Robin Williams and Danny DeVito. Musicians got in on the joke, too, with Sting, Tom Petty, Beck, Elvis Costello and Porno for Pyros making appearances as well.
”The [celebrities] who did it couldn’t talk enough about how liberating it was,” Wallace Langham, who played Larry Sanders’ head writer Phil, recalled to EW. ”By the end, there was a line around the corner.”
Watch Tom Petty on 'The Larry Sanders Show'
Decades after The Larry Sanders Show went off the air, its influences can still be felt throughout television. Single-camera comedy has become commonplace, perfected on such series as The Office, Parks and Recreation, Modern Family and Abbott Elementary. 30 Rock, with its show-within-a-show premise and similar brand of comedy, was another series heavily impacted by Larry Sanders. The sitcom even went so far as to cast Torn in a recurring role as an NBC network executive, a part that naturally gave off heavy Artie vibes.
”It was just a brilliantly observed show,” Tina Fey once said of The Larry Sanders Show. “The accuracy of the way those characters were drawn — their insecurities and their jealousies and their showbiz needs — it was just so specific and wonderful. You had to pay attention to it. It didn’t come grab you by the face. You had to actively watch it.”