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HOWARD ROSENBERG

The King of Late Night Is Still 'Larry' : 'Sanders,' That Is. And 'Dream On' Isn't Far Behind

June 22, 1994|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Looking for a television break tonight in whicJ. Simpson is not the topic?

If you're an HBO subscriber, be advised that the funniest talk show host on television is not weepy Sally Jessy Raphael, feisty Jay Leno or even the celebrated David Letterman. It's Larry Sanders, who, in reality, isn't a talk show host at all. He's fictional.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 1, 1994 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 27 Column 4 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Photographers-- Two pictures that ran with a Howard Rosenberg column in the June 22 Calendar were incorrectly credited. A Page 1 photo of the cast of "The Larry Sanders Show" was taken by Daryl Estrine. An accompanying picture of the cast of "Dream On" was taken by Randee St. Nicolas.

For several seasons, HBO's Wednesday-night grouping of "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Dream On" has given prime time its most scintillating comedy twosome, a joined-at-the-hip couple of urbanely witty and satirical half hours for viewers who do know who's buried in Grant's tomb.

Counter-programming local news and network news magazines, "Dream On" and "The Larry Sanders Show" begin new seasons tonight, the former airing at 10, the latter at 10:30.

"Dream On" stars Brian Benben as a divorced parent buffeted by a life so turbulent and chaotic that his survival from week to week seems in doubt. "The Larry Sanders Show" stars Garry Shandling as the insecure, neurotic, self-obsessed, much-in-need-of-therapy host of a traditional late-night talk show. But when the camera's red light comes on, he's transformed.

*

It's always been a tossup as to which series was funnier. Yet, based on new-show samplings, the highest performing partner this season will be "The Larry Sanders Show." As always, the acting is so artfully straight-faced and the scripts so full of in-the-know nuance that "The Larry Sanders Show" seems to reek of behind-the-scenes television reality. And, if it is all make believe, at least it amusingly feeds our misconceptions.

Written by executive producers Shandling, Peter Tolan and Paul Simms and directed by Todd Holland, tonight's episode ranges from merely funny to rip-roaring A+. We open with Larry three months into his self-imposed exile from the business, disheveled and miserable in a Montana cabin, again pining for the spotlight while watching tapes of his old shows a la Norma Desmond reliving her silent film career in "Sunset Boulevard."

Obviously, he wasn't meant to be Father Nature. When a bird chirps outside, he snaps: "Get off the porch, (expletive)!"

Also wretchedly unhappy is Larry's posturing talk show sidekick, Hank (Jeffrey Tambor), who is still reeling from the big comedown. It's a tough job market. Having resorted to announcing lottery winners on TV, Hank is now a teary, chain-smoking mess.

It's Larry's producer, the resourceful Arthur (Rip Torn), who plots a way for Larry to get his talk show back with "dignity," and in no time at all Larry is again being babied and pampered and smarminess and insincerity are back on track.

"The Larry Sanders Show" has always had the gift of flat-out hilarious gab, squirting throwaway lines and other conversational wit while shrewdly intersecting plots with actual events. At one point tonight, Larry hides in a closet to eavesdrop on negotiations over his fate just as Leno was said to have done when NBC was deciding whether to retain him or hire Letterman as Johnny Carson's successor on "The Tonight Show."

Next week finds Larry harassed by a woman who publicly claims he impregnated her while in Montana. Although funny in spots, it's a big drop-off from tonight. Closer to form is Episode 3, with Larry getting grief from his obnoxious father and, as always, getting entirely wrapped up in himself, so much so that he fails to notice that one of his key staffers is unhappy.

Torn and Tambor are nothing less than heroic on this series, and Shandling is a perfect Larry.

Every bit their equal is "Dream On" star Benben, but unfortunately the show's opener (half of a two-parter that concludes next Wednesday) is labored, only intermittently funny and definitely not up to old standards.

The death of his ex-wife's husband--that gleaming superman, Dr. Richard Stone--has appeared to open the way for Martin Tupper (Benben) to fulfill his fantasies and return to her good graces. But that plan goes awry when he and her child are abducted from Stone's memorial service by two loony screenwriters (Jamie Gertz and Scott Bakula) who hope to make a deal to turn the kidnaping into one of those movies "ripped from tomorrow's headlines." It doesn't take long for the entire episode to yellow like yesterday's headline.

*

IN HOT WATER. It does take all kinds . . . unfortunately. Some humans are oblivious to suffering, some insensitive to it, some in denial. Still others occupy another category entirely, seeming to take sheer delight in the pain of other beings.

Judge for yourself about that slabhead, Rush Limbaugh.

Limbaugh last week devoted a portion of his syndicated television show (on KCOP-TV Channel 13) to ridiculing criticism of a "Today" program cooking segment. In that segment a live lobster had its tail cut off and its body slit and opened before being sauteed--still writhing--in a pan as co-host Katie Couric stood nearby, saying, "What a way to go."

*

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