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PROFILE : Why Isn't This Man Smiling? : You're the driving force of the hippest show on TV. A book deal and a movie career beckon. You should be feeling mighty satisfied. But then you wouldn't be Garry Shandling.

August 27, 1995|David Kronke | David Kronke is a regular contributor to Calendar

O K, from the outset, let's get the obligato ry Garry Shandling Angst out of the way: "Are you about to make fun of me? I can go with that and I'd respect you if you did."

Later, he suggests rescheduling the interview. Something wrong? "No, I'm just feeling . . . unsure. "

Even later: "Let me put this simply--I am always shocked when someone important knows who I am or recognizes me. And then speaks to me. I'm further shocked when they continue to speak to me after I've spoken to them. And when a conversation ensues, after about five minutes I get very self-conscious and excuse myself."

And still later: "I don't want to talk about my personal life. If I do, I'll end up reading about it, and that's when it will really hit me. And honestly, it'll ruin my Sunday."

This being Garry Shandling, there is plenty more misery where that came from, but those few words set a large chunk of it aside.

He is physically incapable of taking solace in the fact that his series, the bone-cutting dissection of Hollywood hypocrisy known as "The Larry Sanders Show," has received ecstatic reviews each of its four seasons on HBO, that it's won a Peabody Award and is the only comedy on cable TV that routinely edges out far-higher-profile network shows when Emmy nominations are announced, and that many people think he's a capable actor.

Certainly, his persona as the sardonic wit riddled with insecurity is part of his charm. His smile fades so easily into a grimace that it's tough to tell them apart. It's what his friend Jeff Cesario, a fellow comedian and an executive producer on "Dennis Miller Live," calls "the last-kid-in-dodgeball expression"--betraying the chilling realization that he's about to get absolutely pounded.

Though "The Larry Sanders Show" opened its fourth season last month with its characters discussing the difficulty of keeping their talk show fresh, the series itself refuses to adhere to any formula. The season premiere offered an inspired take on the O.J. Simpson trial, while the second episode mocked the homophobia of Larry's sidekick Hank (Jeffrey Tambor) when he unknowingly hired a gay assistant (Scott Thompson, replacing Linda Doucette, who left the series after she and Shandling ended their off-camera relationship). Episode 3 offered a poignant portrait of Larry's scabrous producer Artie (Rip Torn), and the fourth toppled headlong into sheer farce.

"You never, ever feel like he forces anything," says Cesario, who appeared in the fourth episode. "It just seems to be so organic, what he does, how he thinks. He really likes to feel the depth of every character; he wants to know what they're truly feeling. And yet he nails the jokes. When he edited that episode, he not only got every joke in the script on screen, he created three or four more, just by the way he edited it."

"He is the quintessential perfectionist," says Brad Grey, Shandling's manager, adding that it's that tireless perfectionism that would ill suit his client in the world of the crank-it-out, just-fill-in-time-between-commercials mind-set of much network TV.

"There was a commercial route to go, which would [result in] much greater financial success. But he does the show on HBO with total freedom. . . . He has a philosophy toward his career that he lives by, and it works. His work speaks for itself. The trade-off is well worth it. The audience is less than if he was on a network, but that's also fine. Not every show has to have that mass audience."

(Indeed, whereas most celebrity romantic woes receive screaming tabloid coverage, Shandling's appeal is so rarefied that one of the first reports of his breakup with Doucette came from Washington Post TV columnist Tom Shales.)

One element that constantly delights and surprises viewers is how the show is able to get bona fide celebrities to make fun of themselves. What confessional is to the Catholic Church, "The Larry Sanders Show" is to Hollywood, a forum in which folks can come clean and reveal their foibles. This year alone, Chevy Chase mocked his ill-fated talk show, Ryan O'Neal referred to a stormy past by saying, "I'm not a hitter anymore," and Roseanne played her usual larger-than-life self, tormenting the Sanders backstage help.

Still, when dealing with the egos that permeate the entertainment industry, Shandling and his writers must approach their subjects with supreme diplomacy.

"It's an extremely delicate process because no one wants to be made fun of, and I try to be really protective of that," Shandling says. "I do not think this is a mean-spirited show in any way. There's a level of satire in which, if one gets it, then they're willing to play with that. This show allows an opportunity for some people to play themselves in a way that they haven't been able to do before. I think everybody who's done that has had fun on the show."

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