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'Larry Sanders': Savvy, Stinging Sitcom

Commentary: HBO puts on a 'Larrython' of last season's shows. It's the perfect week for insomnia.

June 05, 1996|TOM SHALES | THE WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — People generally have one of two reactions when they find out you're a TV critic. It's either, "Poor you; you have to sit through all that television" or "Lucky you; you get paid to watch TV."

The first response seems much more appropriate than the second--most of the time. Then there are those nights when you plop a review cassette into the VCR and feel very lucky about what you do. This happened the other night when the tape in question was a collection of "Larry Sanders Shows" from HBO.

Watching them was more fun than going to an orgy at Madonna's house (or so I assume).

These are not new 1996 episodes, which won't appear on HBO until late summer, but last season's. HBO is giving its viewers another chance to see them--all 17 of them--with a "Larrython" that started Monday and continues with two shows each night until Friday, when nine more episodes will air beginning at midnight.

If you're going to have insomnia, that's the night to have it.

"Larry Sanders" is a savvy, stinging sitcom about the production of a late-night talk show, very well-written and quite adult, especially in its blunt language. Garry Shandling, who co-created the series, plays Sanders with a super-duper group of actors helping him out.

These include Rip Torn as Arthur, the hard-nosed producer who is forever massaging Larry's immeasurably malleable ego; Jeffrey Tambor as sidekick Hank Kingsley, an affable no-talent and dedicated dirty old man; Wallace Langham as Phil, the smart-alecky writer whose loyalties are strictly dictated by his paycheck; and Penny Johnson as Beverly, Larry's personal assistant. That makes her part nanny, part psychiatrist and part yogurt deliverer.

In addition, Janeane Garafalo is bitterly funny as Paula, the cranky talent booker, and Scott Thompson proved a likable new addition to the cast this last season as Brian, Hank's gay secretary.

Hank's previous secretary was played by the beautiful Linda Doucette, who in real life was Shandling's girlfriend. She was dropped from the cast at about the time she and Shandling split up and later protested loudly. She was a glittering asset to the series and is much missed.

But the gang carries on, every member of Sanders' staff called upon from time to time to save his silly butt. Sanders as Shandling plays him is cowardly, indecisive, weak-willed and largely helpless. He's a big blubbering baby, but he can do one thing well: host a talk show. So he is surrounded by a support system that hustles to make up for his shortcomings.

In one episode, Larry signs a new network contract that calls for him to produce a prime-time sitcom. He coaxes comic Chris Elliott (as himself) to share an idea, something odd about five jockeys who hate each other and sit around the racetrack grumbling. Says a network executive: "Larry, what we're really looking for is a 'Friends' type of show."

That's what every network was really looking for last spring.

The season finale (airing again at midnight Thursday) marked the eighth anniversary of Larry's talk show. He's such a clueless klutz that he neglects to use the men's room just before taping starts; nobody was there to remind him to go. So he spends the commercial breaks making mad sprints backstage.

On all the shows, celebrities play, and make fun of, themselves. They include David Letterman, k.d. lang, Larry King, Victoria Principal, Dana Carvey, Rob Lowe and Courtney Cox. On the anniversary show, Mandy Patinkin of "Chicago Hope" and Noah Wylie of "ER" get into a furious argument backstage about whose medical show is better. Sportscaster Pat O'Brien tells them to shut up.

As on "Seinfeld," the main characters on "Sanders" often behave in ways that are childish, churlish, selfish or boorish. Yet they remain weirdly lovable.

"The Larry Sanders Show" is a very rare thing: sentimentally savage satire. It's the kind of show that makes millions laugh and keeps many a TV critic from running away to join the French Foreign Legion--for better or for worse.

* "The Larry Sanders Show" airs 11:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m. tonight and Thursday and then from midnight to 4:30 a.m. Friday on HBO.

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