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Howard Rosenberg / Television

'Sanders' Is Often Its Sharpest When Guests Blur Lines of Reality

November 13, 1996|Howard Rosenberg

Talk about variety.

Pop in a cassette from last season and see hot TV star David Duchovny play an arrogant jerk with an attitude. Tune in tonight and see him play a kinder, gentler, sexually murky type with a crush on the male host of a network talk show.

Nothing unusual, for Duchovny is a capable actor who surely hopes to play many characters in his burgeoning career. Except, that isn't the situation here.

The character Duchovny is playing, first as unpleasant and then as sexually ambiguous--in both cases as a guest on HBO's splendid comedy series "The Larry Sanders Show"--is Duchovny.

"The Larry Sanders Show" opens its fifth season tonight by reminding viewers just how extraordinary it is, not only as one of the funniest, smartest comedies ever, but also in sometimes having celebrity guests depict themselves in ways almost as curious as stories on "The X-Files," the otherworldly Fox series that made Duchovny famous.

Today's elite TV comedies are defined by their uniqueness, whether the endearing weirdness and trivia talk of NBC's "Seinfeld" or the hilariously dark neuroses of Garry Shandling's insecure, fearful talk-show host on "The Larry Sanders Show." If not one of its funniest efforts, tonight's "Sanders" is especially intriguing and a real kick, with Shandling getting his usual excellent support from Jeffrey Tambor as sidekick Hank and Rip Torn as producer Artie.

From "I Love Lucy" to "Murphy Brown," prime time has a long history of stars doing guest shots as themselves in comedy series. The huge difference here is that on "The Larry Sanders Show" some wear personas that are either potentially controversial or unflattering, as in director Rob Reiner playing himself as surly, for example, or comedian David Spade persuasively playing David Spade the snotty, smarmy opportunist.

That's quite amazing in an entertainment industry where the famous spend fortunes shaping positive images through press agentry and where even a minor public relations zit can be regarded as catastrophic.

Just as amazing, some celebrities also agree to cameos in episodes of "Sanders" that make fun of them, as did the late Ray Combs, then host of "The Family Feud," even when ridiculed as a minor name unworthy of a shot on Sanders' talk show. And as does Charles Nelson Reilly in tonight's episode that mocks him as a second-tier guest.

Nor is Duchovny the first star to portray himself on "Sanders" as possibly having wide-ranging sexual tastes. Eclipsed by recent speculation about the sexual orientation of the protagonist of ABC's "Ellen" is the memory of Brett Butler, star of ABC's "Grace Under Fire," last season playing herself on "Sanders" as having had a brief lesbian fling with Paula, the talent booker, played by Janeane Garofalo.

How did Shandling get Duchovny and Butler to do it? He didn't have to.

"I ran into David, and he said he would like to come on the show and play someone who has a crush on Larry," Shandling said this week. "And Brett Butler came up to me on the lot and said, 'You know what would be funny? If Brett Butler had an affair with Janeane Garofalo's character.' "

You wouldn't think "funny" would be quite the word for it, given the thick veins of homophobia still existing in the United States, the tendency of some in the public to confuse actors with their roles, and thus the potential of performers getting stigmatized by playing homosexual characters, let alone depicting themselves as gay, bisexual or sexually hazy.

"I really don't look at it that way," Duchovny explained by phone recently from the Vancouver, Canada, set of "The X-Files." He said no one advised him against playing himself as obsessed with the heterosexual Sanders. "I don't know, maybe I'm an idiot. But it's just a television show, and you're playing a version of yourself, that's all."

Duchovny ends the episode by gently, almost affectionately, touching the horrified Sanders' cheek. "That was Garry's idea," Duchovny said. "I think I stroked his hair, and Garry said, 'Feel my cheek.' It was very collaborative."

More blurring of art and reality is coming to "Sanders" later this season when Ellen DeGeneres appears on the fictional talk show to hash over this season's hubbub concerning hints that her "Ellen" character may come out as a lesbian.

Other image adjustments scheduled for "Sanders," meanwhile, include ever-affable funnyman Tim Conway going against type by exploding at a booker for asking him lots of questions, and performer-director Ben Stiller being furious about getting bumped from People magazine's 10 sexiest-men-alive list in favor of Larry.

As for the besmirched Charles Nelson Reilly?

"I never believe the show is mean-spirited," Shandling said. "It's purely about laughing at ourselves. I sent him the whole script, and he had some suggestions that were minor. He thought the script was hilarious, and in reality I would not have asked Charles Nelson Reilly to come on the show if I was not a fan of Charles Nelson Reilly. He just has this wonderful sense of humor about himself."

Shandling said he's occasionally turned down by stars "who are literally afraid that they are going to be made fun of." He said he understands because "just hearing my name, to me, is a put-down."

* "The Larry Sanders Show" airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on HBO.

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