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The Last Word From 'Larry'

Garry Shandling's ultimate insider show signs off after six seasons.

May 26, 1998|PAUL BROWNFIELD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Unlike the 21-gun salute given the departure of "Seinfeld," there is only the occasional round of sniper fire as "The Larry Sanders Show" goes off the air Sunday after six seasons on the pay cable channel HBO.

Those shots are the lingering result of the lawsuits bandied back and forth between series star and co-creator Garry Shandling and Shandling's former manager, Brad Grey. Shandling accuses Grey of putting the interests of his production company, Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, ahead of the comedian's career.

Followers of the drama find it difficult to resist equating the dog-eat-dog world of the show with the dog-eat-dog world of the lawsuits--seeing a kinship between Larry Sanders, self-absorbed, perfectionist talk-show host, and Garry Shandling, the genius comedian who, according to the Grey countersuit, drove writers from his show with his neurotic, ego-driven behavior.

What nobody disputes is the enduring quality of "The Larry Sanders Show" itself, Emmy-nominated dozens of times for its smart writing and top-notch ensemble acting, hip enough to lure real-life celebrities to come on and lampoon themselves.

On the other hand, who outside Hollywood has noticed?

Indeed, the limited orbit of the dishy legal battle mirrors the limited orbit of the series, which never averaged more than 2 million viewers per episode. That doesn't sound bad, given that HBO is carried in roughly 25% of American households. But the network often doubles the "Sanders" audience with a movie or an event such as the recent Tom Hanks space epic, "From the Earth to the Moon."

Still, HBO kept "Sanders" on the air, basking in the glow of its critical acclaim and Emmy cachet.

In its final season, the show has revolved around Larry's decision to step down amid pressure from the network suits to skew his show younger; Larry's corpse is still quite warm as the others on his staff--executive producer Artie (Rip Torn), on-air sidekick Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor) and head writer Phil (Wallace Langham)--posture their loyalty while acting in their own self-interest. In a typical episode, Hank, hoping to endear himself to guest host Jon Stewart, agrees to dress as a Nazi in a totally tasteless sketch titled "Adolph Hankler."

It's fun to watch, and it begs the question: Why take the show off the air now, when there are so many more delicious possibilities still to explore?

Shandling declined to be interviewed for this article. In a "Sanders"-like turn of events, the comedian has gotten somewhat media-shy at a time when he could be relishing his crowning creative achievement, driven into semi-hiding in part by a damning story about the lawsuits in the April 13 issue of the New Yorker magazine.

For their part, "Sanders" writers and co-stars paint the image of a man emboldened creatively by his decision to split with Grey but also isolated by his singular comic vision.

The toll of writing, editing and at times directing the show became overwhelming, they say, not least because Shandling, whether through his own actions or Grey's, kept losing writers to other shows.

"As it left him standing alone, and he had to do so much more of the work himself, the show got better," actor Torn said. "But it took a big toll on him physically and emotionally."

On the phone from his home in Connecticut, Torn sounded a lot like the father protector/producer he plays on the show, referring to Shandling as "the captain," as in: "I used to tell the writers, 'I am on this show because of Garry Shandling. He's the captain."

"The writers would say, 'What does this guy want?' " Torn went on. "I would say, 'He doesn't want formula.' When you hear that sitcom rhythm, it drives you up a wall."

Peter Tolan estimates he wrote or co-wrote some 25 scripts in the course of his six-year "Sanders" tenure, during which he saw many other writers come and go.

"[The show] is so specifically Garry, you have to get into his head and write his head," Tolan said. "The show required you to do more dramatic writing than joke writing. There's a subtlety of tone that not many people can get their hands on. That was a source of frustration for Garry. He'd often be stuck with people who couldn't do that."

Meanwhile, opinions differ on whether the series has run its creative course.

To co-executive producer Judd Apatow, "Sanders" was a show made relevant by the talk-show wars in the early 1990s between David Letterman and Jay Leno--a war, argues Apatow, that is now over.

"Jay Leno won," Apatow said. "So it doesn't feel like that's as current as when we started. . . . If this wasn't the last season, it would have been incredibly hard to come up with story lines."

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