"[The show] does have more life left," disagreed John Markus, a consulting producer on "Sanders" last season. "But that call is Garry's. . . . He's very happy. He feels empowered by his decision to end the show." Empowered, but not financially enriched--at least not by the stratospheric standards of those who own huge stakes in their own syndicated sitcoms.
Sources have estimated that "The Larry Sanders Show" could garner $200,000 to $300,000 per episode when it goes into syndication, a modest figure by television standards. The problem, said the general manager of a Los Angeles TV station, is not only that the show's ratings were suspect, but that "Sanders" is an unconventionally paced sitcom with characters who use language that will have to be edited out. (Columbia TriStar, the show's distributor, declined comment.)
According to Tolan, clean versions of "Sanders" were shot for a season and a half, and then abandoned. Getting "Sanders" fit for syndication, he admits, "is going to be a mess."
"It's going to take some artful butchering. But it's our fault. The actors rebelled against doing two takes of things."
One possibility has HBO buying back episodes for another run, while others see the show ending up on cable in edited form.
To "Sanders" devotees, taking a knife to the original episodes is tantamount to airbrushing a brighter smile on the "Mona Lisa." The bile and pettiness among the characters are what gives the show its creative juice.
In one of the better episodes this season, for instance, Artie chews out Phil after his repeated homophobic jokes prompt a gay assistant (Scott Thompson) to hit the show with a sexual harassment lawsuit. "You know who runs this town?" Artie growls at Phil.
"The Jews?" Phil says.
"No," Artie retorts. "The gay Jews."
That kind of insider moment is what makes the show beloved in New York and L.A., but not such a good bet in Peoria.
"There's nothing worse than not being in on a joke," said Jay Leno, who as host of NBC's "The Tonight Show" takes special delight in "Sanders."
Leno loves the little backstage moments, but, he says, "there are a lot of things that happen on the show where I think, 'I get that, but do people [across the country] really get that?' "
In a sense, the lawsuits have "Sanders" exiting on an appropriately discordant note. Hesitant to provide an opportunity for further airing of the legal dispute and Grey's allegations, Shandling is keeping a low profile and thereby undercutting the huge send-off many feel his show richly deserves.
Mirroring real life to the end, "The Larry Sanders Show" recently offered its own wry epitaph to the whole business.
"If this gets out," says Artie, waving the sexual harassment lawsuit at Phil, "all anyone's going to remember about this show is the lawsuit bull----.
" . . . Oh, and 10 years of laughter."
Make that six.
* The final episode of "The Larry Sanders Show" airs Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO.