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When is a DVD not just a DVD?

CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

With Garry Shandling, nothing is straightforward. Take a new release of his classic `Larry Sanders Show.'

April 15, 2007|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

WE could begin with the Zen "emptiness circle" tattooed on the back of his neck. Or start by setting the scene: "It's a pleasant spring afternoon on the calm and verdant grounds of the Hotel Bel-Air; swans glide thoughtlessly across a still pond." We could open with a joke that also communicates detail: "I'm playing with guys younger than me," said Garry Shandling, 57, fresh from a game of basketball, "and I realized today my strongest defensive technique is that I'm so out of breath that the guy I'm guarding thinks I could die at any minute."

Or a deep thought, half-disguised as a joke: "I've been on a state of high alert since high school. I didn't need 9/11 to remind me that we live on a ball of flame."

Or we could get right to the news that Tuesday marks the release of "Not Just the Best of the Larry Sanders Show," a four-disc selective retrospective of the paradigm-breaking, paradigm-setting 1992 to 1998 HBO comedy about a late-night talk show host and his codependents -- a set with which Shandling, its star and guiding light, was thoroughly, even profoundly involved.

The DVD, which contains eight hours of new material, is a thing of many angles, as much about Shandling as it is about "Sanders," and as much about the actors as the characters they played, and as much about the process as the product. It revels in contradictions: the seriousness of comedy; playing a role to become yourself; offering for public consumption what the menu describes (in Shandling's own handwriting) as "intimate, personal, indulgent visits with my friends that are meant for only me to see."

"What am I going to do that is different and appropriate and gives honor to the show and that cast?" Shandling rhetorically asked on the above-mentioned afternoon at the above-mentioned hotel. Roused to make a case or searching to complete a thought or to roll an idea into a joke, Shandling presents an interesting mix of passion and abstraction. ("Because the show was special, almost a sacred process. And there's a theme that runs through the DVD, which is the search for authenticity in life. You want to see bloopers? It's not what the show was about." When he calls the project "a labor of love," he is not being glib; love, in some unlikely way, is its actual subject.

What "Sanders" was really about, to Shandling, was "the process of finding the moment, of feeling safe to be who you are." It was a chance for him to "explore the shadow side of human behavior" and to work with actors "with real personal power -- the kind of actors that would push me, who I could feel without having to worry about the words, who made me act behaviorally. This show is about behavior. Everybody thinks it's about the jokes." The power was brought by a remarkable cast that at various times included Janeane Garofalo, Jeremy Piven, Scott Thompson, Penny Johnson, Wallace Langham, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Kathryn Harrold and Bob Odenkirk, and, most powerfully, Rip Torn and Jeffrey Tambor as, respectively, protective producer Artie and needy sidekick Hank.

Though it was never successful in the way of "Frasier" or "Friends," the series' influence continues to play out, if only because it demonstrated how cable television could accommodate more complicated flavors; in that sense, it made way for "The Sopranos" and whatever else "The Sopranos" made way for. It achieved a kind of easy naturalism not even TV drama had managed, and was new in its use of strong language but also its use of silence. There was no laugh track, no background music. It was dark, but human; edgy, but not heartless; its heroes often pathetic, yet sympathetic. ("These are characters struggling to be good," said Shandling.)

It anticipated the current run on backstage comedies, and explored the blurring of the line between fact and fiction later seen in "Entourage," "Extras" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," with guest celebrities playing versions or inversions of themselves; it developed the "walk and talk" scene Aaron Sorkin made the stylistic cornerstone of "Sports Night," "The West Wing" and "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." "Sanders" writer-producer Judd Apatow carried its devotion to the real into his next project, the high school comedy "Freaks and Geeks."

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