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Garry Shandling recalls the 'lab experiment' that was 'The Larry Sanders Show'

The influential comedy series about the travails of a talk show host is finally issued complete on DVD.

October 30, 2010|By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

All 89 episodes of "The Larry Sanders Show," Garry Shandling's influential situation comedy about a needy talk show host and the people who need him in turn, have just become available on home video for the first time. In a world in which the entire runs of "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C." and "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" may be purchased whole, this finally remedies a great cultural injustice.

"I was asking everybody to go beyond what was TV comedy at that time," Shandling said recently of his cast and crew. "I knew we were headed into different territory. I knew the philosophy of a creative process in which people were allowed to make mistakes and to play real moments and to risk. And that takes courage, the courage that I needed to find, and I think that everyone on the show needed to find. And that's really the bond that we have: It's that we were all in this lab experiment to find the courage just to be, not to make a 'TV series.'"

They made one anyway. "The Larry Sanders Show: The Complete Series" (Shout Factory) follows by only three years "Not Just the Best of 'The Larry Sanders Show,'" which joined 23 selected episodes to a wealth of new material, largely produced by and featuring Shandling himself — an unusual set of barely edited encounters with some of the show's guest stars, including Carol Burnett, Sharon Stone, Tom Petty, Jerry Seinfeld and Alec Baldwin, described as "intimate, personal, indulgent visits with my friends that are meant for only me to see" and underlining what he called at the time the set's theme of "a search for authenticity in life."

Those encounters are included in "The Complete Series," along with some newly added outtakes, Shandling's visit to former L.A. Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg's USC film school class, and a brief video preamble that addresses the confusion of overlapping collections. Still, though the new set incorporates the previous one, it does not exactly replace it: That was an intentional work, with a certain structural integrity, down to the onscreen menus written in Shandling's own hand. (One option: "I don't really want to watch this DVD. I'd rather spend my time talking to a human being.") This is just a wonderful big box of everything.

"Larry Sanders" followed Shandling's fourth-wall-breaking metacomedy, "It's Garry Shandling's Show," but where the earlier series "looked outward" toward the audience, "Larry Sanders" reflected an interest in "looking internally at myself, which meant taking a show and looking at it internally. And what better show to do that with than a talk show, which pretends to be a normal conversation, half-acknowledging that people are watching and half-pretending that the host and the guest have a certain intimacy, which really revolves around plugging product."

Shot half on video and half on film to delineate the talk show from the action backstage, the series played in the space where those realities ambiguously abutted. (Larry, says his all-knowing producer, Arthur, is like a mythical beast, "half-man, half-desk.") The curtain from which Larry emerged to deliver his monologue "was a metaphor for how we want to be perceived by the public and how we really are," Shandling said. "Everybody has a curtain."

Its cast included Jeremy Piven, Janeane Garofalo, Penny Johnson, Wallace Langham, Scott Thompson and Mary Lynn Rajskub and costarred Jeffrey Tambor as Larry's even needier TV sidekick, Hank Kingsley, and the magisterial Rip Torn as Arthur. Behind the cameras were frequent director Todd Holland ("Wonderfalls") and writer-producers Peter Tolan, who went on to co-create "Rescue Me," and Judd Apatow, who went on to become Judd Apatow.

Apatow, who first directed on "Sanders," recalled, "They would shoot the entire show in two days. It was a ridiculously hard schedule — they'd be shooting a new scene every hour, with three cameras rolling at a time, sometimes one cameraman on roller blades." (It was their budget version of a Steadicam.) He carried what he learned there to his next TV series, "Freaks and Geeks," where, he said, "I would trick myself into thinking I was still writing for 'The Larry Sanders Show,' except it was happening in high school, and it would have the same level of truth and humor and drama."

"I was very committed to the show sticking to its authentic original idea," Shandling said. "I let 'It's Garry Shandling's Show' slip around a bit until it lost its original intent and we never learned any more about the characters in any real way. So it was a daily inspection of the process to make sure that it was honest and authentic and being born anew as much as it could be each week."

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