Gary Shandling's surreal mock-talk show, The Larry Sanders Show, was one of the pivotal television programs in history. Without it, subsequent shows as diverse as The Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, Six Feet Under, 30 Rock, and The Office might never have been made. Larry Sanders was instrumental in ushering in a new era and style of TV show. It also put HBO on the programming map and proved that the cable networks could go toe-to-toe with the big boys. For reasons that completely evade me, The Larry Sanders Show was only released in bits and pieces to video (Season 1, followed by a “best of” compilation a few years ago), an oversight that has been finally rectified with the arrival in the FBW of the complete series on DVD this week. The FBE couldn't afford a copy because Joe blew $13,000 on euro-horror films in the 3rd quarter.
Larry Sanders basically invented the ironic, self-referential sitcom. While it has it's roots in programs such as Martin Mull's Fernwood Tonight and took it's cues from the real world of late night talk shows, Shandling built the show around a completely original idea. The show's guests were real, playing themselves on the show, while the off-stage elements were fictional. Larry (played by Shandling) was a composite of, among others, Carson, Letterman and Leno and the late night talk show he hosted ran up against real program of the day like Arsenio Hall. Jeffrey Tambour plays Hank, Larry's Ed McMahon-like sidekick. Rip Torn plays the show's producer Arty and a host of actors who would go on to bigger things played various staff. It was one of the first programs that featured rather-unlikeable people in all the major roles. Larry was neurotic and shallow and only found his comfort zone while the show was on. When the lights went up and the audience and guests went home, he was lost. Hank was a giant self-serving asshole who envied Larry's success, but would always play second fiddle. Arty was the closest thing Larry had to a friend and played nursemaid to Larry's endless whining. He also had a ruthless shive-you-while-he's-smiling quality.
Larry Sanders never found much in the way of mainstream success. It remains a cult phenom that came and went with few realizing just how influential it was. It blazed the trail for much of what followed and remains extremely watchable, in spite of being nearly 20 years old. Winner.