Now, the network’s standalone streaming service, has been a wonder for folks like myself who refuse to spring for a full cable package but don’t want to miss out on episodes of Last Week Tonight and their always interesting documentaries. It’s also offered up a window into decades of original programming, with the option to binge watch plenty of critically acclaimed series that I might have missed.
It goes without saying that there are holes to be found there. Until very recently, Mr. Show with Bob & David wasn’t in the mix. And I’m still waiting for them to get the rights to the first few seasons of Kids In The Hall that aired on the network. But on last Friday, HBO plugged up one of the biggest gaps by bringing The Larry Sanders Show to the service.
The sitcom that followed the backstage drama and Hollywood shenanigans that went into the making of a late-night TV talk show was one of the network’s prestige shows in the ‘90s. The first season was nominated for multiple Emmys, including for Best Comedy Series, a first for a cable show, and during the following five seasons netted a healthy amount of prestigious honors like two Peabody Awards.
Rightfully so, as through its run, creator/star Garry Shandling and his team created a deeply funny world that also proved to have some startling insights into the human condition. We’re meant to laugh at Larry’s indifference to the rest of the world and his narcissism, as well as that of virtually every movie star and comedian that played guests on the show. But Shandling also wanted the show to serve as a mirror on our world, for us to see ourselves in the characters and rightfully recoil from that. Elements like that made the show beloved among comedy enthusiasts around the world.
While all 89 episodes of the show are now available, you may want to dip your toes into the waters of this world before going full binge. If that is your wont, allow us to guide you to the highlights with our picks for the 10 best episodes of The Larry Sanders Show.
“Everybody Loves Larry” (S05E01)
As they often did throughout the show’s run, the writers didn’t shy away from reflecting the real-life drama surrounding the talk shows Larry Sanders was based on. That’s why, to kick off the fifth season, they introduced guest host Jon Stewart who did such a great job that the network starts the wheels in motion to supplant Larry with this younger model. A similar move went down among NBC execs as they helped ease Johnny Carson out the door while they welcomed Jay Leno in behind him. Larry and Artie don’t take this well and push back as best they know how by trying to cut Stewart off at the knees, giving him terrible guests and lots of grief. Adding to the fun was the subplot of David Duchovny revealing his deep attraction for Larry, which leaves the fictional host flummoxed and strangely intrigued.
“Hank’s Night In the Sun” (S03E06)
As he proved often on Arrested Development, Jeffrey Tambor can be at his comedic best when he’s playing men with huge egos and small minds, and are often followed around by a cloud of desperation. He proved that often on Larry Sanders in the role of Hank Kingsley, the dunderheaded sidekick on the talk show within the show. A perfect example is this brilliant episode that finds Hank flying too close to the sun when he has to step in as host when Larry falls ill. True to form, his easily puffed up ego and hubris wind up being his undoing. It would be sad if it wasn’t so strangely satisfying to watch.
“Arthur After Hours” (S04E03)
Another key to the success of Larry Sanders was the work of Rip Torn as Artie, the producer of the talk show and the one most often forced to massage Larry’s tortured psyche, fend off incursions from the network, and keep the whole leaking ship afloat. In this episode, Torn and writer Peter Tolan show the true depth of this character as Artie, frustrated with Larry’s indifference toward him, spends a night in the studio, downing whisky, and venting his anger and frustration at how his hard work goes unappreciated. It’s a tour-de-force for this veteran actor and as heartfelt as this show ever got.
“Hank’s Sex Tape” (S04E07)
Things get dark for poor Hank Kingsley when a sex tape (liberated from his office by a couple of the writers on the show) gets quickly circulated around Hollywood. The excerpts of the tape that we see are hilarious and ooky (“You wash your mouth out…with Hank!”) but even better is the huge meltdown he has while he waits to find out if he’s about to lose one of his lucrative endorsement deals and suffers even worse mockery at the hands of the staff.
“Off Camera” (S02E16)
The crux of this episode is how a journalist from Entertainment Weekly (Josh Malina) spends some time at the studio writing a behind-the-scenes piece on the show, thereby sending everyone into a frenzy trying to be on their best behavior and keep the writer away from Larry. But in and around the main plot is a bunch of brilliant moments like Artie and Elizabeth Ashley humping in the wardrobe closet (“Ever since you’ve gone on Slim-Fast, I’m powerless.”) and a wonderful backstage confrontation between John Ritter and Gene Siskel.
“Next Stop…Bottom” (S03E15)
The second and third seasons of Larry Sanders offered up a goldmine of a plot arc as we followed the ups and downs and eventual demise of Hank’s marriage. And the writers found a perfect landing spot with this episode that follows the buffoonish sidekick as he struggles to regain his sense of self-worth in the wake of his divorce. Hank’s trajectory is a wobbly one as he tries and fails to bed various guests and staff members before landing in a hotel room with a prostitute as old as he is. It’s an episode that allows Tambor to do what he does best: go from raving anger to whimpering sadness and back again with ease.
The interpersonal dynamics of the staff as they tried to produce a talk show provided enough fodder already during the first season, but seeing them interact outside the office is even better. Larry, at first, attempts to just have Artie and his wife over for dinner, but once word got out, he’s forced to invite everyone on staff. In a casual environment, the uncomfortable relationships become more awkward and petty bitching only gets louder. And, of course, Artie just gets drunker on his favorite cocktail: the Salty Dog. There’s an underlying thread of sadness to the episode too as it reveals the cracks in Larry’s marriage, which by the start of the second season is about to end.
“Adolf Hankler” (S06E06)
During the show’s sixth and final season, Larry Sanders took some dark turns as the writers spent the abbreviated run exploring the end of the titular talk show and the cloud that hung over its host and staff as a result. But it did mine these situations for some great moments, as in this episode when Larry’s successor Jon Stewart comes on board and starts trying to shake everything up. As the title of this episode should tell you, the person who freaks out the most is poor Hank. The perennial also-ran does his best to ingratiate himself into Stewart’s good graces but only manages to freak the poor guy out.
“Artie’s Gone” (S02E08)
What often gets short shrift in write ups about Larry Sanders (this one included) is the work of the actors that weren’t Shandling, Torn and Tambor, like Penny Jerald who played Larry’s oft-put upon assistant Beverly and, in the later seasons, the inclusion of Scott Thompson as Hank’s assistant Brian. Most got their moments in the spotlight throughout the show’s run, but it burned brightest in this episode for Janeane Garofalo, who played Larry’s booker Paula. When Artie gets stuck in traffic and is unable to do the show, it’s up to her to run it, juggling guest mix ups and Hank’s outrageous ego, while also trying to keep Larry in the dark about his regular producer not being there. Garofalo carries the episode perfectly, letting the chaos of it all linger and serving as the perfect straight woman for the other actors to bounce their cutting and tart dialogue off of.
For as much as Larry Sanders often commented and referenced the real life foibles of the late night talk shows of the world, they still evidenced a lot of love for the convention, right down to the tearful farewell episode. This hour-long two-parter, which served as the last installment of the HBO show, stuck to the formula by bringing in oodles of guest stars (Jerry Seinfeld, Carol Burnett, Warren Beatty and Tom Petty, among them) to bid Larry goodbye. As well, it let us see Larry, Hank and Artie’s guards come down, as they expressed true devotion and appreciation for one another. And the closing moments of both shows are the perfect combination of heartwarming and heartbreaking.
Robert Ham is a regular contributor to Paste and the author of Empire: The Unauthorized Untold Story, out now via Regan Arts. Follow him on Twitter.