The week that Breaking Bad finishes, it seems fitting (or the lowest form of hack opportunism to publish an article I've had marinating for months) to reappraise a show as revolutionary, allegorical and morally nebulous in a different genre. The Larry Sanders Show, which ran on HBO for six series from 1992 to 1998, is a fictional chatshow-within-a-show that interlaces behind-the-scenes chaos with snippets of the chatshow itself. It is, in my opinion, the Great American Sitcom, a sharp, dark, complicated exploration of quintessentially American ambition, an infinite hall of cracked mirrors, a recursion between the chatshow and the sitcom as half-evolving, half-monolithic forms.
Its roll call of celebrity cameos is almost preposterously impressive (Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, David Duchovny, Adam Sandler, Burt Reynolds, Jennifer Aniston, Helen Hunt, David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld, Danny DeVito, Sharon Stone, Sarah Jessica Parker, Vince Vaughn, Jeff Goldblum, Ben Stiller, Winona Ryder, Warren Beatty and Sean Penn, to name a few). The show was also a petri dish for future stars, like Jeremy Piven and Sarah Silverman as staff writers, Bob "Saul from Breaking Bad" Odenkirk as Larry's unscrupulous agent, and Jon Stewart as the pretender to Larry's chair.
But the glamorous names were only ever incidental jolts of showbiz authenticity. This is really a conventional workplace comedy irrigated with subversively 'difficult' characterisation. Even compared to Seinfeld, a Clinton-era contemporary of Larry Sanders whose George Costanza plumbed new depths of misanthropy-for-laughs, it is remarkably acrid for a mainstream show, let alone a comedy. Peopled with neurotics, back-stabbers and wannabes, painted in charmless, bitter hues, it is the diametric opposite of the flawed-but-cosy ensembles of Parks and Recreation and Modern Family, today's US sitcoms par excellence.
Also, there is always a risk with shows-about-shows that they are too full of in-jokes or First World Problems for audiences to care about their characters ("Oh no! The poor millionaire chatshow host in his big lonely house!") The reason it works here is the writing - so scabrously, relentlessly brilliant - and its focus on the bromantic triumvirate of host Larry, producer Artie and Larry's 'sidekick' Hank.
Larry (Garry Shandling) is a selfish, cowardly, paranoid, philandering narcissist: he hits on the guests, makes his conquests watch the show in bed with him (in the case of Sharon Stone he can only get an erection once he can hear the audience laugh at his jokes), is obsessed his arse is too fat, needs constant reassurance that he's funny, hates when other comics do impressions of him, bullies Hank, overworks his assistant Beverly and makes Artie do his dirty work for him. But he is redeemed by his reluctance to cow-tow to the network suits (he mocks the Garden Weasel he is made to advertise; his response to constructive criticism from a fresh-faced executive is to perform a sketch with a young Haley Joel Osment as a network employee), by his loyalty to his staff, and by the glimpses of his vulnerability: the awful row he has with his wife Jeannie at a party in view of his colleagues, the tearful TV interview in which he likens Hank to the brother he never had, his all-smiles-for-the-camera fear of being usurped by someone younger.
Artie (played by Rip Torn, who was wheelchair-bound Patches O'Houlihan in Dodgeball) is Larry's old-school, plant-loving, bruisingly eloquent producer: charismatic, hard-drinking and increasingly disdainful of the industry, he is exceptional at his job, a Winston Wolfe-type firefighter who helps extinguish Larry's scandals (as when Larry is caught on CCTV knocking a mother into a supermarket magazine rack, or accused of impregnating a woman from Montana). Indeed, so protective of Larry is he that, on a romantic trip to Italy with Angie Dickinson, Artie turns down sex to watch a dubbed best-of compilation he's already seen (a strangely masturbatory link to Larry's own bedtime habits).
Hank (Jeffrey Tambor) is perhaps the most compelling of the three, and one of the most pitiful creations in TV history (Ricky Gervais has said Hank was a strong influence on David Brent). A former cruise ship entertainer, his monstrous ego is perforated with childlike insecurities, a hunger for endorsements (like the notorious Hankerciser workout machine) and a ferocious temper. But one cannot help but feel sorry for him. His (televised) marriage to a much younger woman is a disaster, he is the failsafe butt of every joke both on and off the air, and he is swimming against the tide of the zeitgeist (his attempt to make small talk with the Wu Tang Clan is particularly emblematic). He's also extremely loyal to Larry, bails him out of numerous on-air pickles, and is very sweet when Larry's estranged dad comes to visit (it also reveals something of Hank's rather sad upbringing).
There is a rich ensemble of supporting characters (Phil the writer; Larry's assistant Beverly; Hank's assistants Darlene and Brian; Paula the booker), who all fit into a regimented hierarchy. When one lowly character asks Larry if he wants to hang out that weekend, Larry can't: "I'm playing with my peers", he sneers.
Some of the comic writing is just gorgeous, ranging from everyday silliness (like Larry caught putting on his shoes before pulling up his trousers) to the most palatable of TV in-jokes (as when Jerry Seinfeld finds Hank asleep on the sofa on the Seinfeld set). It operates on various planes of irony, laughing both at and with the snappy, bully-boy dialogue of a macho world. The quality of Larry's show-opening monologues is predicated on earlier plot factors (like Phil's levels of concentration or his reluctance to use other people's jokes) and the writers nail those shitty, disposable chatshow sketches, all broad costumes and warm-from-the-oven topical references. There are also those wonderful moments, during the advert breaks or musical performances, where Larry and his guests let their guard down mid-show (of a particularly rough-and-ready Beck, Larry whispers that "it sounds like he's making it up as he goes along".)
No duds spring to mind, but the finest episodes are cautionary Hollywood tales, Aesop's Fables of fame. The best of the lot (and Garry Shandling's own personal favourite) is 'Hank's Time In The Sun', where Hank (for so long the bridesmaid) gets his chance to host the show in Larry's absence. His triumphant first night goes to his head, he loses his clumsy charm, and the second night is a disaster. Another pitch-perfect juxtaposition of success and failure is when Jeremy Piven's character is sacked on Larry's birthday: he refuses to go quietly.
If the show has a flaw, it could be seen as a bit phallocentric (an accusation that's also been leveled at Breaking Bad). But the obstacles the female characters like Paula and Beverly face, including professional glass ceilings and misogynistic idiots like Phil, seem to satirise machismo rather than perpetuate it; it, therefore, seems able to have its cake and eat it. The show was a crucible for writer-producer Judd Apatow, who has since blossomed (though possibly mellowed) into the defining mainstream comic voice of noughties American cinema and there are echoes of the same preoccupations in his films (especially friendship between men, but also their struggle to relate to women).
It is rare for a comedy to be as sad and existential as the most textured drama and one of the show's most impressive virtues is the overarching coherence, the darkening transience of Larry's own time in the sun. From the moment Jon Stewart first turns up at the production office in his leather jacket, there is a sense of inevitability that is weirdly, genuinely tragic, and a perversely persuasive link is made between being on television and being alive. The hour-long final episode is an elegiac masterpiece, crammed with tragicomic nuances: Jim Carrey's virtuoso guest spot, beautifully undercut when he admits during the ads that he's only doing the farewell show because of the guaranteed ratings and he has a new film to promote; Artie's tears, which he tries to hide from the camera; the lump-in-the-throat silence during Larry's goodbye monologue; and the final, prickly chat between Larry, Artie and Hank in the stalls after the final show.
The Larry Sanders Show is a postmodern tragicomedy-of-bad-manners, as ahead-of-its-time and as monumental to the American comic landscape as Chris Morris is to ours. It has influenced (among so many others) Alan Partridge, The Office, Extras, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Episodes, Entourage and 30 Rock. Pablo Neruda once said that a man who has never read the Argentinean writer Julio Cortázar is like a man who has never tasted peaches. If you've never seen The Larry Sanders Show, you have never tasted grapefruit - a sour, acquired taste, but uniquely refreshing. So get your spoon out and have some grapefruit comedy.
(I'm not sure what that makes Breaking Bad. A cross between a blood orange and a pomegranate?)