Monday, April 30, 2007

Someone's been tampering with Hank's Memories...

Before The Office, before Curb Your Enthusiasm, before Alan Partridge, before, uh... the upcoming Geico caveman sitcom (?), there was The Larry Sanders Show, Garry Shandling's acidic, impeccably acted talk show satire that revitalized HBO's original programming and set a new standard for edgy tv comedy. Or at least that's what I remember reading and hearing secondhand during my HBO-less teenage years, when I could only dream of one day being a big shot w/ premium cable, just like Biggie Smalls in "Juicy," (and if you don't know, now ya know... fella). I've caught up with the show in bits and pieces since then, mostly through edited, syndicated reruns; I recall a long stretch a few years ago where I was staying up til 2:30 to watch it, nurturing a Wallace Langham-like bitterness while my clueless fellow collegians were out drinking and having fun. Poor clods.

Unfortunately, the show hasn't thrived on dvd either. The first season - released before either the tv-on-dvd market or popularity of the name "Larry" took off - didn't sell well, precluding the release of subsequent volumes until now. The new (Not Just the) Best of the Larry Sanders Show collects 23 uniformly great episodes in peculiar fashion. It's packaged with a plethora of special features that delve deep into Shandling's weird headspace, as he seeks to catch up and/or make up with many of the show's big name guest stars (emphasis on big name -- maybe Garry isn't as interested in reconnecting with, say, Robert Hays). The result is a series of what Garry calls "intimate, personal conversations" w/ the likes of Alec Baldwin, Sharon Stone, Jerry Seinfeld, Tom Petty, Ellen DeGeneres, David Duchovny, Carol Burnett and Larry's fictional late night rival Jon Stewart (what, no Elvis Costello?). Some of these segments, especially Garry's oddly competitive boxing match with Baldwin and a Botox breakfast with apparent ex-flame Sharon Stone, are awkward and weird enough to make this set recommendable even if you're pissed about the whole seasons remaining in limbo (although the first season has been rereleased and Shandling says the rest are coming eventually).

Among the other highlights:
- Seeing again just how many rising actors and comedians passed through the cast: Stewart, Janeane Garofalo, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Scott Thompson, Sarah Silverman, Jeremy Piven. Dave Chappelle and Norm MacDonald also make memorable guest appearances.
- The Seinfeld interview demonstrates how shrewd he is, particularly when he and Garry discuss ending their respective shows on top (at least critically, in Garry's case). It also somewhat unflatteringly shows him using a Bluetooth or something to track the progress of a lost jacket.
- Bruno Kirby's final bit of acting, putting in a funny cameo at the end of the "Making of Larry Sanders" doc
- Garofalo admitting her "naturalistic" acting was the result of putting in minimal effort, as she was more focused on stand-up and drinking at the time.
- A completely nerdy argument between Shandling and Judd Apatow (later of Freaks and Geeks and The 40-Year-Old Virgin) over a scrapped joke involving a child on a leash.

But what distinguishes Larry Sanders from its imitators most of all is the high level of acting. The performances by Rip Torn as bulldog producer Artie and Jeffrey Tambor as Larry's talentless, tacky sidekick Hank Kingsley are unparalled. Torn steals plenty of scenes, but Hank is my pick for THE GREATEST TV CHARACTER OF ALL TIME; an angry, self-loathing imbecile trapped in the nightmare of being a poor man's Ed McMahon. Just look at the character's range in the episode "Hank's Night in the Sun," where he fills in for Larry as host and morphs from endearingly nervous schlub to raging asshole literally overnight. Someone on the dvd comments that Tambor basically played the character as Greek tragedy, and by the time of his scary meltdown in the series' amazing final episode Hank has become an epic portrayl of showbiz despair. As far as I'm concerned, you can throw Archie Bunker and his chair out of the Smithsonian and onto the street to make way for Hank Kingsley sitting uncomfortably on the couch.

Ricky Gervais in particular has acknowledged how much his career owes to Larry Sanders. If you haven't seen his faux-awkward interview with Shandling from a couple of years ago, these highlghts were carefully chosen by the YouTube poster to make Gervais look hopelessly outmatched and omit the barbs he gets off in the full version (or at least the portions I actually watched).

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