Why The Larry Sanders Show is the Greatest Comedy TV Series Ever

Daniel Schechter on the late Garry Shandling's innovative, iconoclastic sitcom and its special place in television history.

“Great ass,” says talk show sidekick Hank Kingsley to no one in particular as Gloria Steinem walks away from their deeply uncomfortable conversation about feminism.

Yes, I’m bingeing The Larry Sanders Show now that it’s available to view in its entirety at HBO, the online library of the channel that originally aired the show.

One of my many controversial, unpopular and oft-dismissed opinions is that every great television show creator has only one great series in them (if they’re lucky).

No, I’m not talking about the Sherwood Schwartz, who created not only The Brady Bunch but also Gilligan’s Island. I’m talking about my own personal Mount Rushmore of Television: David Chase (The Sopranos), Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad), Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing), David Milch (Deadwood), Ricky Gervais (The Office), Alan Ball (Six Feet Under), Louis C.K. (Louie), David Simon (The Wire) and Garry Shandling (The Larry Sanders Show).

First of all, let me state that I’m already painfully aware I don’t have any women or people of color on this list. That bums be out, but I can’t carve Shonda Rhimes and Jill Soloway onto my mountain yet any more than I can add in J.J. Abrams or James L. Brooks up there. Because this is my own personal Rushmore.

Second, you may say, “Well, Dan, Aaron Sorkin wrote Sports Night, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Newsroom in addition to your beloved The West Wing (the best dramatic series that has ever been and will probably ever be on network television).” Yes, he did, and none of those shows are The West Wing, they are just perfectly good shows with fine actors and good dialogue, but we are here to discuss the Great, not the Very Good.

For every Deadwood, we get a John From Cincinnati. I’m two seasons into the perfectly pleasant Better Call Saul, and if someone would like to make a case for that show being on the same plane of quality and innovation as Breaking Bad, feel free to leave a comment. Have any of you fans of The Wire even watched Treme? And thanks in advance to Alan Ball fans who would like to fight for True Blood and Banshee (Alan Ball created Banshee?!), but to me he is the creator of Six Feet Under.

And lastly, television has plenty of remarkable series along the lines of Taxi, All in the Family, Seinfeld, The Simpsons, ER, Homeland, Lost, Boardwalk Empire, Alias, Rome, The Good Wife, The Twilight Zone, Narcos, Friends, Chappelle’s Show, etc. … but most of those don’t fall into the same auteur theory of storytelling series to which I’m now referring. The once-in-a-career series where a writer leaves their soul out on the page and creates not only an evolution of television, but a revolution.

The late Garry Shandling was the creator of two critically acclaimed television series. It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which ran 1986 to 1990 on Showtime, and The Larry Sanders Show (1992 – 1998) on HBO. To me, there is a vast difference in the quality, gravitas and timelessness of the two, so let me just politely skip right over the former to say the following about the latter:

The Larry Sanders Show is, in my opinion, the greatest comedy series ever put on television.

For the uninitiated, the series centers mostly around a love triangle of heterosexual men. Larry Sanders (Shandling), the incredibly talented, deeply neurotic and desperate-for-love talk show host of the titular Larry Sanders Show. Hank Kingsley, Larry’s Ed-McMahon-like sidekick, is portrayed by Jeffrey Tambor (of recent Transparent awards acclaim) in perhaps the greatest performance I’ve ever seen on television. And lastly, we have the show’s beloved, highly competent and co-dependent producer, known to us only as “Artie,” played by the un-fucking-believable Rip Torn in the greatest role of his remarkable career.

Each episode follows the personal and professional crises of a group of show-business insiders attempting to put on The Larry Sanders Show, a middling late night talk show plagued by ratings competition with Jay Leno, David Letterman and Arsenio Hall.

Among the many innovations of the series, The Larry Sanders Show was filmed in both TV’s standard definition format, for when we see the on-air version of the talk show-within-the-show, and Super 16mm film for a doc-style, behind-the-scenes glimpse into the chaos and storylines backstage.

The hottest celebrities of the time make cameos as themselves that often interweave in the off-air storylines, including Robin Williams, Sharon Stone, Jennifer Aniston, Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carrey, Ellen DeGeneres, Elvis Costello, Sting, Vince Vaughn, Dave Chapelle, I mean … this list can go on forever and remains a remarkable time capsule of popular culture in the mid ’90s.

The idea is, Alec Baldwin plays Alec Baldwin, who has fucked Larry’s ex-wife. David Duchovny plays himself, except in this world he has a homosexual crush on Larry. Sharon Stone plays a love interest, too famous for Larry’s ego. Roseanne Barr plays a love interest who breaks Larry’s heart.

Not playing themselves, but regulars in the series, were up-and-coming talent discovered by Shandling, such as Janeane Garofalo, Jeremy Piven, Bruce Greenwood, Penny Johnson, Scott Thompson, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Bob Odenkirk, Josh Malina and … oh yeah, Sarah Silverman.

All give deeply committed performances that seamlessly blend reality and fiction to the point where the show feels more like a documentary series than a sitcom. With many episodes written and produced by a young Judd Apatow as well, the series takes on issues of homosexuality, race relations, feminism, the media, fame and deeply fragile male egos.

It’s not easy for me to express what I find so deeply comforting and honest about this series, but I’ll say it’s helped me through the pain of two different break-ups when nothing else could.

The Larry Sanders Show is a hilarious and tragic examination of dysfunctional characters whose careers have become their only source of validation and love. Even Larry’s pre-commercial break catchphrase, “No flipping,” is a desperate psychic cry of “Please, don’t leave me. I’ll do anything to please you…”

The series stands up to the fierce laugh-a-minute pace of a Curb Your Enthusiasm or Arrested Development, but has the giant beating heart, deep intelligence and obsession with existentialism and human nature of The Sopranos or Mad Men.

The Larry Sanders Show is Shandling’s Great American Series. A show that comes but once in a career, for the most extraordinary talents of this artform who are fortunate enough to be given artistic freedom. If you’re reading this article, then you’ve likely already felt the show’s influence over most television you already love. When you’re next thirsty for something to binge, I implore you to watch it.

For those who don’t know the recent story of how the series finally made it back to HBO: Steve Mosko, the then President of Sony Pictures Television (who owned the rights to Larry Sanders) recently told the story of his last meeting with Shandling over dinner: “At the end, he just gave me this look, which I can’t really describe,” Mosko told The Wrap. “He says, ‘Listen to me. You’ve got to do something for me. I just need my show to be back home again. It needs to go back to HBO.’”

Six months after his premature death, Shandling got that wish. All six incredible seasons of the groundbreaking, decades-ahead-of-its-time, laugh-your-ass-off, cry-your-eyes-out series are available to stream on HBO.

I almost wrote this entire piece on how the last Larry Sanders episode may be the best series finale of all time… but that would spoil it for you and I would never want to do that.


Daniel Schechter is an indie filmmaker living in New York City. His micro-budget feature Supporting Characters is now available on iTunes and Netflix and his latest film, Life of Crime starring Jennifer Aniston, will be released on August 29th, 2014.