IT'S GARRY SHANDLING'S SHOW/THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW

U.S.Situation Comedies

Garry Shandling put aside a successful career as a stand-up comedian to venture into irreverent forms of fictional television with film producers and talent managers Bernie Brillstein (Ghostbusters) and Brad Grey. The trio created comedies in 1986 and 1992: the whimsical and warm It's Garry Shandling's Show and the darker Larry Sanders Show.

The first program began on the cable network, Showtime, in 1986. After a year, it reached critical success and Shandling relinquished his role as one of Johnny Carson's regular guest hosts on NBC's Tonight Show, leaving Jay Leno as the primary alternate behind the desk. Shandling and Leno had replaced Joan Rivers as Carson's principle replacements in 1986 when Rivers began her own talk show--the initial program on the fledgling FOX Broadcasting Company network.

While still in first run on Showtime, It's Garry Shandling's Show was licensed by the new FOX Broadcasting Company as part of its second season Sunday evening line-up. Although plagued by low ratings and hence unable to satisfy FOX's expectations, critics praised Shandling's tongue in cheek style. FOX reran the Showtime episodes and then contracted with "Our Production Company" for new installments until 1990.

The program, set in Shandling's condominium in Sherman Oaks, California, featured comic schtick. Shandling played a single man looking for the right woman. He spent his free time with his platonic friend Nancy (Molly Cheek), his best friend's family (Stanley Tucci and Bernadette Birkett) and his single mother. Much of the show mimicked Shandling's own life, including his actual home in Sherman Oaks and his romances (a girlfriend moved in with Shandling's "character" when his personal domestic life changed).

The program began with a monologue, introducing the show. Next came a silly theme song, performed by Randy Newman, including the lyrics "Garry called me up and asked if I could write it" and a whistling segment. The "dramatic action" in each episode was simple, built on such premises as Garry's bad dates, or his discovery of a nude photo of his mother from the 1960s. Each situation was resolved with warmth and whimsy, sometimes with the help of audience members.

His antics included "breaking the fourth wall"--acknowledgement and direct address of the audience, both in the studio and at home, as part of the show. In one episode, Garry told the audience to feel free to use his "apartment" (the set) while he was at a baseball game. Several people from the audience (perhaps extras) left their seats to read prop books and play billiards in front of the cameras as the program segued into its next scene.

It's Garry Shandling's Show often included guest stars. In the pilot, just after Garry's character moved into the condo, he was robbed. That night he dreamed of Vanna White (appearing on the show) giving away his good underwear and other personal belongings as prizes on Wheel of Fortune--for less value than he hoped. His most frequent visitor was his "next door neighbor," rock musician Tom Petty. In one episode Petty, who usually had appeared with disheveled long hair, loose shirts and tight pants, became part of a neighborhood quartet. He made his entrance walking in line with three middle-aged singers and all four wore (bad) matching plaid wool vests.

Shandling sometimes used other sight jokes, but most often he exploited running verbal gags. These included the unseen ceiling mirror inscribed with the typed motto, "things may be larger than they appear." Another continuing joke involved Larry's ongoing consideration of what to do during the 41 seconds when theme music interrupted the action.

Some episodes, however, were more serious. One of these featured Gilda Radner near the end of her unsuccessful battle with cancer. This show also presented an anti-war Vietnam theme, detailing how one friend's conduct caused a man to become a prisoner of war. Though the program ended jovially, the action included a darkly lit battle sequence in which uniformed soldiers shot at each other and put holes into Radner's living room set.

Though each episode of the show was scripted, Shandling was known to improvise his lines. If a scene needed three takes, he often performed differently in each iteration as though challenging himself to make each retake funnier than the prior one.

The Larry Sanders Show, appearing on HBO since 1992, has been the Mr. Hyde of Garry Shandling's pair of comedies. The program, which mocks behind the scenes activities of post-primetime talk shows, paints a more disturbing view of television as a status-bestowing medium. The technique includes intertwining fictional characters with actual guest stars. By 1995, the show received both Emmy nominations and CableAce awards, but the mass audience has had difficulty accessing both the content and the premium cable channel distributing this half hour.

Shandling stars as Larry Sanders, a talk show host competing with the larger network late night programs. Though Larry is not the biggest fish in the chat pond, it is difficult to realize this from his interactions. He uses his power and position as a celebrity to control his office staff, show crew and at times the general public as portrayed in this ficitonal world. Larry exposes his deep insecurities only to his executive producer, Artie (veteran character actor Rip Torn) and to his assistant, Beverly (Penny Johnson).


Garry Shandling

On-screen, Larry is smooth and controlled, but behind the scenes, he is manipulative and disturbed, descending frequently into paranoia and tempter tantrums. His interactions with his office employees feature a peculiar style of communication. Each staff member or guest has a clear position in an invisible hierarchy. This situation is accepted because the strong office culture is dominated by constant job insecurity. People with greater clout are allowed to act abusively to those with less status. In one show, it seems clear that a staff member will be fired, but Larry cannot decide which person. Facing the tension mounting within the office, one writer breaks down with anxiety, creates several ugly scenes and--predictably--is chosen to lose his job.

Office relations are not the only story line. Plots derived from typical talk show circumstances include contract renegotiations, strange sponsors needing odd on-air celebrity endorsements, marriages and relationships, problems with guests and difficulty managing public images. During the several years of the program, Larry has been married (to Megan Gallagher), divorced, and involved in a live-in arrangement with another ex-wife (Kathryn Harrold). These relationships have exhibited little tenderness; instead, the unions are portrayed as they fit Larry's profession and lifestyle. If love blocks his career in any way, love ends.

Many of the show's elements are focused on Larry's relationship with his "side-kick" character, Hank Kingsly, played to perfection by Jeffrey Tambor. Hank is presented as an essentially talentless individual who has made an incredibly successful career by translating his position as hanger-on into hugely recognizable celebrity status. He makes additional money by endorsing cheap products, he gets dates because of his proximity to Larry, and he uses his status to bully other members of the show's staff. Larry tolerates Hank because he is, at once, confidant and pitch-man, as responsible for Larry's success as are his own skills.

Shandling used It's Garry Shandling's Show to push television to its whimsical extreme. With The Larry Sanders Show he presents the funny side of television at its worst. In each case, he explores the medium intelligently and inventively, creating an arena to consider what television can be, rather than continuing the hackneyed stereotypes and norms.

-Joan Stuller-Giglione

IT'S GARRY SHANDLING'S SHOW

CAST

Garry Shandling............................... Garry Shandling
Mrs. Shandling................................... Barbara Cason
Nancy Bancroft..................................... Molly Cheek
Pete Schumaker................................. Michael Tucci
Jackie Schumaker........................ Bernadette Birkett
Grant Schumaker .................................Scott Nemes
Leonard Smith .......................................Paul Willson
Ian (1989-1990)................................... Ian Buchanan
Phoebe Bass (1989-1990)...................Jessica Harper

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

FOX
March 1988-July 1989                     Sunday 9:00-9:30
July 1989                                      Sunday 9:30-10:00
July 1989-August 1989                      Sun 10:00-10:30
August l989-March 1990                    Sun 10:30-11:00

THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW

CAST

Larry Sanders ...................................Gary Shandling
Hank Kingsley................................... Jeffrey Tambor
Producer Arthur ...........................................Rip Torn
Paula............................................ Janeane Garofalo
Darlene ...............................................Linda Doucett
Jeannie (1992-93)........................... Megan Gallagher
Francine (1993-)............................... Kathryn Harrold

PRODUCERS

Gary Shandling, Brad Grey, Peter Tolan, John Ziffren, Paul Simms

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

HBO
Irregular Schedule

FURTHER READING

Cohen, Noam. "Meta-musings: The Self-reference Craze." The New Republic (Washington, D.C.), 5 September 1988.

Gelman, Morrie. "Crystal, Shandling, HBO Take Home Handful Of Aces." Variety (Los Angeles) 21 January 1991.

Martel, Jay. "True Lies." Rolling Stone (New York), 8 September 1994.

O'Connor, John J. "The Larry Sanders Show." The New York Times, 19 July 1995.

Schleier, Curt. "The Open-and-Shut Life of Garry Shandling." Emmy (Los Angeles), June 1995.

Woolcott, James. "The Larry Sanders Show." The New Yorker, 21 December 1992.