|The Big Three: Tambor, Torn and Shandling|
It always puzzles me when great TV programs like The Larry Sanders Show sit on the shelf while nostalgia channels like TVTropolis, TV Land Canada or even the new Comedy Gold specialty channel keep showing reruns of Three’s Company year after year. The brilliant Sanders Show in particular has not been seen anywhere in years.
Thank the TV Gods for Shout Factory, which has released The Larry Sanders Show: The Complete Series, to DVD. It comes in a 17-disc box set, complete with a 60 page booklet. It hit stores yesterday and carries a hefty suggested retail price of $149.99.
Worth every penny if you are a fan of this series and even more if you`ve never had the pleasure of discovering it. Besides all 89 episodes of the HBO series (which ran from 1992 – 98), there is a lot of bonus material. Garry Shandling, the star, writer and producer of the series, makes his awkward way through new interviews with several of the people who contributed to the series. It`s an impressive list of talent, both behind and before the camera. Shandling gives plenty of credit to Peter Tolan (Rescue Me), who wrote and co-produced on the series. Judd Apatow was another contributing writer. Todd Holland (Wonderfalls) talks about how a lack of budget did not impede plenty of innovative camera movements. Sanders was into walk-and-talk early and achieved the effect by having their cameraman pulled backwards while on roller skates.
Shandling also sits with Carol Burnett, an early guest who really opened the door for dozens of A-Listers to come on the show, often to reveal their shallow, dark side. Jon Stewart, Sharon Stone and David Duchovny, three memorable guests out of close to 200 over six seasons, also give their two cents.
It is the portrait of Shandling himself that is so revealing from watching the many DVD extras. The comedian started out as a writer on several very ordinary TV shows (like Three`s Company) before becoming a player in the talk show scene, guest hosting The Tonight Show as a semi-regular stand-in for Johnny Carson. The brilliant insider took his late night experience and exploded it into an art form on Sanders, exposing the back stage shenanigans and sending up dozens of Hollywood foibles.
All he was ever really after, however, was the truth. That`s the message that emerges from the DVD extras. Even in casting such key roles as Sanders brutally protective producer Artie (Rip Torn) and shallow sidekick Hank Kingsley (Jeffery Tambor), Shandling was more interested in capturing true moments than in joke telling.
What I found fascinating from the DVD extras, however, was the extent to which Shandling went to get to the truth within himself. The Larry Sanders Show, it turns out, was this great experiment in catharsis, with Shandling challenging himself at every turn. At one point in the commentaries, one of the people involved remarks how sending up a talk show should have been a lot easier for Shandling, yet he laboured over many details, taking ages to cast key roles, waiting for the right actor or actress to become available. (Janeane Garafalo, who played talent booker Paula, is one example.)
Shandling demanded the most from himself during the Sanders years, taking acting lessons and huddling with more experienced co-stars Torn and Tambor to check, not if his hair was right (an idiosyncrasy left over from his previous TV effort, It`s Garry Shandling`s Show), but if his acting was all right.
Shandling, it is revealed, went to great pains to get the truth. The result is one of the most astonishing TV series ever made. Funny as hell (HUGE laffs as Artie would say), it also offers penetrating insights into show business, star egos, late night booking wars and just plain human nature. Beyond all the cynicism and sarcasm there is also plenty of affection, too. Shandling and company clearly loved the conventions and people they were sending up. That`s especially evident in the series`graceful finale, an astonishing mix of searing comedy and touching affection.
The series had a great following in Canada, where it ran on CBC despite a lack of Canadian content (unless you count Brampton-native Scott Thompson (The Kids in the Hall), who joined the series in later seasons as Hank`s assistant).
One reason for the delay in getting this series to DVD is the cost of clearing rights to the songs performed by the musical acts who appeared on the talk show segments of the series. Shout Factory has a good track records of finding ways to surpass that expensive hurdle. Another is the protracted legal mess that occurred before the series even left the air. Sandling had a falling out with his partners at Brillstein Grey, and that dragged through the courts for years.
You can read more about the Sanders Show and the rest of the familiar faces among the cast here in this story I wrote for the Canadian Press. If you`ve never seen this ground-breaking series, remind everyone you know Christmas is coming and the boxed set can be ordered here. It truly is one of the great treasures of television.