Long before original programming on cable television became the financially and creatively lucrative outlet it is today, Garry Shandling was a pioneer. Beginning in the 1980s with his Showtime sitcom "It's Garry Shandling's Show," and then following it with HBO's early foray into first-run TV, The Larry Sanders Show, Shandling extended the boundaries of what could be done on a television series in ways that are still influential today. While the fourth-wall-breaking concept of actors playing altered versions of themselves making a fictional show very much like the one they are starring on dates all the way back to performers like Dick Van Dyke, the openness of pay-channels allowed Shandling to create his show within a show without the restrictions of a public network broadcast. The Larry Sanders Show could go behind the scenes to show us the morality plays that bubbled out of the human stew that is cooked up in any creative endeavor, as well as give us the dark and dirty machinations that go into creating a nightly talk show. Not Just the Best of the Larry Sanders Show brings together 23 of the top episodes from the six seasons of Shandling's comedic tour-de-force, complete with a pile of extras that give us a greater perspective of what exactly Garry Shandling pulled off with the series.
Shandling is the title character, Larry Sanders, the host of a talk show on an unnamed television network. Begun in 1992, the series got underway in the early days of Jay Leno having taken over "The Tonight Show," and it makes several mentions of Conan O'Brien's then tenuous position as the newest kid on the block. Thus, the late-night wars are in full swing, and Larry's network position means he is battling with the best of them. There are even references to Keenan Ivory Wayans' short-lived chat series, and Jon Stewart regularly guests as himself after his syndicated show was cancelled. Other celebrities appear as themselves in segments of the Sanders gabfest, as well as in the behind-the-scenes story lines.
Which is where the real Larry Sanders Show took place, in the moments off-stage, the side comments during commercial breaks, the struggle to put the program together and keep it running. In addition to Larry, there were two main characters who formed the core trio of The Larry Sanders Show. Rip Torn played Artie, Larry's colorful producer who tried to keep everything on track while massaging his star's ego, and Jeffrey Tambor was Hank Kingsley, the Ed McMahon to Larry's Carson. Hank was greedy and insecure, a dangerous combination, his compulsive pursuit of more financial opportunities being just a temporary salve for the personal validation he really craved. More than once in the series, these gentlemen would refer to each other as brothers. In that dynamic, Hank is the screwed-up middle child that can't do anything right and relies on the others to bail him out, Artie is the eldest sibling who understands the game and serves as the stand-in father, and Larry is the precocious junior with the talent. Together, they form a perfect union, Artie's bullishness making the way for everyone's success, giving Larry his space to be creative, insulated to protect his various neuroses. Hank tempered both with the comic relief.
Much of the genius of The Larry Sanders Show is in the casting. Garry Shandling created a loose atmosphere to work in. His set was somewhere in between the tightly scripted shows of Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais and the improv-heavy movies of the Christopher Guest troupe. This meant that even though the shows were scripted, actors were encouraged to change their performances on the fly, striving for an acting style that felt natural and unrehearsed. Shandling put together an impressive ensemble of young performers who could work well together, giving them characters that he could then adapt to their own personality. Over the six years the show was on the air, the cast included some of the earliest work by Bob Odenkirk, Janeane Garofalo, Wallace Langham, Penny Johnson, Scott Thompson, Jeremy Piven, and Sarah Silverman. Fans of any of these actors will see the early seeds of personas they would later develop in more detail, showing that Shandling's eye for human behavior did more than inform his writing process, but extended to the other aspects of production, as well.
Many television shows have tried to capture the same behind-the-scenes tableau as Larry Sanders. In recent years, we've had Extras, Greg the Bunny, 30 Rock, Life with Bonnie, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, just to name the ones that immediately spring to mind. Even feature-length movies are trying to use the tension-filled world of television to drive their plots, most notably in the about-to-be-released The TV Set (starring David Duchovny, a regular at playing himself on Larry Sanders). All of these programs have had various degrees of success, but none of them have ever felt as real as Sanders. (Though, they all have one thing in common: network executives are creatively empty and somewhere on the evolutionary ladder next to slime. You have to wonder how these shows keep getting greenlit!) I think it's because Shandling's intent wasn't an "inside baseball" look at television so much as he wanted to use the creation of the talk show as a larger metaphor for the human experience. The real meat-and-potatoes of the show was its characters and the foibles people bring to any endeavor. In working together to put a show on the air every day, they were really creating an object lesson of the basic human struggle to be productive and get along with our peers. Shandling himself says in the main documentary on this DVD set that he approached Larry Sanders as an illustration of what it's like to try to find oneself as an individual. The curtain separating the talk show set from the backstage was his metaphor for the veneer every person has. One side of the curtain is what we show the world when we are conscious of how we want to be perceived and desire to be liked, whereas what we leave behind the curtain is our private, unwatched selves. The arc of Larry Sanders the character is one of discovering who he is when the cameras stop rolling.
One way Sanders achieves this metaphor is in how the show is filmed. At first, I thought the shows weren't cleaned up very well for the new DVD release. A lot of them--particularly the oldest ones--looked a little grainy. Then I realized that this was only in the "real life" scenes. The clips from the show, lit for broadcast television, are bright and shiny. It's the stuff off the show that has a less than polished look, just as life is not polished. What is meant to be real is shot like a documentary, what is meant to be fake is shot like TV.
Previously, the entire first season of The Larry Sanders Show was released on DVD. This was back in 2001, in the early days of TV being put on DVD, and for various reasons, further season sets have been withheld. (The first set has even been out of print for a while, though it looks like it's being put back out along with this new compilation.) While Not Just the Best of the Larry Sanders Show is not exactly what fans have been waiting for, a lot of care has been put into a choosing the episodes and putting a lot of extras on the discs. All of the shows included are winners, and though there are some odd hiccups in regards to ongoing story lines (Larry's wife is gone by season 2; Larry apparently having to go to rehab in season 2 or 3; the exits of Piven, Garofalo, and Hank's original assistant, as well as the introduction of Thompson and Silverman), they generally flow well from one to the other. Seasons 5 and 6 are given the most emphasis, allowing viewers of Not Just the Best to see the mounting pressure to improve Larry's ratings and the network grooming Jon Stewart to take his job. This portion of the series also includes the infamous subplot where Larry becomes convinced that David Duchovny is in love with him, an ongoing thread that Duchovny has a lot of fun with. By the time the series closes with the double-length episode, "Flip," on DVD 4, I had largely forgotten that they were jumping over episodes and was invested enough, and satisfied enough, to feel like I had watched a complete cycle of programs. The Emmy-winning final episode is a fitting farewell to the show, smartly sending us off on just the right note, saying good-bye to our friends Hank, Artie, and Larry.
Even a decade later, this groundbreaking series is savagely funny and wickedly self-deprecating, and even if it's just a smattering of all that The Larry Sanders Show has to offer, Not Just the Best is a welcome step toward rectifying this show's absence from our shelves lo these many years.
Not Just the Best of the Larry Sanders Show contains 23 episodes on 4 DVDs. The list of shows, and their celebrity cameos, goes as follows:
** DVD 1 **
* "What Have You Done For Me Lately?" – featuring Robert Hays
Audio Commentary by Garry Shandling and writer Peter Tolan
* "The Spiders Episode" – featuring Carol Burnett and Jon Lovitz
* "The Hey Now Episode" – featuring Bob Saget, Earl Holliman, T. Bone Burnett, and Ray Combs
* "The List" – featuring Alec Baldwin, Ed Begley, Jr., and Daniel Baldwin
* "The Hankerciser 200"
* "Life Behind Larry" – featuring Bobcat Goldthwait, David Letterman, Steven Wright, Kevin Nealon, Tom Snyder, and Richard Lewis
* "The Mr. Sharon Stone Show" – featuring Sharon Stone and Julianne Phillips
** DVD 2 **
* "Hank's Night in the Sun" – featuring George Wendt and Shadoe Stevens
Audio Commentary by Garry Shandling and director Todd Holland
* "Office Romance" – featuring Bob Saget
* "Hank's Divorce" – featuring Joan Embery, Wayne Rogers, and Alex Trebek
* "Hank's Sex Tape" – featuring Henry Winkler, Norm MacDonald, and Jon Favreau
* "I Was a Teenage Lesbian" – featuring Brett Butler
* "Larry's New Love" – featuring Bruce Greenwood, Jeff Foxworthy, Daisy Fuentes, Warren Littlefield, and Paul Westerberg
* Everybody Loves Larry" – featuring David Duchovny, Elvis Costello, Jon Stewart, and Charles Nelson Reilly
* "My Name is Asher Kingsley" – featuring Tom Poston and They Might Be Giants
** DVD 3 **
* "Ellen, or Isn't She?" – featuring Ellen DeGeneres (plus a deleted scene with Larry Miller)
* "Pilots and Pens Lost" – featuring Dave Chappelle, Bridget Fonda, and Jonathan Katz
* "Another List" – featuring Winona Ryder, Jon Stewart, and Smash Mouth
* "The Beginning of the End" – featuring Jon Stewart and Colin Hay
* "Adolf Hankler" – featuring Jon Stewart, Jason Alexander, Kristen Johnston, and the Wu Tang Clan
* "The Interview" – featuring Vince Vaughn, Jim Belushi, Ben Folds Five, Maureen O'Boyle, and David Spade
* "Putting the 'Gay' Back in Litigation" – featuring Illeana Douglas, Bruno Kirby, Ed Begley, Jr., and Drew Barrymore (plus a deleted scene with Michael Richards)
Audio Commentary by Garry Shandling and staff writer and first-time director Judd Apatow
** DVD 4 **
"Flip – Parts I & II" – featuring Warren Beatty, Clint Black, Jim Carrey, David Duchovny, Greg Kinnear, Bruno Kirby, Tom Petty, Jon Stewart, Tim Allen, Carol Burnett, Ellen DeGeneres, Sean Penn, and Jerry Seinfeld (plus a deleted scene with Illeana Douglas)
Audio Commentary by Garry Shandling and Peter Tolan
DVD 4 also contains what is likely the biggest draw for the show's fans on Not Just the Best of the Larry Sanders Show, a full-length documentary "The Making of The Larry Sanders Show." Split into three parts (with a "play all" option), it runs close to an hour and ten minutes. Hosted by Greg Kinnear, it features new interviews with the cast and crew, HBO executives, and television critics, exploring the creation of the series from inception to completion. It uses clips and outtakes alongside the interviews to give a full picture of the remarkable level of work that went into the program. I like how the filmmakers here played with the behind-the-scenes conceit of Larry Sanders using extended cuts of interviews with flubs and some of the process of filming. Seeing Jeffrey Tambor discussing where to clip his microphone or Garry Shandling waxing poetic about the honeydew melon provided for him seems very much in the spirit of the show being profiled. The end of this documentary is also particularly poignant. It features a little scene with Bruno Kirby. Little did anyone know that it would be the last work the actor would do before dying unexpectedly a matter of weeks after shooting.
Not Just the Best of the Larry Sanders Show is a full-frame television program from the mid-'90s, so there is some dilapidation of the picture, particularly in the earliest episodes. As I mentioned in the review, however, most of the graininess is actually there by design, separating the "real life" of the show's characters from the television show they produce within The Larry Sanders Show. Taking that into account, then the image for DVD collection actually looks pretty good, free of any noticeable mistakes, scratches, or dirt.
The audio is mixed in 2.0 Dolby Digital and is pretty good all around. There are Spanish subtitles and a Closed Captioning option in English.
There are a plethora of extras on the Not Just the Best of the Larry Sanders Show set. Each DVD has several ways to access them, including submenus for each individual episode and a dedicated special features menu that lets you access them all at once. This can be handy if, like me, you want to just hit "play all" and watch each DVD straight through.
All of the discs have special features, and they generally come from three separate categories: deleted scenes, individual interviews, and "personal visits" between Garry and some of the show's guests. Nine of the episodes have deleted scenes, some of which are extended or alternate cuts, shown unedited and from the vantage of one camera (the show was shot with three cameras simultaneously). The individual interviews all consist of outtakes from the material gathered for the "Making of" documentary and on average are between five and nine minutes long. The participating actors are Jeremy Piven, Penny Johnson, Linda Doucett, Janeane Garofalo, Sarah Silverman, Wallace Langham, Mary Lynn Rajskub (Garofalo's replacement), Scott Thompson, and Bob Odenkirk. While some of them are connected to episodes where the actor features prominently (Langham with "Pilots and Pens Lost," where his character leaves Larry to try to pursue his own sitcom; Thompson with the episode where his character sues for sexual harassment because of all the gay jokes around the office), others are placed willy-nilly. Sarah Silverman's interview shows up on DVD 2, but sadly, we only get to see her briefly for one episode on DVD 3. The interviews themselves aren't entirely episode specific, though, and tend to cover the actor's full experience with the series.
The new conversations between Garry and the guest actors do, however, run with their proper episodes. These are new, extended dialogues between the show's creator and some of his guest stars; Alec Baldwin, Sharon Stone, Linda Doucett (Hank's first assistant), David Duchovny, Ellen DeGeneres, Jon Stewart, Jerry Seinfeld, Tom Petty, and Carol Burnett. Some are as short as five minutes, some nearly half an hour. These are done in non-studio settings. For instance, he meets Baldwin in a gym and they spar in the boxing ring, joins Seinfeld in the park and at a restaurant, and has breakfast at Sharon Stone's house. Jon Stewart's is actually done over the phone with cameras on different sides of the country. In all of these pieces, they discuss why the person was on the show, how it went, and sometimes life since then. They can be strange and awkward, and in true Shandling fashion, it's hard to tell how real it all is and whether or not these people actually like each other. Which makes them all the more worthwhile! (Though, the impromptu get-together with Doucett, which is connected to her solo interview as just one featurette, gets very raw emotionally, since she and Shandling actually dated during filming the show. Fittingly, this bonus is attached to the show when Doucett's character and Larry have an affair)
Four commentaries have been recorded for key episodes in the set, one per DVD. See the list of shows above for more info on who talked about which ones. These audio features also include little video intros of the participants in the recording studio.
Additionally, DVD 3 has a gallery featuring the print campaigns run over the years to try to get The Larry Sanders Show nominated for an Emmy.
In addition to the series finale and the documentary, DVD 4 has a couple of other unique extras. "Rip and Jeffrey Visit with Garry in his Living Room" is exactly what it sounds like--a sitdown of the three main actors from The Larry Sanders Show. There is also a feature with Shandling and Judd Apatow (Freaks and Geeks, The 40-Year-Old Virgin) called "The Writers' Process," where, unsurprisingly, they talk about how the show was written. Or, more specifically, show how it was written. It's really just eight-plus minutes of the two of them bickering, which is apparently how they often decided what ended up in the scripts. Finally, there is a quick, two-minute film called "The Journey Continues..." that shows Shandling is still searching for personal understanding.
All in all, about eight hours of extras are provided, giving fans plenty of material to chew on.
The DVD menus are nicely designed, easy to navigate and featuring side witticisms from Shandling. The outside packaging is economical. Two slimline plastic cases, each holding two DVDs, placed inside a cardboard slipcase. Episode information, along with a list of extra features, appears on each case, and there is also an added insert sheet that lists more detailed episode-by-episode credits.
Highly Recommended. While not the full season sets we all really wanted, Not Just the Best of the Larry Sanders Show is a great DVD collection, featuring a good chunk of some of the best episodes from the innovative series and a host of informative, interesting extras. Garry Shandling's mid-'90s chronicle of a show within a show broke new ground for not just cable television, but the entire medium, and its impact still resounds today. Shot with an almost documentary film style, featuring natural acting from young performers on the rise, cameos from actual celebrities, and the core acting team of Garry Shandling, Rip Torn, and Jeffrey Tambor, this series about the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of a late-night talk show has not lost any of its clever edge in the intervening years. In fact, if it hadn't come along and put a pin in the celebrity balloon and let some of the air out, how much worse might the Hollywood machine be today? It's hard to say if purchasing Not Just the Best of the Larry Sanders Show is a sucker's bet, if this is just the precursor to the other five seasons finally coming to disc and fans are going to be forced to double-dip. It's up to you to decided if that's a chance you want to take. On its own merits, Not Just the Best of the Larry Sanders Show is a great collection.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.