I have tried to watch things that are hip. I went through a phase of spending beyond my means on Criterion DVDs and watched The OC and The Sarah Silverman Program, neither of which “holds up” along artistic lines, at the respective moments of their coolness. Now I mainly watch things to entertain myself, which is why I’ve been watching a lot of baddish comedy films and The Larry Sanders Show on Netflix.
The Larry Sanders Show hasn’t gotten as much praise as HBO shows that came a bit later—certainly it’s not as widely nor as attentively watched as The Sopranos or even Six Feet Under. It’s not a magnet for the sort of at-least-people-are-watching vitriol (and merchandising) as Sex and the City or Entourage. It’s a show out of time—it ended before HBO was quite legitimate, and its subject matter makes it the opposite of timeless. Its signifiers are impenetrably uncool to the first-time viewer; it’s like watching a period film about the 1990s by filmmakers overly devoted to accuracy.
Larry Sanders (as played by Garry Shandling, an actor, unlike, say, Sarah Jessica Parker, with no significant onscreen work besides, and so one to whom one can attach no real stereotype) is a host of a late-night talk show that somehow coexists in the same universe as Jay Leno, David Letterman, and (this was some time ago) Arsenio Hall. The concept of the inner workings of a late-night show as the makings of what are only somewhat ironically presented as genuine problems for Larry is an unrelatable premise. Last year, during the Conan-Jay imbroglio, most people I knew viewed the sparring over airtime and tradition unfathomable, irrelevant. Who cares about what late night show airs when?
Larry cares, and is defending his position and his creative freedom. Creative freedom here usually amounts to not having to capitulate to network demands to make his show more lucrative, if not appreciably better or worse. “Quality” here as smooth command of one’s domain, not actual comedy in the mold a Conan-Colbert-Stewart viewer would recognize. What we see of Larry’s show is uncompelling—his jokes’ lameness is compounded by a staleness added by time (surely the Bill Clinton jokes had the shock of the new, if not admirable construction, in the early 1990s). The monologue is negligible, the banter with so-nineties stars painful. But that’s sort of the point. There’s something soothing about it all, especially for the viewer unfamiliar with the late-night format. Late-night talk shows send you to bed calmly; the intrigues grafted onto such a soporific form are, given Larry’s peculiar mix of perfectionism and caprice, intriguing, but also ironically fascinating. All this, for this show?
Calling this show a “period piece” may not be fair; Sex and the City, the HBO series that came a bit later, is emblematic of 2000s New York (materialism, cupcakes, waxing) as much as The Larry Sanders Show is of 1990s Los Angeles (Michael Ovitz, steakhouses, booking wars). But Sex and the City hit on a few universal themes; its characters quested to find themselves through love. Larry Sanders cares little for love. He wants merely to find a larger market share. It’s this divorce from human reality as I know it, as well as from television-as-uproarious-entertainment as I’ve viewed it, that makes Larry Sanders so nicely entertaining. It’s never quite my first choice, but when I’m on Netflix Instant right before bed, it sends me off pleasantly. There’s just enough self-awareness in the mindlessness to make it the late-night talk show I never knew I wanted.