Wednesday, May 30, 2007

DVD: Not Just The Best Of The Larry Sanders Show

How did I spend my Memorial Day weekend? Consuming every facet of this extraordinary 4-disc set.

I’ll admit this right off the bat: The Larry Sanders Show is my all-time favorite TV series. I’ll stack it up against any comedy or drama. It helps that Larry is a perfect blend of both, an achingly funny series about a troika of characters so rich and well-defined they’d be at home in a Eugene O’Neill play. Insecure talk show host Larry (Garry Shandling), his loyal producer Artie (Rip Torn), and his talent-challenged sidekick Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor, giving full voice to the show’s most inspired creation).

Sanders is primarily remembered for the groundbreaking way it used real-life figures to comment on America’s growing obsession with show business, and those scenes draw blood to this day. Plenty of actors did the best work of their careers playing themselves. Like Illeana Douglas, worrying that boyfriend Larry will dump her if she tanks on his show. Jim Carrey’s turn on the final episode, his showmanship curdling into malignant narcissism as soon as the cameras are off, is nothing short of spellbinding. The later shows featuring Jon Stewart as Larry’s heir apparent make for particularly fascinating viewing now that Stewart has not only become this generation’s answer to Johnny Carson but has reinvented the role so completely.

For me, the show’s other true subject is work. You’re always aware of the enormous amount of effort that goes into making a standard-issue talk show that struggles in the ratings.

Aside: I always loved the episodes where something on the show would go so wrong that Artie would announce, “Tonight will be a ‘Best of Larry.’” It got to the point where I became disappointed that Jay and Dave never aired unscheduled reruns. Apparently I should have been watching The View, which had the decency to put the dysfunction front and center.

As the collection’s name implies, the episodes are cherry-picked from the show’s six seasons. Some personal favorites are missing. Artie’s drunken night in the office isn’t here, and neither is Larry’s celebrity roast. But other classics are, such as “Hank’s Sex Tape,” featuring one of the great lines of television history: “Sex is not a crime. It’s a loving act between two or more consenting adults.”

The episodes, though, are mere gravy for the special features. They’re so exhaustive that they essentially constitute a lost season of Larry, focused as they are on the divide between performer and performance, or what Garry Shandling calls “the curtain.” Shandling was intimately involved with assembling this collection; he even handwrites the introductions to his visits with the show’s guest stars. He boxes with Alec Baldwin and has breakfast with one-time paramour Sharon Stone, who played Larry’s love interest in one of the show’s strongest episodes. Their encounter quickly breaks through the playful artifice to plumb emotions with Cassavetes intensity. Shandling also reconnects with people who worked behind the scenes on the show. Protégé Judd Apatow cops to stealing Shandling’s creative method. In light of Apatow’s extraordinary success, that may be the show’s most lasting legacy.

I try to keep blanket statements to a minimum, but I already went big with the “all-time favorite” comment, so what the hell. This DVD package is the cultural high point of 2007 so far.