What’s trending culturally right now feels like artifacts pulled from a time capsule sealed in the 1990s:
• Pokémon is the hottest game in the nation.
• Pop punk rockers Blink-182 have the No. 1-selling album on the Billboard charts.
• Two of the biggest names in politics right now are Clinton and Gingrich.
To quote a Blink-182 hit from that era: What’s my age again?
Fully submerged in our retro-’90s deep dive, it feels like proper time to binge watch “The Larry Sanders Show,” especially months after the death of its star, Garry Shandling (right).
“The Larry Sanders Show” ran for six seasons on HBO, a behind-the-scenes, half-hour comedy about production of a fictitious talk show of the same name. Many critics consider it the high-water mark of Shandling’s career.
As someone who never saw the show during its run, there’s something satisfying about watching Shandling in his signature work. It was ahead of its time so much that he told Jerry Seinfeld in an episode of “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” prior to his death that it was a difficult show to sell because its mockumentary, behind-the-scenes style didn’t have a precedent at the time.
Now such comedies are commonplace. It feels like a less silly spiritual ancestor of “30 Rock” in the way it shows the behind-the-scenes drama of a variety show, but like a sibling of “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” because of the frequency with which Sanders’ actions blow up in his face.
While trailblazing in some respects, the show has not aged well in others. Unlike “30 Rock,” which showed rare snippets of the variety show it produced, “Sanders” gives more than passing glances at its show within in a show. Larry engages with guests as well as delivers opening monologue bits referencing 1990s news of the day. “No flipping,” Larry tells his would-be viewers as he heads into commercials, a funny idea considering the actual program is on HBO.
The show is so old that it talks about being in competition with the first run of the “The Arsenio Hall Show,” a show that returned to the airwaves for a single-season run on CBS in 2013-14. A young Dana Carvey appears as an upstart comedian filling in for Larry as a guest host. Janeane Garofalo, in one of her earliest screen roles and more recently for her political commentary, has a recurring spot as a member of the show's staff.
Perhaps the greatest and saddest way the program shows its age is its guest appearances by a sobering parade of deceased comics and celebrities, including Robin Williams, Phil Hartman, John Ritter, Bruno Kirby, Ed McMahon, Chris Farley, Warren Zevon and others. Even film critic Gene Siskel pops up.
Also, of course, there’s Shandling himself, the not-so-calm at the center of the storm roiling with anger under the surface as the title character. It’s a strong performance that blurs the line between fiction and fact. Even if he faded from the mainstream after the show’s conclusion, he left a powerful mark on television.
While admirable for the elements that made it ahead of its time, the show’s full-bloom nostalgia makes it a complicated title to suggest to other newcomers in 2016. While I smirk at the sight of Hartman, whose shocking death I still mourn, I suspect those unfamiliar with his great work on “Saturday Night Live,” “NewsRadio,” “The Simpsons” and more might not get the same thrill from seeing him once more.
Maybe that’s why I find “Sanders” bittersweet, but enjoyable. I’m old enough to remember Hartman as well as Ritter, Farley and even Siskel. Though some of the jokes are dated, it’s the characters and the issues they face that make it entertaining. Shandling, along with Rip Torn, as producer Arthur, and Jeffrey Tambor, as his nauseating sidekick Hank, make for a colorful, entertaining trio at the heart of the show.
So even if time has passed by “The Larry Sanders Show” in some respects, it’s still a time capsule worth opening.
No flipping.Robin Williams on the show (NSFW language):
Bruno Kirby and Steven Wright make guest appearances:
Jeffrey Tambor recreates Hank's often-used opening credits dialogue for an episode of "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon"