The show is pure genius and pure simplicity: Larry Sanders (Garry Shandling) is a late night talk show host on an unspecified network in the post-Carson era. Each week we were treated to the behind-the-scenes antics that go on before such a show can get on the air five nights a week: At its slapstick simplest we have Carol Burnett fleeing spiders by climbing on Larry's back. At its smarmy sickest, we have Larry's agent (Bob Odenkirk) selling him down the river so he can move on to greener pastures: Namely one Jon Stewart, a guest host for the show who became a running theme in later years as a cheap, network-approved replacement for the skewing-too-old Larry.
With the exception of the crew of the show and a few outsiders like network executives and agents, everyone plays themselves (even Stewart). Not a show goes by without a cameo or guest spot from Ed Begley, Bruno Kirby, Illeana Douglas, or Ellen DeGeneres. In some of the series' most entertaining episodes, the action heads offstage and into Larry's private life: His bedding of DeGeneres in the "is she or isn't she?" era remains a series highlight.
The show's casting is nigh untouchable, though characters came and went over the years. At the top of the pile is Rip Torn as Artie, the show's unflappable, hard-drinking, smooth-talking, Rip Torn-esque producer. A veritable fountain of one-liners, Artie is the dream producer of any show, and the comic anchor of Sanders. Shandling is almost equally good as the self-absorbed and deeply insecure Sanders, using Hank (a cringingly funny Jeffrey Tambor) as his unending whipping boy and the butt of every joke imaginable. Hank is the series' default punch line, at his most pathetic when he opens a revolving restaurant on the ground level of L.A., with no view. Penny Johnson, playing Larry's doting assistant, is a rock of stability on the show, while the other characters (Wallace Langham as Phil the writer, Janeane Garofalo as the talent booker in early seasons) get precious little screen time but make the most of every scene they're in.
Going "behind the scenes" of TV shows has become almost too in vogue among television producers, and these days, the gag is running thin, as naval gazing is starting to become evident. Watch a tired episode of 30 Rock then sit down with a vintage Sanders, and you'll immediately see what all the fuss was about.
Sony has begun releasing the show on DVD, but if you want a primer the four-disc Not Just the Best of ... is a good place to start, featuing 23 of the 89 episodes of the show but skewing oddly toward the last two seasons. I'd much rather have individual season box sets (and so far season one has been released), but this is a good start... for now.
Those unfamiliar with the show might be confused about Garofalo's and Linda Doucett's disappearance (and the set misses one of the show's best episodes, as Doucett prepares on- and off-screen for a Playboy pictorial), but it's a fair (and less expensive) alternative to buying box sets one at a time. The set includes copious additional material, including deleted scenes, commentary tracks, and new interviews with the cast. Shandling's fingerprints are all over the set, as evident by the vignettes he films with some of the show's most amusing guest stars and reminisces over old times. You may not want to watch all of them, but seeing exactly how Shandling has aged vs. Sharon Stone in the last 15 years... yow, that's worth a look.
Contactmusic.com: 4.5 / 5