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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
Hank Kingsley: Don't lecture me anymore. Larry Sanders: I can't help it. I've turned into an a****le these last couple of years. Hank Kingsley: That's okay. I've turned into a moron. I mean, just have a good time with it.
DVD ReviewHey, now! The television landscape has changed some over the last ten years, but think back to the waning days of the first Bush Administration: Johnny Carson has just retired, Arsenio Hall is going great guns, Letterman is still on NBC after The Tonight Show. Everything is up for grabs—who will inherit Johnny's mantle as the King of Late Night? Jay? Dave? Chevy? Whoopi? Dennis? How about Larry Sanders? That's the premise, anyway, of this terrific television show, the first season of which is now on DVD; it was broadcast on HBO in 1992. It's a situation comedy set in the offices of a late night talk show, and Larry Sanders is the star of his network's after-hours lineup. He's played by Garry Shandling, the driving creative force behind the show; Shandling has always been very funny, and I'm a big fan of his previous series, which aired on Showtime. But here he has found the perfect vehicle for his own comedy and for his rough and funny take on the world of show business. It's E! without the butt kissing, Entertainment Tonight without the fawning; it conveys the strong sense that yeah, this is what this world is really like. And it's insanely funny, to boot. How many series can you say that about? It's the best TV show about a TV show since The Dick Van Dyke Show. Aside from the inside-baseball aspect of the series, it's got a trio of leading characters that are indelible and hilarious, both in the writing and the acting. The similarities between Shandling and Sanders extends to more than just their names; Larry is a heightened version of Garry's standup act, the neurotic, self-deprecating narcissist, who can be withering about those around him, but is of course roughest on himself. Rip Torn as Artie, Larry's producer, is priceless; he's consciously modeled on Johnny Carson's longtime producer, the late Fred de Cordova, and he's full of equal measures show business lore and alcohol. (Many of the highlights here are Artie's drunk scenes; his drink of choice is a salty dog, which seems to be half vodka, half salt. Yummy.) And then there's Hank Kingsley, Larry's sidekick, played brilliantly by Jeffrey Tambor. It's a dying art, sidekicking, and probably rightfully so; Hank's principal contribution to Larry's show is often just his catchphrase: "Hey now!" What's so great about this character is that he's a blowhard, but he's vulnerable; he's sort of like a self-aware Ted Baxter, who knows the limits of his talents and is making hay while the sun shines, but still has delusions of grandeur. So is this a boys' club, in which the women get short shrift? Well, yeah, but turn on a network talk show after the local news one night, and see how many women you see behind the mike or listed as producers. It's worth noting, though, that this first season gives a rough portrait of Larry's current marriage going down the tubes (Meghan Gallagher plays Jeannie, and though she doesn't get many punch lines, she's excellent), and especially good, if underutilized, is Janeane Garofalo, as the show's talent booker. Much of the dialogue is at once scatological and cutting; things don't get too locker room, but the boys do like to get down and dirty. For instance, here's Larry trying to avoid a meeting with the network brass: Larry: I can't go. I'm not just saying that, Artie, I have a pain.Artie: Fine. You just go home. I'll come over there later, shove a hot red poker up your a**, we'll call it even. Larry: Okay. You have my address, right? Artie: And your poker size. If that's too scabrous for you, then Larry Sanders probably isn't your thing. But if you find this as funny as I do, be assured that this is a pretty representative example. Especially fun are the many spots by familiar guest stars, generally playing heightened versions of themselves; you get a real sense that this is what it's actually like during a commercial break on the Letterman show, with Robin Williams displaying equal parts insecurity and self-promotion, while the host shares: "This show is a torturous, miserable hell." (The guests on this first season deserve a special salute, for playing themselves before an appearance on the show brought with it a certain cachet.) There are also some weird things designed to mess up your sense of entertainment-industry reality, if that's not too much of an oxymoron. In one episode Billy Crystal is on the Sanders show to promote his new movie, Mr. Saturday Night; in the next, Crystal's co-star in that film, David Paymer, is playing not himself, but Larry's publicist. What hasn't worn as well over the last decade, unsurprisingly, is the topical humor. There are a bunch of Ross Perot jokes here, occasional references to Princess Diana's bulimia, and Larry regularly goofs on Arsenio in general and candidate Bill Clinton's appearance on his show in particular. But those aren't at the core of The Larry Sanders Show; the artifice of show business hasn't changed since the early '90s, and the pretensions of showbiz folk are probably pretty consistent going back to Aristophanes. Here's a roundup of what you'll find in this sumptuous package of television goodies: Disc OneEpisode #1: What Have You Done For Me Lately"The one Green Giant spot has really been a monkey on my back. I'll tell you one thing: if they ever ask you to put on a pair of green tights, no matter how much they offer you, you just walk away. Walk away."- Hank KingsleyThe new head of late-night programming for the network has a plan to help sagging advertising revenue on the show: she wants Larry to do live commercials, and the first product will be the Garden Weasel. Larry can't help but make fun of the product; he's bailed out by Hank, who shills for absolutely everything. It immediately puts us right in the middle of things without too much spoonfeeding of exposition. A strong four out of five desk microphones, the prop of choice for Larry, Dave, or any late night talk show host worth their salt.Episode #2 PromiseArtie: I was so upset last night, I had to take a Halcyon.Larry: Aren't there side effects to that stuff, Artie? Artie: Sure, I saw Buddy Ebsen's head floating over my dresser. David Spade does Larry some dirt: the night before he's due to appear on the Sanders show, he's on with Leno, doing the same routine. Larry doesn't much like to imagine that he's a stepping stone, but when he was coming up through the clubs, he did to Merv Griffin what Spade is doing to him. William Shatner is especially funny, though we only hear his voice, on speaker phone; Larry challenges the writers to get Shatner to say "Klingon."Episode #3: SpidersJeannie: Why are you doing this stupid spider stunt on your show? I'll tell you why: because you guys will do anything for a laugh. Larry: Oh, that is not true. Jeannie: Yes it is. Then why are you doing it? Larry: Because it will be funny. An animal wrangler is on, tapping into Larry's arachnophobia: the plan is for two tarantulas to race up Larry's arm, to a dead fly on his head. He's so distracted by the prospect of it that he boots a sketch with Carol Burnett, which is killed after a lame rehearsal. Real nuts-and-bolts backstage, a good look at what a talk show is like on those many nights when you just can't get Julia Roberts or Tom Hanks to come on.Episode #4: The Guest HostDana Carvey: Hey, great show! Larry: Did you watch any of it? Dana Carvey: No, not really. Hee Haw was on. Dana Carvey substitutes for a vacationing Larry, who watches Carvey's every move on the show as though it were the Zapruder film. Is Dana entertaining offers from other networks? Is he yet another prospective competitor to Larry? It's a great instance of how in show business, everybody is all smiles to your face, everybody is your best friend, and everybody is wielding a knife that they'd readily stab into your back.Disc TwoEpisode #5: The New ProducerSam: Larry, please. If there's one thing I'm known for, it's my complete discretion. Larry: Hey, what really happened to Melanie Parrish, by the way? Sam: Well, you didn't get this from me, but her live-in boyfriend left, and she tried to kill herself with an overdose of Halcyon. With Artie out for an emergency appendectomy, Larry's old pal Jonathan comes in to guest produce, and he's got big changes in mind for the show. He writes a Bryant Gumbel-like memo about what he perceives as the show's many weaknesses; it of course circulates among the staff, who blame Larry. Great office politics, but not enough Artie in this one for my taste.Episode #6: The FlirtLarry: By nude, do you mean that neither of us would be wearing clothes? Mimi Rogers: That is correct. Larry: I see. Because I've been tricked before and ended up being the only one, and usually it results in a call to the police, and all hell breaks out. Mimi Rogers, a guest on the show, has the hots for Larry. And not just showbiz, see-you-out-there-have-a-good-show hots: the real deal. Larry and Jeannie watch the show together: it's dangerous business to have your wife watch you flirting with pretty women on network television. Jeannie nails the whole business, when she's talking to her husband about his television persona: "I trust you. I don't think I trust him."Episode #7: Hank's ContractHank: What about the time I chipped my tooth on the bathroom urinal? Huh? What the f*** is so comical about that? Larry: It was a back tooth, Hank. It's Hank's annual game of chicken with the network brass, over his contract for next year. He helps his assistant plan his "surprise" going-away party, full of showbiz tears; all this because he's holding out for a Hankmobile, a golf cart to drive around the set. A tough call, but probably my favorite.Episode #8: Out of the LoopLarry: Hey, Artie? Do you ever notice that we get caught up in a certain kind of thought process? Artie: Thought process? Larry: Yeah, thought process. Artie: What thought process? Larry: Like the thought process we're involved in right now. I think we should catch it and put a stop to it. Artie: Fine. Then stop it we shall do. Larry wants to connect with his staff, to break through the careful insulation that Artie has created for him. This leads to fun-filled scenes like dressing down the head writer for having sex with a new intern on the set, and advising the talent booker on whether or not she should put her mother in a nursing home. (Larry says yes, and only later finds out that Mom is all of 53.)Disc ThreeEpisode #9: The Talk ShowJeannie: I'm not done talking. Larry: I thought we were done with our conversation. We'll talk after the show. Okay? Jeannie: Bulls**t. We're not gonna talk after the show. You'll be, you'll be winding down. We're not gonna talk now, because you're gearing up. We can't talk when you're at home because you're watching the show wincing and moaning. You know, the only way I'm gonna talk to you is if I'm booked on the show as a guest. Larry. Fine. I'll book you. You're on. Except, listen: you can't do Arsenio for the next three to six months, so that's the decision you're gonna have to make. Set entirely during the taping of one of the Sanders shows, in this episode Jeannie learns that the only place to have a meaningful conversation with her husband is on television. Pretty rough portrait of a marriage for a sitcom; I especially like guest Billy Crystal's outrage when Larry loses the clip to his new movie, and asks him to go into the nostalgia file for a little Fernando and "You look mahvelous!" Watching the marriage fall apart is rough, but one of the best episodes of the season.Episode #10: The Party”All right, leave it out, but you're gonna see, they poke around here like it's some sort of museum, and then they'll decide that we're not as happy as Burt Reynolds and Loni. Burt and Loni! Burt and Loni! That's all I'm gonna be hearing.” - LarryJeannie crosses the streams, and crossing the streams is bad. She invites Arthur and his wife over for dinner; it soon snowballs into a full-out party at casa del Sanders, with Larry going bonkers that the sharp line that he's drawn between home and work is being quickly and ineradicably erased.Episode #11: Warmth”I think Richard Simmons is a very funny guy, but what's he always jumping around for? He's got the nervous energy of a squirrel, I don't think that's healthy, is it?”- ArtieIn an effort to keep up with the trends in late night, Larry agrees to have a focus group have at his show. How can he be more likable to males age 18-34? It's almost a metaphor for this series, which is the result not of surveys, but of the vision of Shandling and his team; it’s hard even to imagine what an HBO focus group would do with this series. Oh, and Richard Simmons is on hand to salute Hank and his recent weight loss.Episode #12: A Brush With the Elbow of GreatnessNorman: CNN is airing the tape. Larry: Oh, great. So now everyone in Iraq knows I'm an a****le. Buying artichoke hearts and Excedrin at an L.A. grocery, Larry bulldozes over a woman in front of him in the checkout line. The incident is captured on tape by the in-store security camera, turning Larry's victim into this week's show-business version of Rodney King. Larry wants to apologize, to bury it, but his publicist (David Paymer) assures him that there's no such thing as bad publicity.Episode #13: Hey NowLarry: I don't need any hand makeup. I just don't. Makeup Man: Fine, if that's what you want, if you want your face and hands to clash... Larry: All right. Fine. A little. Is Hank overextended? Apparently he's too busy shilling for "Chicken in a Minute," and goes napsy-bye during a taping of the show. Larry understandably goes bonkers. He also tries to get Hank to give up his trademark phrase, "Hey now!" Also, will Janet Jackson's plane land in time to make the taping? The first episode filmed, it feels a little too expository, but still, the show hits its stride mighty quickly.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: I'm sorry to report that the video transfer to DVD is pretty much the weakest thing about this set. There are lots of scratches and debris on the film, the colors are muddy and inconsistent, and the black level is all over the place. Lighting changes not just within the same scene, but sometimes within the same shot. The director of photography, Peter Smokler, deserves special praise for his verité style of camera work—he did the same sort of thing on This Is Spinal Tap, to great effect—but this means that the shots aren't always well composed, and with alarming frequency, boom mikes dip down into the frame. (Particularly egregious is a scene in Episode 5 in Hank's office; Larry is talking and there's a mirror behind him, and the microphone pops in and out of the reflection.) Unfortunately this set didn't get the same care in going to DVD that other HBO shows like The Sopranos or Sex and the City did; perhaps this can be addressed in release of future Sanders seasons.
Image Transfer Grade: C-
Audio Transfer Review: Audio isn't as weak as the video presentation, but if bells and whistles are what you're looking for, you won't find them here. The sound editors seem overly fond of ambient noise, and if your rear speakers are turned up too high, the buzzing of the office can overshadow the main action.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
Packaging: Book Gatefold
Extras Review: The main event here (it's on the first disc) is Shandling talks...no flipping! (27m: 52s), an interview of Shandling by Washington Post television critic Tom Shales. (Shales appears as himself in a later season of the show.) Shandling is full of tasty morsels: for instance, he was debating between doing a talk show (the slot after Letterman on CBS) or this, a show about a talk show. He guest hosted for Carson with some regularity, and has been a frequent late-night guest, so he clearly knows this world as well as anyone. Fortunately for the show, HBO ordered a full season of thirteen episodes, so the production team didn't have to do a pilot as a calling card. (The first episode shot is in fact the last one of this season; the second one shot is the sixth; Episode #1 was third. And yes, there will be a quiz.) The interview covers more than just the first season, which is fun for us fans of the show, but would probably be more annoying than entertaining without the other seasons available on DVD. Yet. The set is unfortunately lacking in any other extras, such as HBO's on-air promos, or any further information about the cast and production team.
Extras Grade: B-
Final CommentsThe Larry Sanders Show is to late-night television what The Player is to feature filmmaking, only Sanders is funnier and has better storylines. It's just about the funniest show I've ever seen, sort of like Seinfeld but with subject matter and a potty mouth. Don't let the relatively poor video presentation dissuade you, and hope that things get cleaned up in the DVD release of future seasons. But for now, give a rousing "Hey now!" and join the fun.
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