Why Larry Sanders Is Brilliant

John Fea is sad to see David Letterman go. I am too, even though I haven’t watched late night television for a long time. I am equally sad to see a younger generation of Americans (as in my students) with no familiarity with late night talk shows. When I was a kid, getting to stay up late and watch Johnny Carson was a chance to take a peek at the world of adults — not in the x-rated sense but one that conjured a world of references and people and ideas that seemed important and well beyond a child’s imaginative range.

Late night talk shows are incredibly predictable in format but almost every effort to improve or change them has been a flop. Fea quotes from a piece that describes the success of the talk show:

Talk — relatively spontaneous, genuine, unrehearsed conversation — was, of course, the main point of the genre when the “Tonight Show” was pioneered by Steve Allen back in 1954, redefined by Jack Paar when he took the helm in 1957, and turned into a national institution by Johnny Carson in the ’60s and ’70s. Here was a place where show-business celebrities could drop at least some of their public persona and give us a glimpse of what they were “really” like. Sure, that glimpse was always a little stage-managed — the conversational topics screened, the anecdotes carefully baked. But those nightly sessions on the “Tonight Show” guest couch were a relaxed, human-scale refuge in a hype-filled showbiz world.

And this is what makes the Larry Sanders Show brilliant — that is, the HBO series that Garry Shandling made about late night talk shows, one part homage, one part mocumentary. Since the show within the show was going to have Larry Sanders, the fictional host, interviewing and hosting guest stars, Shandling had to decide whether the guests were also going to be fictional like Larry and Hank (the Ed McMahon figure), or whether they were going to be real. Shandling decided to have the guest stars “play” themselves. So when Alec Baldwin comes on, he is playing himself.

And that points to part of the shows genius. Is Baldwin playing himself? Is he being Alec? Or is he presenting Alec Baldwin as something other than himself? For non-baby boomers this might be way too much irony. But for fans of Letterman, who made self-awareness and irony part and parcel of his show — mocking the talk show format, mugging before the camera, bringing stage personnel into the show — Sanders brought even more attention to the unique dynamics of a show that the networks cannot abandon even if younger viewers aren’t watching.

54 thoughts on “Why Larry Sanders Is Brilliant

  1. When I was a kid, getting to stay up late and watch Johnny Carson was a chance to take a peek at the world of adults — not in the x-rated sense but one that conjured a world of references and people and ideas that seemed important and well beyond a child’s imaginative range.

    Elegant. I suppose that Rat Pack world doesn’t really exist today: The world of Fallon and Kimmel is junior high, far more easily accessible to our precocious pre-teens. I guess there are a few “50 Shades of Grey” references, but what passes for the “adult world” today is there for any kid surfing with the remote.



    perhaps our growing secularity has abolished them.

    [Quite right about Larry Sanders, too, with special props for Rip Torn, who was nominated for the Emmy 6 times and won it in 1996. Can’t take your eyes off him.]


  2. New for me. Ranked better than star trek, worse than sesame street:

    The following is the complete list:
    1. Seinfeld (NBC)
    2. I Love Lucy (CBS)
    3. The Honeymooners (CBS)
    4. All in the Family (CBS)
    5. The Sopranos (HBO)
    6. 60 Minutes (CBS)
    7. Late Show with David Letterman (CBS)
    8. The Simpsons (Fox)
    9. The Andy Griffith Show (CBS)
    10. Saturday Night Live (NBC)
    11. The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS)
    12. The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (NBC)
    13. The Dick Van Dyke Show (CBS)
    14. Hill Street Blues (NBC)
    15. The Ed Sullivan Show (CBS)
    16. The Carol Burnett Show (CBS)
    17. Today (NBC)
    18. Cheers (NBC)
    19. thirtysomething (ABC)
    20. St. Elsewhere (NBC)
    21. Friends (NBC)
    22. ER (NBC
    23. Nightline (ABC)
    24. Law & Order (NBC)
    25. M+A+S+H (CBS)
    26. The Twilight Zone (CBS)
    27. Sesame Street (PBS)
    28. The Cosby Show (NBC)
    29. Donahue (syndicated)
    30. Your Show of Shows (NBC)
    31. The Defenders (CBS)
    32. An American Family (PBS)
    33. Playhouse 90 (CBS)
    34. Frasier (NBC)
    35. Roseanne (ABC)
    36. The Fugitive (ABC)
    37. The X-Files (Fox)
    38. The Larry Sanders Show (HBO)
    39. The Rockford Files (NBC)
    40. Gunsmoke (CBS)
    41. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB/UPN)
    42. Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (NBC)
    43. Bonanza (NBC)
    44. The Bob Newhart Show (CBS)
    45. Twin Peaks (ABC)
    46. Star Trek: The Next Generation (syndicated)
    47. Rocky and His Friends (ABC)
    48. Taxi (ABC/NBC)
    49. The Oprah Winfrey Show (syndicated)
    50. Bewitched (ABC)


  3. I routinely stayed up every night to watch letterman, between the ages of 13 and 16. With TVD, the paragraph he pulled out also struck a chord with me. Good post.

    Before letterman came on was Thursday’s Deep Space Nine, not sure TVD would get the references about Jadzia Dax or Doctor Bahsir, I digress..these shows made those years of life bearable.


  4. I remember being allowed to stay up to watch Carson, back in the day. But, it’s such an ephemeral business, as Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout has pointed out. He notes that Carson lived long enough to know what it was like “to have once been famous.” Carson died in early 2005, at 79, just a little over 12 years after retiring from “The Tonight Show,” and Teachout thinks that there are few people under 60 now who have clear memories of him. Fame is fleeting.


  5. Letterman’s best days were before he took over for Carson when he had guests like Terri Garr and Sandra Bernhard. Remember Bud Melman? But then I like quirky, hole-in-the-wall restaurants over chains, too.


  6. Letterman had a nastier edge than Carson, and his humor was far more at people’s expense. He started the decline of Late Night even as he helped its success.


  7. Darryl,I bet you remember when Dean Martin openly and approvingly imbibed on Carson. Or was that where the plug was pulled in the Hart household?


  8. Didn’t see the morning show. I do remember staying up to watch the 1130 beginning of the PM show.

    Interesting, Joe, like Michael Jordan ruined the NBA with his spectacular dunks. Good thing the Spurs brought back team basketball.


  9. “I Love Lucy” = #2 ??!! That’s hard to believe.

    BTW, there’s a plaque in one of the campus buildings where Letterman did his undergrad work saying, “Dedicated to all the ‘C’ students (before and after me)”, followed by his signature. I used to walk past it once or twice a week while I was doing grad work there in the late 80’s thinking about how he had brought mediocrity into the mainstream.


  10. George, Larry Sanders is new to (all about) me, I was watching new episodes of Star Trek: DS9 when this show was running so I had to go to wiki, and I needed some way to bring in Star Trek, hence, the list of 50:

    The Larry Sanders Show is an American television sitcom set in the office and studio of a fictional late-night talk show. The show was created by Garry Shandling and Dennis Klein and aired from August 1992 to May 1998 on the HBO cable television network. The series stars Shandling, Jeffrey Tambor, and Rip Torn and features celebrities playing exaggerated, self-parodying versions of themselves. The show has its roots in Shandling’s stand-up comedy background, his experience as a guest host on The Tonight Show and his earlier sitcom It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. The program has had a marked and long-lasting influence on HBO as well as on television shows in America and Britain such as Curb Your Enthusiasm, 30 Rock and The Office. The supporting cast includes Janeane Garofalo, Bob Odenkirk, Kathryn Harrold, Scott Thompson and Jeremy Piven.

    The series ranked 38 on TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time, the only HBO comedy to make the list,[1] and was also included in Time magazine’s list of the “100 Best TV Shows of All Time.”[2]

    I only found out about HBO maybe a year ago, this host of ours has seen it all 🙂


  11. PS and of course, as everyone who’s anyone knows, the wire is the only show on television worth watching. Just common sense, is all (emoticon).


  12. Abe-eee – that would mean that for those of us who don’t subscribe to cable TV service (and therefore can’t see HBO programs) and only see OTA broadcasting nothing is worth watching. I’ll go along with that. IMO Newton Minow’s 1961 fox paw about television programming being a “vast wasteland” has never been more accurate.


  13. George,

    These tv shows take me back to my teenage years, even watchin the wire, courtesy of Amazon Prime which my wife insists we get for the free shipping. Just don’t tell Darryl that for AB it’s 1) Star Trek 2) Anything else.

    Was listening to the warrior game on espn internet radio, as an OTA guy myself, sometimes I miss watching live sports like my SF giants or the warriors in the playoffs (typical CA fan here, I don’t follow NBA any other time, but I need to start doing so, full disclosure is all).

    Consider the etymology of “amusement”. “a” means no and “muse” means thinking. So amusement means to not think. Seems apropros in our agreement on the wasteland that is a remote click away in our television set.

    Greg the terrible would be proud of me.


  14. DGH – of course! Most of the movies and/or TV series that I do watch are via Netflix or the local library. I have a bandwidth problem for local Internet access, however, that chokes my ability to stream most videos. I’m working on a resolution, but slowly.


  15. Except for very closely selected and occasional consumption, media entertainment is an absolute waste of the image of God on every level at very best. Even when it’s not it’s usual lobotomizing, soul rotting, morally degenerate poison, like I’m sure this show is, it’s a complete waste of God’s time. Love of the world and the things therein.

    What DID God’s people do for all those centuries and centuries before there was even electricity? To say nothing of an endless incessant tidal wave of non stop, masterfully crafted, worldliness and carnality to render themselves useless with.

    I’d rather go back to dope and alcohol, honest addictions, than let this bondage set up a stronghold in my life.

    Thank you Jesus. You are merciful indeed.


  16. Greg, while your busy glorying in your asceticism, how about a blogging fast? I’ve noticed your blogging fetish and, as a brother, I’m worried about your lack of holiness and self control in this area. Satan has his internet claws in you and has twisted you such that you can’t see it and are certain to resist any correction about it. Don’t argue with me about it and try to rationalize it away, just flee. Run, brother, like your beard is on fire. For its something far more serious than the loss of your beard, it’s your very soul the father of lies is seeking to sort for his own purpose. Hear me now.


  17. The true people of God spent most of their free time killing each other Erik? (what actually free time did most people have at all before the industrial revolution?)

    HBO is a Satanic abomination and the devil laughs watching the alleged guardians of the reformation fill their minds with it. Even without the sinful content it is an absolute and utter waste of life. The more I watch it’s hapless prisoners, the more humbled I am that God has for whatever reason spared me from the clutches of the media overlords.


  18. There was a time when even the entertainment industry was up to Gregorian standards allowing him to imbibe in clear conscience.

    Greg, any thought if what the golden age of Entertainment was? Granted, the ancient Greeks were a lot more gross than what we see today, so maybe we actually are on the up and up?

    It waxes and wanes, just shooting the breeze here..Peace


  19. Greg – were you doing speech writing for then FCC chairman Newton Minow in the early 60’s?


  20. “Even when it’s not it’s usual lobotomizing, soul rotting, morally degenerate poison, like I’m sure this show is…”

    I see you have mastered presuppositionalism. Never be uncertain about what you don’t know.


  21. Media overlords and Satan’s abomination. All this from a guy who has developed a persona of himself(complete with custom avatar) on a medium largely known for it’s access to porn. I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’. Welp, my HBO overlord and my wife request my presence for GOT. These daughters of Eve are all the same.


  22. Greg,

    Sean’s right. The Internet is full of porn.

    Well, so I’ve heard anyway.

    You can’t go to bed with Mark Zuckerberg and wake up with Jesus.


  23. The internet is a neutral communication technology. Just as television and moving pictures are. The internet is used to change lives for God when used properly. (I know personally) Television and moving pictures CAN be used to God”s glory as well.

    The entertainment industr is a specific, godless, reprobate use of those technologies whose mission is to make money on pathetic, enslaved morally degenerate media addicts. It’s an astronomical success. Not just inside the visible church, but the REFORMED church. Consciences seared in sin and pickled in carnality and worldliness.

    Your place Erik. Remember what happened last time here? Grow a pair and let’s go to your place UNcensored. (Or mine? Where I guarantee you there won’t be any censorship.) You won’t do that though. Because you have been over this debate in your mind and you know I will beat you like a dog. (in love of course. 🙂 )

    Not because I’m brilliant and you’re a moron. But because my position is the reformed gospel truth and yours is an idolatrous lie. This idiotic rationalizing new view of yours is weaker than when I met you. It would take about 60 seconds to embarrass. (quite literally) I’ll prove it and you KNOW I will, but you are not ready for that. I am tellin you it is JUST like dealing with junkies and drunks.


  24. Erik, it’s none of my business, you’re all grown, but I talk to my dogs with more respect than Kojak talks to you. Don’t be Rick(Reeek) to cue ball’s Ramsey Bolton.


  25. Greg,

    So the Internet is a “neutral communication technology”.

    And HBO is a tool of the devil?

    Why isn’t HBO a “neutral communication technology”? It’s just one channel of many.

    You count up the HBO addicts and I’ll count up the Internet and Internet porn addicts.

    How can anything invented by Al Gore be morally neutral?

    Good to see you’ve rediscovered some balls, though.


  26. Erik, as Jimmy(Good Fellas) would say; Attaboy! curse words, more curse words, curse words, good for you. Don’t take no (curse words) off nobody.


  27. Greg, your weakness is your affinity to bad video games, you publicly acknowledge your tastes on your website.

    Unreal tournament, remember?

    The WCF has clear teaching on the 6th commandment.

    Arguably, your promoting that game is worse than anything Erik or DGH does writing about shows with naughty scenes. Real assenting humans could be used in shows with 7th commandment violations. But those bad video games may lead others to commit acts of murder, right?

    I’m interested in your response since you continue to seem fixates on these 7th commandment issues, and there are 9 other commandments, and the internet is arguably worse than the television due to it’s interactive aspect by nature.


  28. About
    My name is Greg Smith. I live in Redford Mi. which is a western bordering suburb of Detroit. My online handle “Tiribulus” comes from a Hannah Barbera bible cartoon series episode about Daniel. The Babylonians have an especially ferocious lion they feed criminals to named that and I thought it sounded cool and began using it in 1999, originally as a name for online gaming. Unreal Tournament and Quake 3. This IS NOT the bodybuilding supplement “tribulus” alleged to be a testosterone booster. They have nothing to do with one another and only incidentally are similar.

    I am a very conservative Reformed Christian. Tulip trooper to the bone. A champion of the Westminster Covenant worldview who counts Dr. Cornelius Van Til as one of my all time heroes of the faith. I don’t bother with the term “evangelical” anymore because it has become literally meaningless. Today, anybody who can articulate the word J. E. S. U. S. is an evangelical regardless of what flaming heresy or flagrant immorality they proclaim.

    This blog is being used as a sort of editor where I tune up my thoughts before posting them at other sites. At this point I’m not really trying to get readership. If it were to happen by the grace of God then fine., If not that’s fine too.

    Feel free to email me for any reason.

    So some kid finds your blog, and says, “‘hey, those games must be OK, after all, ol’ Greg Smith even mentions them in his “about” page.

    Note: Heavy adult content:

    Genre: Shooter
    Christian Rating: 2 of 5
    Gameplay: 4 of 5
    Violence: 1 of 5
    Adult Content: 2 of 5

    One of the elements that has made PC gaming so popular over the past several years is the ability to play with or against others via the modem or a network. This has become so popular, that recently companies have started to develop games that focus on the multiplayer experience rather than that of the single player. “Unreal Tournament” is just such a game.
    “Unreal Tournament” (UT) is from the designers at Digital Extreme (DE) who developed the original “Unreal”. “Unreal” was known for its next generation graphics but not necessarily its game play. Well the group at DE is back and their graphics still look great and they’ve taken their game play to a whole new level.

    “UT” takes place in an alternate future where corporations run things and a sport called “The Tournament” exists for entertainment. A mix of civilians, soldiers, aliens and criminals participate to see who can make it through the various levels, exterminating the others and earning the right to go to the next level. Yes, your job is to use a variety of destructive firepower and destroy your competition numerous times to move through the game. This is not one for little Johnny’s birthday list!

    As suggested above, “UT” is designed for multiplayer. Though you can play through a single player experience, the objective is to play against the computer controlled “bots” and see who can wipe out who the most. “UT” has gained a reputation among the gaming community for having the best AI (artificial intelligence) yet seen in a game. This may be, as the bots move as if you were playing against other human opponents. This is handy when you don’t have a partner available to play along with you in the other games. Besides the single player tournament ladder, there are also variations on capture the flag, an assault mode where you attack a heavily guarded enemy base and domination, where you and your team try to hold the most flags for the longest period.

    Donate today
    As you can discern from the above, “UT” is all about blowing up the enemy. There are controls that can vary the gore from body parts flying to your enemy just falling over or vaporizing as you blast away. There are also verbal taunts built in that, if not turned off, are sure to make you cringe. Both of these elements contribute to the low scores on the violence and adult content items despite your ability to turn them off.
    “UT” may be OK for the mature gamer who can remember Proverbs 10:6 “Blessings are upon the head of the just: but violence covereth the mouth of the wicked.”



  29. Nobody pays ATTENTION
    “I haven’t played video games in several years. I also can’t get myself to believe that God likes me doing in a game what would be sin for me to do (or think or say) in real life. There may actually be SOME nuance here, but even in say… WWII games. Is it a godly thing to take pleasure and fun in doing what SHOULD be horrifying and only done when absolutely necessary in real life?


  30. Wasn’t a big fan of that show but the episode with Hank trying to chill with the Wu Tang Clan was good


  31. Terri Garr is the only woman I have confessed to the wife that I have had a crush on. Very funny lady.


  32. And wasn’t SCTV one of the first efforts at deconstructing and skewering schmaltzy TV? But Letterman used to be good — especially loved his savaging of the most reprehensible species of the 70s: the famous-for-being-famous actor-singer.

    Killing two is like killing FOUR PEOPLE!


  33. DG, I do remember Letterman’s morning show. I remember watching it during the summer while I was in high school and I felt as if I was getting away with something. And I knew my mom didn’t get it. Which was nice.


  34. Terrible, it was just a suggestion to take that out of your “about” section, I hope you don’t mind my bringing it up here, off topic and all. You’re a good guy, and I think you should present yourself in the best possible light. I try to stay off these interwebs as much as I can, lest people I don’t know know more about me than I rather let them, that’s all.

    Grace and peace.


  35. Hey, I deleted my twitter account again an hour ago, for about the 50th time in the last 20 days.

    I had to get my daily dose of cw l’unificateur, not sure how long I can go without seeing his floating orange avatar.

    It ain’t easy, you know? (emoticon)


  36. Erik,

    Meh. All social media is self-aggrandizement. For the sake of my marriage, it’s best I just stop cold turkey. I’ll give it another go.

    I’m a google plus kinda guy. Anyone reading this can find me on google[dot]com/+AndrewBuckingham82

    I like the ability to share only with those in my real life friendships, or the few I’ve gotten to know out here at Oldlife. I appreciate your interaction and feedback here Erik, but trust me, I’m not built for these social networks. Best I leave it to folks like cw l’unificateur

    Grace and peace,


  37. Erik, Like I would ever leave.

    Its the same problem you had trying to unmoor your ship from this harbor.

    DGH ain’t Jesus, sorry to break it to you all. But John 6:68 sums it up, to where would we go. The Gospel Coalition.

    Don’t get me started..

    As long as my wife doesn’t know..s’all good, man!


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