How ‘The Larry Sanders Show’ Changed TV Writing Forever

by B. O’Malley

We’re writers for television and film. So let’s start off with a completely inappropriate cosmological metaphor:

If I Love Lucy was the “primordial big bang” of television comedies—spontaneously birthing into existence all we know and love about television’s situation comedy format, and causing the formation of galaxies such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in The Family, Cheers, and every other interstellar mass of wonder that comprise television’s brights and best sitcoms—

If we can use that clunky metaphor, with your permission…

… then HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998) was nothing less than that “big bang’s” greatest aftershock; one that we’re still feeling today as we scroll endlessly through our seemingly limitless streaming and cable choices.

So what was The Larry Sanders Show? Here’s the skinny:

It was a sitcom about a fake network talk show, but mixed in real celebrity guests who played themselves. That’s it in a nutshell.

Garry Shandling played “Larry Sanders,” an ego-soaked talk show host a la Carson, Arsenio, and Letterman. His foils were his Ed-McMahon-esque sidekick Hank Kingsley Jr. — a loaf of simultaneous self-love and self-loathing played by Jeffrey Tambor—and his bulldog producer/charmer/svengali, Artie, played by Rip Torn.

The show only ran for 6 seasons, but the ripple it left behind continues to reverberate as its tone, its format, its style, even its attitude, continue to influence the writers we love and the shows we watch today.

In what ways? Here are the two big ones:

Larry Sanders proved it was okay for mainstream sitcoms to make us squirm

The core mission of any good clown can be distilled down to one essential phrase: “Look at me. I’m a goofball.”

As an example: in I Love Lucy, Lucy regularly finds herself knee-deep in goofball and slapstick (as only Lucy could do) from stuffing chocolate into her mouth to keep up with the candy on the conveyor belt to getting stoned on Vitameatavegamin while hawking it on a commercial shoot. You’ve seen the reruns. They’re like Beatles songs. You know them all by heart.

Lucy’s clown is never dumb, but the comedy happens because her character—her version of the clown—quintessentially earnest. She’s trying to do good, even if she gets herself into a lot of crazy tangles. So we root for her.

Larry Sanders’ clown, on the other hand, is very difficult for anyone to root for. But that’s by design.

We hear the canard all the time as tv- and screenwriters: “Your main character has to be likable.” I’m going out on a limb and making a bold statement:

The reason we can call that “likable characters” thing a canard is because of characters like Larry Sanders.

From where I sit, without Larry Sanders’ overblown ego, we likely wouldn’t have had Ricky Gervais’s character David Brent in the BBC’s The Office.

And without David Brent, The Office likely would not have worked.

And if the BBC’s The Office didn’t work, we probably wouldn’t have had the NBC version of The Office, with its own lovable egotistical jerk Michael Scott, played by Steve Carell.

And without the success of that show, who knows if shows like Modern Family and Parks and Recreation would’ve been given a chance.

Larry Sanders, the character, makes us squirm at how much of a jerk he can be, as did David Brent, just a few years later on the BBC.

And now, speaking of Larrys, a different Larry is coming back to HBO after a bit of a hiatus:

Larry David, creator and star of Curb Your Enthusiasm. If we’re talking about egotistical, insensitive jerks playing the clown, Larry David’s fictionalized version of himself on the show is the legendary marble statue of David by Michelangelo.

And if Larry David is the Michelangelo’s David, then Larry Sanders was the original block of marble, the chisel, and the sweat. That is, I argue that a straight line can be traced from Larry Sanders’ egotistical, pampered clown to Larry David’s selfish, egotistical jerk clown.

Yes, it’s fair and accurate to say the character he plays on Curb is based on himself, and is the “freed from network tv’s constraints” version of the autobiographical jerk he brought to life as Jason Alexander’s George Costanza on Seinfeld in 1992.

And yes, Larry David is a brilliant writer and actor and the character he plays is nothing short of unmitigated genius.

But I argue that the character of Larry Sanders showed Larry David what was possible, in many ways, and David ran with it. And is running with it. And I’m addicted to Curb Your Enthusiasm and I love it.

Throwing out another example, for us fans of Louis CK:

Without Garry Shandling’s willingness to be unlikeable, would Louis CK’s FX show Louie have half as many cringeworthy moments?

I’d say it’s definitely possible. Louis CK is an extremely funny, extremely creative artist.

Without showing us it’s okay to cringe at a lead character, would Modern Family’s Phil Dunphy have as many cringey moments? It’s possible. Lots of good people on that show, (including my friend and fellow Roger Corman alumnus, editor Chris Miglio.)

Would Kenny Powers on Eastbound and Down be simultaneously so “punchworthy” and so enjoyable to watch at the same time? It’s possible.

Bottom line: The cringeworthy clown wasn’t invented by The Larry Sanders Show

And, similarly, the guitar solo wasn’t invented by Jimi Hendrix.

But like Hendrix’s explosive entry into the zeitgeist, Larry Sanders‘ paradigm-shifting happened at just the right moment where TV was about to make a big step away from years of traditional clowning and traditional “fast food” situation comedy.

Liberation from the traditional situation comedy format

After almost four decades of tv shows being locked into either film or video, or 3-camera and single-camera, The Larry Sanders Show blew everybody away by proving that a show’s format could be flexible.

While it’s hardly worth mentioning in today’s mixed-media jumble that a tv show would shoot on two different formats—video for the talk show portions to add to the verisimilitude and film for the behind-the-curtains lives of the people behind the show—it can’t be overstated how bold of a choice that was when The Larry Sanders Show did it 1992.

Beyond that was even more innovation, which I argue was even more important:

Fast-moving, handheld, documentary style filmmaking that grounded the show by giving it a sense of realism we hadn’t seen mixed within a traditional situation comedy previously.

And even better: the show didn’t try to signal where the laughs should come, a la any traditional sitcom.

As far as approaching overall pace and realism, the closest example I could cite might be M*A*S*H, but two key differences set M*A*S*H apart:

1) That legendary sitcom only rarely used handheld and moving cameras, and was 100% film, and

2) M*A*S*H had a laugh track.

By liberating the sitcom from format, I argue, perhaps a bit enthusiastically, I’ll admit, that Larry Sanders liberated the sitcom.

Again, I point The Office, or I can cite Flight of the Conchords, or even the show’s direct descendants in terms of style and tone: 30 Rock and Arrested Development.

Should Larry Sanders be credited with the creation and success of any of these shows, or any shows on network, cable, or streaming? Almost certainly not.

Yet The Larry Sanders Show proved a crucial, cosmological theory about the universe:

And that’s

1) that a sitcom’s format could be stretched, considerably,

and 2) that a sitcom’s central character could be a cringeworthy clown, and the show could still make a “big bang.”

That’s the theory, anyhow.

Brian O’Malley started his career working for legendary B-movie maverick Roger Corman in 1997 and has written and directed three feature films. Since 1999, Brian and his team of experienced script readers at Screenplay Readers have been providing expert and brutally honest script feedback to writers, agents, and filmmakers.