From 1992 to 1998, the six-season run of Garry Shandling's "The Larry Sanders Show" was little-watched, little-rewarded and yet became one of the most influential TV shows of the last 25 years.
It was a quiet landmark, airing on HBO before "The Sopranos" or any other shows more famously revamped television. But reverence for it — a near perfect piece of comedy, radical in its unadorned portrait of a nightly late-night show and the damaged men behind it — steadily grew from cult to canon in the years that followed.
Shandling's death Thursday in Los Angeles sent fans everywhere reaching for DVDs, YouTube clips or remembered catch phrases from the 66-year-old comedian's masterpiece. "The Larry Sanders Show" was the forerunner to a new kind of painfully awkward, hysterically authentic comedy that would inspire "The Office," ''Curb Your Enthusiasm," ''Freaks and Geeks," ''Arrested Development" and a generation of comics.
Debuting just months after Johnny Carson signed off, "The Larry Sanders Show" signaled a new era. Shandling, who had guest-hosted for "The Tonight Show," was offered other late-night hosting gigs, but turned them down. Coming off his meta, fourth-wall breaking "It's Garry Shandling's Show," Shandling was more interested in what happened behind the scenes of a talk show and in the moments in between jokes.
In a time when laugh tracks were still ubiquitous, the multi-camera "Larry Sanders Show" went for realism instead of punchlines.
"I was asking everybody to go beyond what was TV comedy at that time," Shandling once told The Los Angeles Times. "I knew we were headed into different territory. I knew the philosophy of a creative process in which people were allowed to make mistakes and to play real moments and to risk. And that takes courage, the courage that I needed to find, and I think that everyone on the show needed to find. And that's really the bond that we have: It's that we were all in this lab experiment to find the courage just to be, not to make a 'TV series.'"
Shandling played the neurotic, insecure and spineless host with the catch phrase "No flipping" and a regular habit of watching his show in bed at night. He was flanked by two comedy hall-of-fame performances in Rip Torn and Jeffrey Tambor. Torn played Artie, Sanders' hard-drinking, undyingly loyal bulldog producer; Tambor the agonizingly desperate, eager sellout sidekick Hank Kingsley.
With remarkably accuracy, the show was split between on-air and off, artifice and authenticity. The wide grins for the camera vanished during commercial breaks when the vain backbiting of show business came rushing back. On "The Larry Sanders Show," life was funnier off-stage.
"This show is like every day of my life," David Letterman once told Shandling.
But the satire didn't diminish the fictional late-night show, either, which saw a parade of guest stars playing themselves — sometimes faithfully, often not. (Among the many highlights was David Duchovny, a dedicated romantic pursuer of Sanders.) Every foible would be forgiven for a good show. "You're like one of those goddamn creatures out of Greek mythology," Artie tells his host. "Half-man, half-desk."
"Larry Sanders" was home to countless talents who would become better known stars, including Bob Odenkirk, Janeane Garofalo and Judd Apatow, who made his directorial debut on "The Larry Sanders Show." Apatow, one of many who looked up to Shandling as a guru of not just comedy but self-inspection, considered "Freaks and Geeks" a version of "The Larry Sanders Show," only set in high school.
When the HBO series eventually came to a close, the finale was startlingly like a real late-show send-off, with a parade of guests and genuine tears: the line between fake show and real show was obliterated.
Sanders often said the show was ultimately "about love." That's not how many would think to describe such a cringe-inducing comedy. But people adore "The Larry Sanders Show" not for its parody, but for its lonely, flawed people trying to make something worth watching.