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Larry Sanders, Garry Shandling, and the Refuge of Comedy

With the passing of the comedy legend, we look back on one of the greatest TV shows of all time.

Comedy is a refuge for unhappy people. At its best, the genre lets you cover up with a blanket in the dark and be around people who are not going to yell at you or call you a loser or rub your failure in your eyes. Here are people who want to make you laugh. And there's security in that. It's calming. Being alive means being around people who are meaner than hell, and comedy can have the nobility to say "all right, let's make somebody's day better for half an hour."

That's the real appeal, beyond the superficial entertainment value, of something like Cheers, or Sanford and Son. These shows don't try to teach you, they're just taking you someplace nicer than you were before. And they can do it in an aspirational way. Where science fiction or pure fantasy asks you to live in an alternate universe, comedy can keep you in your own universe. It can say, "Here are real people, and they don't have to be mean to you. This is a version of people that's better than the one you knew."

I was 14 when I started watching The Larry Sanders Show -- created by and starring the great Garry Shandling, who passed suddenly on Thursday at the age of 66 -- during its first syndication run outside pay cable. I was a miserable kid, constantly fighting off widescreen grayscale loneliness and alienation, and I was desperate for what I realize now was just normal human interaction and emotion. On paper, I should have hated the show, because it looks and smells like a meta-comedy about a rich guy in Los Angeles with a pretty successful network talk show. Just utter L.A. inside baseball, nothing but Ventura Boulevard and canyons and the 405 at rush hour; Entourage before Entourage. I should have hated it. It checked every box on my list of TV writing pet peeves.

But I didn't hate it. I got so obsessed that I wound up taping the entire run, in order, on a VCR, because DVD recorders -- the DVR was still many years away -- were still too expensive. Somewhere in the purgatory of my father's shed, I still have a carefully labeled box containing all episodes of the show on TDK cassettes.

I watched it over and over. I memorized not just the words but the beat and melody of the words. I know the damn blocking on some of my favorite scenes. It changed my whole concept of what comedy was allowed to do, and what writers were allowed to do, and I probably wouldn't be working without it.

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The reason is this: The Larry Sanders Show certainly looked like a behind-the-scenes comedy about comedy, a self-reflexive intellectual exercise that only clicks with people who know what it's like to fly from Los Angeles to New York and understand why TV tapings are ultimately sad. But it's not. That's just the frame. That was the easiest way for Garry Shandling and his writers to do a sitcom about real human emotion, the real inner workings of people. It had an emotional intelligence I had no idea could exist in comedy.

Before Larry Sanders, as much as I liked sitcoms, I thought every player in the idiom was a stock character, a variant of a type, and had one of about five possible punch lines to a given setup. But here was something where a setup would take place, and the characters would respond like real people.

Extreme example: Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor), Larry's often-buffoonish sidekick, is meeting the Wu-Tang Clan. In any sitcom before Larry Sanders, the only punch line to that setup, which is, essentially, "the world's most uncool uncle meets the world's coolest musicians," is "Hey, you fellas are rap singers, so I thought I could sing you a rap!"

But Larry Sanders never fell on stock jokes. So Hank tries to ingratiate himself to them like a real person. Not a sitcom uncool uncle, but a real honest-to-God uncool uncle. The result is a lethal jumble of racism and bewildered hideous ignorance. He calls Ol' Dirty Bastard "Dirty Old Bitch" and claims he hates cops entirely on the basis of his parking tickets. The scene is so uncomfortable you'll want to scream, and you'll want to scream because it feels like it's really happening. There is no artifice. This is a real mistake a real person could make.

Moments like that gave the show a sense of danger. Without the artifice of sitcoms that came before, without stock players, stock gags, there were no safety nets. Any bad thing was capable of happening. Characters could break down, try to kill themselves, fail in a way that wasn't reversible by next week's episode. And it was unafraid to go to these places. As funny as Larry Sanders could be, what made it one of the greatest achievements ever in television was how much real pathos it found. It could be downright heartbreaking. And that made the show's great jokes resonate. Funny moments weigh more when they are surrounded by the real human condition, which is one of constantly staving off sadness and hiding vulnerability and dread. Lots of shows would go on to do that, most notably The Office, alongside the overwhelming majority of tone-blending "prestige" comedies -- from Louie to Transparent (which, perhaps not coincidentally, co-stars Tambor) to Togetherness-- now on the air. But none of them would exist without Larry Sanders.

The triumph of Shandling's career is that he didn't need to do this show. He had enormous skill as a stand-up. He was a successful sitcom writer. He could have made a great conventional sitcom -- though, years before Sanders, he created and starred in the groundbreaking, convention-subverting It's Garry Shandling's Show -- and he was a regular guest host on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, where he was even offered the opportunity to make that a permanent fill-in gig. (It goes without saying he would have been better permanent replacement behind the Tonight Show desk than Jay Leno.) But he didn't take any of these paths before him. He made something with soul instead.

And this is not the sentimental overrating of a recently deceased performer's work. Garry Shandling is on record about his ambitions for the show. In Judd Apatow's interview collection Sick in the Head, he spells it out:

"When we were doing Larry Sanders, it was all about life and the question of self and what you were bringing to it. […] And what people are always covering up — the tension between what they’re covering emotionally in life and what’s really going on inside them. What you really want to write is what they’re covering; otherwise you end up writing the exposition — which is just words."

A couple moments jumped out at me when I got the call yesterday and learned Garry Shandling had died. They were both from the Larry Sanders finale, and they both underline its emotional depth. The first is when Larry has ended the taping of his final episode. The crowd is still there, the lights are still on him, he's on a stool. His producer, Artie (Rip Torn), comes over to him and says it was a great show. They embrace. Then Larry chokes out the words "I can't get off the stool. I can't move my legs." It's a pitch-perfect depiction of a panic attack, and that just wasn't done in comedy at that time, and if it was, it was melodramatic. This was real.

The other moment comes just a bit later. The studio is empty. Everyone is gone. Larry's walking around absently, missing what is now his old life. Artie is sitting in the back drinking booze out of a coffee cup. And they talk about their plans and their regrets, quietly internalizing the fact that the active part of their adulthood is over. They're old men now. Then Hank shows up. And this is the perfect example of what Shandling was talking about, and what his show was so damn good at.

Hank is superficially furious that his segment got cut. He seems prepared to kill somebody. And he delivers a fire-and-brimstone monologue most people can't walk back.

"What is my problem? I spent the last 10 years being the butt of your jokes. The little fucking dog at the end of the couch! And you know, it's my fault, because I smiled and I let it happen because this face was being seen by millions of people every night and there was lots of money and there was lots of pussy!"

Larry tries to defuse with a joke.

"More money than pussy."

Hank lunges at him, and this is not a comedy about comedy anymore. This is Greek tragedy.

"No more!" roars Hank. "I swear to God, no more, one more remark and I, I, I swear, I'll fucking choke you with my hands!"

He tries to walk off, to leave them behind, but he can't. He leaves, backs his car into a dumpster, and comes back in tears. They all reconcile and agree to go to the Smoke House for drinks. Hank and Artie leave, but Larry stays behind a second, surveying the darkened stage, aware that his set will be torn down by morning and thrown into the garbage. Any other show would have tried to arrange a more cinematic happy ending. But this is an honest happy ending. None of these men is happy, but they've found acceptance, and that's a more honest victory.

It's the kind we actually get in life.