The Larry Sanders Show: The show that influenced modern comedy

by Josiah Spyker
The Larry Sanders Show may be the most influential sitcom many haven’t heard of but influenced popular shows like The Office and 30 Rock.

The Larry Sanders Show may be the most influential sitcom most people haven’t heard about. The series has influenced many popular shows such as The Office and 30 Rock.

To fully understand the influence of The Larry Sanders Show, one must first learn more about the man behind the show, Garry Shandling. What better source is there to fully understand the life and mind of Garry Shandling than his personal journals that date back to 1978?

The journals were found by Shandling’s long-time friend Judd Apatow after Shandling’s unexpected death in 2016 and he turned these writings into the book, It’s Garry Shandling’s Book, which was published last year.

Shandling started his career writing scripts for different television shows like Sanford, Rising Son and Welcome Back, Kotter. Writing wasn’t his true passion though, as Shandling dreamed of being a stand-up comic.

Shandling got his start working at the famous Comedy Store in Los Angeles, the establishment that launched the careers of many famous comedians, such as Richard Pryor, David Letterman, Jim Carrey, Chris Rock and Jay Leno.

Stand-up entirely changed the way Shandling saw the world around him and more importantly how he saw himself, realizing he couldn’t just write for the rest of his life.

“I was sitting at a typewriter one day and I froze. I said I don’t know if I want to do this my whole life. I think I want to try this stand-up thing because I think it’ll allow me to discover something about myself. I didn’t know myself and I thought, if I sit here, I’m never going to discover it,” he wrote in a journal entry.

The problem though was the owner of the Comedy Store, Mitzi Shore.

Shore ran the club with an iron fist and even if you were good, if she didn’t like you, you weren’t going to be working.

 According to Apatow’s book, actor and friend of Shandling, Lewis Smith, recalled a time Shore came up to Shandling after a set.

“I was there when Mitzi Shore walked up to him and said, Garry, I wish you wouldn’t come on Monday nights. You’re not even as good as the amateurs. You’re never going to make it, Garry, You’re not funny. He was devastated.”

The main problem Shore had with Shandling was that he was still writing for shows, while also trying to do stand up.

Late Night with David Letterman writer, Merrill Markoe mentions in, It’s Gary Shandling’s Book, that during that time, Shore wouldn’t consider taking on comedians that also worked as writers because she believed they weren’t committed enough.

“Garry had the same problem with Mitzi that I did. Mitzi had a very firm opinion that you couldn’t be a writer and a performer. She felt those were two entirely different areas, and if she knew that you had taken work as a writer, you were out,” said Markoe.

Shandling had a decision to make, be a writer or pursue comedy.

After a near death experience Shandling finally decided to fully pursue comedy and make an appearance on the Tonight Show.

Shandling eventually did make it big in stand-up and appeared on the Tonight Show.

“I don’t know if I had a goal beyond the Tonight Show,” says Shandling, in the HBO Documentary the Zen Tapes of Garry Shandling which aired in 2018.

Shandling did find other goals, setting his eyes on being a talk show host.

He filled in as a guest host for Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show and hosted the Grammys and Emmys many times.

Being a talk show host wasn’t meant to be, so instead Shandling created the Larry Sanders Show, a dark, realistic, satirical look at talk shows.

Shandling played the lead character of Larry Sanders, the egotistical, self-loathing, cynical jerk.

The whole show was partially his opinions on the world and how show biz worked.

“The world is too noisy and distracted to probably ultimately survive. Everyone needs to shut the f*** up. The answers are in the silence,” he wrote.

The show changed the game when it came to how sitcoms are filmed.

It was edgy, crude and people actually had to think about what they were hearing to fully understand the jokes.

It became critically acclaimed and amassed 56 nominations over a six-year run, while also earning a 100 percent critic score on Rotten Tomatoes. 

The show used a mix of no laugh track and a live studio audience, with the laugh track only being used during the talk show aspects of the episodes.

This was ground-breaking at the time with most shows using the laugh track to emphasize every joke.

The show also used the idea of real-life celebrities playing fictional versions of themselves, something that greatly influenced other sitcoms that followed the same format, such as 30 Rock, Entourage and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Additionally, the beloved series became a launching pad for actors like Bob Odenkirk, Jeffery Tambor, Sarah Silverman, Janeane Garofalo and Jeremy Piven.

Perhaps the greatest influence it had on modern comedy was Judd Apatow, the long-time friend who had his directorial debut on the Larry Sanders Show.

According to an interview Apatow did with HBO in 2018, he says Shandling taught him a lot about comedy.

“Garry wanted to get to the core of people in his writing. I learned that if you did that, the comedy would come naturally. That’s a philosophy I’ve used throughout my career and that I preach to other people.”

Apatow has gone on to make some of the most popular comedy movies of the 2000s, from Superbad, Pineapple Express and the recent King of Staten Island.

The show airing on HBO may have been a double-edged sword, as it allowed them to make the show they wanted, but since viewers would need to pay for an HBO subscription, it didn’t have the same viewership a typical cable sitcom would get.

Although the name recognition may not be there compared to shows like Seinfeld, Friends, or The Office, the influence is still undeniable.

It’s important to note that it’s not just the influence the Larry Sanders Show had on modern comedy, but the influence of Garry Shandling himself.

Shandling was a mentor to many comedians until his unexpected death in 2016, leaving an impact in the world of television, movies, and stand-up comedy. In the book, comedian and actor Sacha Baron Cohen reminisced about Shandling’s impact on his life and career.

“I always hoped in England that I would meet a bunch of comedians who would kind of mentor me. It never happened in England. And then I came here and there was suddenly this guy who was helping me out. For no money and no credit and he had no desire for thanks and I never really understood it. He was like this comic angel. He was the comic fairy godmother,” said Cohen.

Even after his death, the influence of Shandling’s comedy prowess will continue serving as a source of inspiration for current and aspiring comedians alike.

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