“The Warmth Episode” (season 1, episode 11, original airdate Oct. 24, 1992)
Opening credits guests: John Forsythe, Rosie Perez, Richard Marx
Hank’s introduction of Larry in the opening credits: “Because he’s standing behind the curtain waiting to come out… ”
“The Party” teed up the dissolution of Larry’s marriage perfectly, but the plotline isn’t picked up in “Warmth,” which addresses more of the everyday pressures Larry faces as a late-night host. As I’ve mentioned before, the episodes weren’t shot in the order they aired, not that The Larry Sanders Show was like Lost or something. The show will return to Larry’s crumbling marriage soon enough—only two episodes remain in the first season after “Warmth.”
If a Larry Sanders episode concerns the machinations of show business, chances are it was written by Paul Simms, who also wrote “Spiders,” “The Guest Host,” and a bunch of other episodes beyond the first season. Simms wrote for Letterman before the host moved to CBS and would later create NewsRadio, and his deft understanding of what goes on behind the scenes on TV helped make The Larry Sanders Show so true to life.
“Warmth” certainly comes from a real place. There’s a reference to the infamous Entertainment Weekly Arsenio Hall cover, only here Hall vows to kick Larry’s ass, not Leno’s. (“That’s why I have someone walk me to my car at night,” says an amused Artie.) There’s talk of schmoozing the affiliates (“Is this an affiliate problem?” Hank asks. “Because I would be more than happy to fly out to Bumfuck, Arkansas, or wherever and give them old dog and pony show.” Pelvic thrust.), which played a big role in the Leno-Letterman schism inside NBC, and was crucial in getting Conan booted from The Tonight Show. Most important, there’s much hand-wringing over Larry’s likability, his demographics, and whether or not to employ a focus group.
After a show, Larry finds a demographic report on his desk, part of a new strategy by the network to keep tabs on how well he’s doing with viewers. Artie dismisses it as “meaningless bullshit crap” and claims Larry wasn’t supposed to see the report, but Larry (and viewers) should know by now that Artie is far too smart to be so careless. He wants Larry to see the report—not because he thinks Larry needs to go the focus-group route, but probably out of a small, though genuine, concern. He never says this outright, and he tries to reassure Larry, but this report would have never made it to Larry’s desk if Artie didn’t want him to see it.
Larry’s likeability among 18- to 34-year-olds is a 4.2, whatever that means. Artie tries to tell him it’s all relative.
“Relative to what? Arsenio is a 9.3.”
“Well it’s not the size of the number. It’s the motion of the ocean.”
“Oh for God’s sake, Artie, I wish you were a woman. I’d feel a little better when you say that.”
Arsenio has such a high number because he ruthlessly abides by focus-group feedback. That approach can pay dividends, but Artie and Larry know the influence can be toxic; trusting 20 random people to determine the shape of your show is not only pandering, but it dilutes your uniqueness in an attempt to be all things to all people—or at least to 18- to 34-year-olds.
Larry scores a lackluster 4.2 on the likeability scale, but Jeannie, in her own inept way, tries to reassure him his unlikeability is paradoxically part of his appeal: “People watch your show because you’re partly an asshole,” she says, and the look on Larry’s face is priceless. “You’re a little hostile. It makes you interesting. It gives you an edge.”
Chastised the day before by Richard Simmons for being “the little boy next door who used to make fun of people and put people down,” and then being called an asshole by his own wife, Larry is on guard the next day. When he accidentally gets a security guard fired (and is told this while doing an interview), he insists on hiring the kid back. (“I am not mean, by the way!”) He makes an awkward attempt to tell the writers he appreciates their work. He takes a small bit of solace in being liked by the homosexual community (vis à vis an interview with The Advocate.) Of course, he can’t be perfect while talking to Beverly.
“‘Pluck your nerves,’ what is that, a black thing?” he asks.
“You’re such an idiot.”
“But the homosexual community likes me, right?”
His confidence cratering, Larry tells Artie to do the focus group. “Let me ask you something,” Artie says. “If 20 random people decided you’d look better in a crew cut, would you get one?” “Yes.” “Fine, we’ll do the focus group.”
As Artie warned, the focus group turns out to be terrible. Proof: They love Hank—he tests through the roof. When the moderator asks the group if they find Larry “friendly, mildly friendly, neutral, or not friendly at all” (or “likeable, unlikeable killer, pathological killer, psycho killer,” according to Larry), the consensus is neutral. Even Larry’s sole fan in the group concedes he has “big, uneven nostrils.” A person wonders why Howie Mandel doesn’t have his own show. One man says he likes that Larry is from Minneapolis, which prompts another guy to say, “I didn’t know he was Canadian. Canadians get on my nerves.”
With a look on his face that couldn’t be more gloriously “I told you so,” Artie asks, “Is this what you wanted?” as he and Larry stand behind a two-way mirror.
“I can’t watch this,” Larry says. “This is too sad.”
“You wanted to do it.”
“Yeah, well, now I know why Baywatch is in the top 10.”
At the water cooler, Larry realizes focus groups are a no-win situation for him personally. Even if everyone loved him, he wouldn’t believe it. “If 20 people said they liked me, I’m telling you, I would be thinking 17 of them are lying, two of them have severe emotional problems, and one of them’s probably confusing me with Larry King.” Artie advises that liking yourself is the first step in not caring what people think, which is no help. “Great, then I’m totally fucked!” Larry says, laughing.
He’s just finding some measure of peace when a lost focus-grouper runs into him and Artie. When the two of them laugh at their inside jokes, the guy assumes he’s being mocked, and goes from Larry Sanders Fan to Larry Sander Hater in the space of a few seconds. “Fuck you! Showbiz assholes.”
Larry and Artie drink their water quietly. His likeability rating is screwed.
But hey, a couple years later, Arsenio would be off the air, and Larry would continue through the late ’90s. Where’s your likeable messiah now, huh, focus groups?
- During Hank’s Weight Update, Richard Simmons—sitting on Hank’s lap, of course—holds a Polaroid up of Hank and asks who it is. “That’s the old Hank,” he says, choking up. Tambor just nails Hank’s mix of ego and vulnerability, and he even scores a good joke with Larry and Artie later in the office, when he acts like he didn’t know tuberculosis is contagious. “Why isn’t he that funny on the show?” Larry asks.
- The affiliates are mentioned in passing in that scene with Hank, but all networks live at the mercy of their affiliate stations. They have the power, among others, to replace late-night talk shows with cheap syndicated reruns. Late-night shows live and die by their “clearance” levels, meaning the percentage of affiliates that air the show instead of some other programming. In The War For Late Night, Bill Carter talks extensively about how Jay Leno was a god among affiliates, because he never balked at schmoozing them or doing dorky local promos—something Letterman despised so much that he just flat out refused. When NBC was deciding in 1992 to keep Leno on The Tonight Show or dump him for Letterman, the affiliates came out strongly in favor of their pal Leno (his ratings helped too). The affiliates’ distaste for Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show would play a huge role in his ouster nearly 20 years later.
- Ken Kwapis directed this episode, and he’s had what could be called a checkered career in Hollywood. On one hand, he directed schlock like Dunston Checks In, The Beautician And The Beast,The Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants, License To Wed, He’s Just Not That Into You, and two episodes (including the pilot!) of Outsourced. On the other, he’s directed 12 episodes of The Office, an episode of Parks And Rec, a couple Freaks And Geeks, not to mention 12 episodes of Larry Sanders.
- Mindy Sterling is inexplicably back in the writers’ room, just as she was a few episodes back. It’s never explained who she is or where she goes. There’s always room for Mindy Sterling, people.
- “You’ve got that thing. We’re talked about this, the hostility. You’re a funny person, and all funny people have a certain amount of rage.”
- Larry on super-agent Michael Ovitz: “You know how many hundreds of dollars he makes off this show?”