“What Have You Done For Me Lately?” (season 1, episode 1; originally aired Aug. 15, 1992)
The way comedian Garry Shandling tells it, he had two choices: host a talk show, or do a show about hosting a talk show. He’d been offered a late-night talk show following David Letterman at Letterman’s new network, CBS—and as he recently told Marc Maron on WTF, he was also offered Late Night before Conan O’Brien. Shandling had plenty of experience; he started guest-hosting The Tonight Show for Comedian God Johnny Carson in 1983, but Shandling didn’t think he could hold up doing it nightly. “The only thing odder than being on TV every night is wanting to be on TV every night,” Shandling tells Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales in an interview on the first disc of The Larry Sanders Show DVD set.
We all know which choice Shandling made. The Larry Sanders Show debuted on HBO on Aug. 15, 1992, the first of 13 episodes the network ordered without having seen a pilot. It focused on the world of a middle-of-the-road late-night talk show, with Shandling as the neurotic host, Rip Torn as his trusted producer Artie, Jeffrey Tambor as his square sidekick, and a cast of supporting players who worked behind the scenes, including Janeane Garofalo, pre-plugs Jeremy Piven, Wallace Langham, and eventually Bob Odenkirk, Mary Lynn Rajskub, and too many celebrity cameos to mention.
The production used a savvy mix of video and film, shooting the “televised” talk-show segments on video, then using film for what happened everywhere else. It was an ambitious choice that required seven cameras—four video, three film—all running at the same time during the talk-show segments. During the talk-show segments, video would be used for the “on air” portion, but the film cameras would come up to shoot anything that happened during commercials or off-set (always at different angles than the video cameras used, to emphasize the change).
“What Have You Done For Me Lately?”—written by veteran scribe Peter Tolan, who would later create Rescue Me—wasn’t the first episode shot for season one. That was “Hey Now,” where Larry thinks Hank is doing too much work outside the show. “Hey Now” ended up closing out season one, and the next episode shot, “The Flirt Episode” (where Mimi Rogers and Larry get a little too cozy on set), was used at the halfway point of the season. By the time “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” was shot, the cast and crew had a much clearer idea of what they wanted the show to be.
“What Have You Done For Me Lately?” is definitely the right episode to start the series, because it establishes the show’s core relationship and conflicts within five minutes: Larry leans on Artie to do his dirty work, and the network is constantly unhappy. (“Larry doesn’t like confrontation,” Shandling tells Shales. “In show business, you can hire somebody to say ‘no’ for you.”) The Larry-Artie relationship is the heart of The Larry Sanders Show, with Rip Torn—in the role he was born to play—as the irascible Guy Behind The Guy who runs the whole operation. Torn’s character was based on Carson’s long-time producer Fred De Cordova, and it’s a perfect archetype of a showbiz lifer: Artie knows when to flatter Larry and when to push him, deftly glad-hands the show’s guests, and treats the staff with a blunt, no-bullshit attitude that delivers some of the show’s best lines.
“What Have You Done For Me Lately?” begins like a genuine late-night talk show, with sax-laden opening credits showing clips from old episodes (a direct nod to the Carson-era Tonight Show) and Larry delivering the kind of hacky, what’s-in-the-news-today monologue that is the calling card of late-night hosts everywhere. Nearly 20 years later, Larry’s monologues are a fun time capsule of ’90s references; in this episode, there’s an allusion to the riots in L.A. after the Rodney King verdict, a reference to Bill Clinton playing sax on the then-powerful Arsenio Hall Show, Sonny Bono not being elected to the Senate, Ted Kennedy being a boozer, yada yada. What, no Ugly Kid Joe reference?
Larry’s pulled against his will into a meeting with the network afterward, where he first meets his new nemesis, Melanie Parrish (Deborah May), the recently hired VP of programming for the network. The problem? Late night TV is “trench warfare,” where every step must be taken to retain advertisers “other than giving free handjobs,” Parrish says. The network wants Larry to do old-timey live commercials on the air. “Knowing the sponsors the way I do, I think they would respond more to the handjobs,” Larry responds. There’s a key moment here that sets up a recurring gag on the show, when Larry starts to say something but chickens out and looks to Artie to finish his thought, like John Stockton passing to Karl Malone (’90s reference!). This is the fundamental behavior of their relationship.
But it’s not really a choice, so Larry is stuck doing a prop-heavy commercial for the Garden Weasel on the next night’s show. The studio audience, who hasn’t seen this before on Larry’s show (or any other), understandably treats it like a bit—it doesn’t help that the commercial’s set looks like something from Saturday Night Live. Larry can’t play it straight, and he immediately starts with jokes (Jimmy Hoffa’s body is in the garden) and innuendo (“You just gently guide your weasel… in between your, let’s say, plants”). Parrish is not amused after the show, and Larry dishes the ball again. “Well,” he says, laughing, “I must tell you…Artie?”
The commercial goes even more poorly the next night when Larry mocks the Garden Weasel’s name—“Why not just call it the Amazing Rat Stick?”—which leads to a showdown with Parrish that leaves Larry with a black eye. It leaves Larry in arguably his most uncomfortable position: needing the help of Hank, whose commercial pitch work rivals Krusty The Clown’s. (When Larry tries to dump the Garden Weasel commercial on Hank at the beginning of the episode, the network execs rebuff him, saying Hank’s “saturation level is too high.”) Hank is dying to do the spot, so he tries to offer some advice: When he’s shilling for pearl cream, he just thinks about “America and everything she stands for.”
Larry can’t hack it on his third try doing the commercial, so he brings over Hank, who absolutely nails the role of a TV pitchman, peppering his language with words like “friends” and getting the audience to say his catchphrase “Hey now!” He sounds like a guy selling ShamWow at a county fair, and he provides a much-needed straight man to play off of Larry. The network is delighted.
But Larry still isn’t having it. In a meeting afterward with Parrish network head honcho Sheldon Davidoff (James Karen), Artie not only tells them Larry won’t be doing the commercial but hilariously stands up to Parrish: “Don’t take this as a threat, but I killed a man like you in Korea—hand to hand.”
Parrish is pissed, though Sheldon’s fine with it. But the episode ends with a telling example of Larry’s spinelessness: Even after Artie has taken a clear stand against the live commercials, Larry still trails after Sheldon and half-heartedly offers to try again. Sheldon turns around and says hopefully, “Really?”
No, but if Larry Sanders excels at anything, it’s going through the motions. Artie’s always in the back, ready to take the pass.
- When the show started, the crew would shoot the film and video segments sequentially, which took forever—Shandling mentions in the DVD interview keeping a studio audience waiting for six hours to film a scene. Eventually, they shot the video and film segments together and ditched the live audience, unless the episode called for crowd shots. In reality, Shandling delivered his monologues to an empty studio, with a laugh track simulating the crowd.
- What was the point of the misbehaving-dog scene with the trainer? It’s funny, but it’s a random plot thread—Larry’s crazy dog is professionally trained!—thrown in for seemingly no reason.
- One recurring reference in The Larry Sanders Show that feels especially dated is Arsenio Hall, whose eponymous show was a late-night force in the early ’90s. The way Larry and Artie constantly fret over Arsenio is pretty funny, considering how quickly Hall’s show flamed out. But in 1992, Hall was serious competition for The Tonight Show, which was losing viewers to the hip, urban upstart as Carson aged. When Leno succeeded Carson, Hall famously told Entertainment Weekly, “I’m gonna kick Leno’s ass.” (He later complained that the quote had been taken out of context.) He’d be off the air within two years, and Leno’s brutal regime of mediocrity still reigns.
- “That Green Giant spot has really been a monkey on my back. If they ask you to put on a pair of green tights, no matter how much they offer you, you just, uh, walk away.” [Dramatic pause.] “Walk away.” —Hank
- “I swear I killed her in the war.”
“You used that line yesterday.”
“It’s not a line; it’s a real concern.” —Artie & Larry
- “You just tell that Korean woman that she’s wrong.”
“She’s not Korean!” —Larry’s wife and Larry discuss Melanie Parrish
- Oh, Linda Doucett, the ditzy eye candy of The Larry Sanders Show. Here’s how she makes her debut:
- Some trivia: Shandling and Doucett were engaged at one point but had a bitter falling out that led to her leaving the show at the end of season three. She would later sue the company owned by Shandling and manager Brad Grey for wrongful termination and sexual harassment. Later, Shandling would sue Grey for “enriching himself at [Shandling’s] expense,” according to The New York Times. Grey eventually became the head of Paramount and got mixed up in the case of Anthony Pellicano, the former high-powered Hollywood private investigator who’s currently in prison for wiretapping. That’s the kind of scandal that would’ve provided a nice backdrop for an episode of The Larry Sanders Show.
- If you want to watch The Larry Sanders Show, the entirety of its run is available on Netflix Instant.