If you like Garry Shandling, or Jon Stewart or Dave Chappelle or Ellen DeGeneres or Mary Lynn Rajskub or Sarah Silverman or…well, Not Just the Best of The Larry Sanders Show is one of the most remarkable DVD sets ever released. It doesn’t just include 23 prime episodes of Shandling’s ’92-98 HBO series The Larry Sanders Show, which would alone qualify it as a treasure of American comedy; there are also more than eight hours of interviews with guest stars and cast members (some of whom I named above). Many of the interviews are conducted by Shandling himself; they’re amusing on their own and, taken together, they form a portrait of one of the most complex comedians ever.
A man who guards his thoughts and emotions behind a deadpan wince and dismissive one-liners, Shandling uses the DVD format as a therapeutic tool, to go over old ground. Revisiting former colleagues and friends to find out how they felt about both Larry Sanders and Garry Shandling amounts to a monumental display of self-centeredness — and a great deal of fearless revelation and humor.
Before the British and American versions of The Office, and before reality TV became its own genre, The Larry Sanders Show made an artistic virtue of playing off what we knew about celebrities on and off camera — how plugged-in we’d become about how the television industry works. Shandling’s Sanders was a Johnny Carson wannabe, a struggling late-night host complete with doofus announcer sidekick Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor), fiercely protective producer Artie (Rip Torn), and a staff of writers that included future Entourage breakout Jeremy Piven. Behind the scenes, Sanders was penned by such talents as Peter Tolan (Rescue Me) and Judd Apatow (The 40 Year-Old Virgin).
Watch the episodes for their enduring pleasures and ’90s time-capsule kitsch (”Don’t panic,” Artie tells Larry the day before a taping. ”Macaulay Culkin dropped out. Geography quiz”). Then check out the weirdly intimate meal chat that the star and Sharon Stone share at her house, or the amazingly tense conversation between Shandling and Apatow; the latter, though smiling, tells Shandling that ”I want to punch you” for cutting a joke he wrote years ago.
Some will say that 23 episodes out of the 89-episode run, when only the first season has been previously made available on DVD, aren’t enough, no matter how compelling the extras. If you’re a completist, there’s no argument that you’re right. But I’ll take the cream of the series, along with such unprecedented self-analysis, as its own work of art with a capital A.