Garry Shandling’s shock death has a particular resonance with this writer. Shandling was the man who made me reappraise my whole view on American television comedy. Before discovering The Larry Sanders Show, it felt like there was almost nothing to recommend it. Cheers had already had its heyday, and it seemed like there was little going other than schmaltzy family based comedies, which were almost invariably utterly terrible. For some reason, even though it was sort of on my radar, I hadn’t yet invested myself in the peerless Seinfeld (amends have since made for that unconscionable oversight). I was beginning to think Roseanne was as good as it would ever get. Actually, I was left almost wondering if the good stuff from America didn’t get exported. That instead, foreigners were force fed with the pap that was discarded by the US networks. By the mid to late 1990s, I was seriously yearning for an antidote to the malevolent juggernaut of anti-talent comedy kryptonite represented by Friends, which it seemed all of my peers watched and inexplicably liked.
I don’t know if The Larry Sanders Show was the first comedy that didn’t have a laugh track, but it was the first one I’d seen. I was in awe of how clever it was, how much depth there was in the characters and the writing, and how it got celebrities to play alternate, self-parodying versions of themselves. When it seemed that just about everything else was appealing to a low common denominator, Larry Sanders represented a higher intelligence and made comedy seem like a noble art. And it was so so funny. Watching it also made me think of Shandling as a generous comedian, because in Jeffrey Tambor and Rip Torn, he gave great prominence to not one, but two, fine actors playing wonderful characters that were allowed to routinely steal scenes from the eponymous star.
Television has obviously changed since the 1990s. There is a well-documented proliferation of options available to viewers, to the extent that modern TV has generated its own class system, characterised by box set snobbery and the like. Given how contemptible so much of the competition was twenty years ago, The Larry Sanders Show might be described as a show that gave its viewers licence to feel justifiably satisfied about themselves, and warm reassurance that they weren’t squandering their box watching time.