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The Inside History of ‘The Larry Sanders Show’

In this exclusive excerpt from ‘Tinderbox: HBO’s Ruthless Pursuit of New Frontiers,’ James Andrew Miller chronicles the rise and rumbles of Garry Shandling’s comedy classic

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The following is an edited and condensed excerpt adapted from Tinderbox: HBO’s Ruthless Pursuit of New Frontiers, by James Andrew Miller, arriving November 23 from Henry Holt publishers.

Stand-up stalwart Garry Shandling first appeared at L.A.’s Comedy Store in 1978; by the late 1980s he had become one of Johnny Carson’s favorite comedians for shots on The Tonight Show, as well as a regular “guest host” when Johnny was away.

Shandling, a comic with plenty of knowing self-deprecation, didn’t just tell jokes; through repeat appearances he established and refined an ever-evolving caricature of himself. In 1986, Shandling expanded on that persona and created, with former SNL writer and comedy kingpin Alan Zweibel, Showtime’s It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, a series so shrewdly self-aware that its theme song began simply, “This is the theme to Garry’s show.” Garry took it from there—up, down, and finally over, but not before the completion of four lovingly reviewed seasons.

Even that ingenious enterprise was but a warm-up, however, for the next Shandling innovation to come. HBO tapped him to create another comedy series, The Larry Sanders Show, which landed his alter ego into a sitcom disguised as a fake late-night talk show, with brilliant backstage interpolations.

The first episode came to HBO on August 15, 1992. Shandling, as the chronically needy Sanders, used the series to poke fun at ever-inflated showbiz egos and the industry in general.

Over the course of six seasons and ninety episodes, Shandling would be supplemented by a quixotic array of stars, from Jennifer Aniston to Warren Zevon, playing satirized versions of themselves—plus real-life network executives and even a TV critic or two, as though everyone in the business, or those clinging by their fingernails to its fringes, weren’t already Hollywood “versions” of themselves.

Shandling shot Sanders mostly on a CBS lot in Studio City, during the epoch in which fellow stand-up comic Jerry Seinfeld was doing his own history-making series virtually next door. And so, for a few years at least, the comedy epicenter of the planet was crowded into a humble little corner of the Valley.

Michael Fuchs (executive): I thought It’s Garry Shandling’s Show was terrific, and he was someone we should be in business with. I spoke at an ACE Awards. He was in the first few rows with his girlfriend Linda, and I congratulated him on his awards, wooing him right there on fucking TV. In major league sports, that’s called tampering.

Linda Doucett (actor): It’s Garry Shandling’s Show was cleaning up with awards that night. I saw how Michael Fuchs looked at Garry and thought, “He’s going to be on HBO really soon.”

Alan Zweibel (executive producer): Gilda Radner believed she was in remission when she appeared as a guest on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which was the first time she had been in front of an audience in years. She had such a great time doing it and was all revved up for something more. And new. There was a meeting with me, Garry, Bernie [Brillstein], Gilda, and Michael Fuchs; we didn’t have a formalized deal, but the understanding was that Garry, Gilda, and I would create a show for HBO. Fuchs was going to wait for it. He even called a few times asking how it was coming along. We had a number of writing sessions, me, Gilda, and Garry, and they were great. The idea was Gilda would play the star of her own variety series. We would show the writers’ room, the offices, rehearsals, sketches, and you would also see her at home. Then Gilda canceled our next meeting. Then the one after that. Her cancer had come back. We pulled the plug on that show because Gilda’s cancer had taken over.

Michael Fuchs: Brad Grey called me up and said, “Would you want to do a show with Garry?” I said, “Sure.” He pitched it, and I loved the idea. I thought it was the consummate show about show business hypocrisy. I gave him seven or eight episodes on the phone. I wanted to be a monopolist.

Chris Albrecht (executive): We had been working for years trying to convince Michael to let us do half-hour series, then during one call he green-lights a show on his own.

Michael Fuchs: The programming people on the West Coast went fucking crazy. I love when that happens. I’m telling you they rooted for this show to go down the toilet.

Judd Apatow (writer): Michael Fuchs was very aggressive about doing something with Garry and gave him a commitment unheard of at that time in television.

Garry was such a great observer of people that while hosting The Tonight Show, he noticed all of the neuroses in that show. He noticed that it was a great metaphor for how humans interact with each other. That’s what fascinated him. He didn’t want to be a host. He wanted to comment about the world of talk shows, the people who work there, and what we all have in common. He was mainly interested in the show explaining what keeps people apart. He also talked about the curtain as a metaphor. He once said to me, “Most people never tell you the truth, and when they do, it’s a huge deal.” Garry said the show is about people who love each other, but show business gets in the way.

Chris Albrecht: We convinced Michael that we should do a pilot because it was hard to understand how the show was going to mix the different realities of backstage and the show, and we heard some of it was going to be on film and some on tape. We needed a pilot to work this all out. We set up a call, and the plan was I was going to say, “This all sounds great, but we probably should do a pilot,” and then Michael was going to say, “I agree.” But he never said that.

Susie Fitzgerald (executive): When we were casting, sometimes it would be just me and Garry in the room, which was the case when Rip Torn came in to audition. He was wearing one of those L.L. Bean hats with the long bill and a fishing jacket and then proceeds to have this weird nonsensical conversation with Garry—probably twenty minutes—that I couldn’t follow. When Rip left the room, I turned to Garry and asked, “What was he talking about?” Garry said, “I have no idea.” We still ended up casting him.

Jeremy Piven (actor): I ran into Garry in the bathroom as he was putting in his contacts. I was like, “Hey, I’m about to audition for you.” He said, “All right, well, good luck.” He was very sweet.

Garry was a genius, the maestro. He wanted to make a show about the backstage of life. It was so funny, layered, and ahead of his time. I had just gotten out of college, a random dude coming off the bench, but for me it was like grad school.

Michael Fuchs: Linda, Garry, Brad, and I would go out to dinner and we had always had a great time. Garry was as indecisive about women as Larry Sanders was. Garry and Linda were on and off for seven years, and at one point she told me she was through with him, so we started going out. This happened on the way to Robin Williams’s fortieth birthday party in Northern California. Garry found out about it, and I guess he didn’t think things with him and Linda were over. Not so smart for the network head to date its star’s girlfriend, even if it’s post-relationship. We made peace at Billy Crystal’s fortieth. God bless those great comedians.

Jeff Bewkes (executive): Michael gave me the Sanders pilot tape, which he wasn’t in the habit of doing. He came to the doorway later to check my reaction, and I said, “This is the greatest fucking thing we’ve ever done.” He says, “You think it’s too Jewish? Will people like it in the Midwest?” I said, “What am I, the goy test? Yes, they’ll get it. Not everybody, but enough.”

Henry Winkler (actor): I was on the show that had something to do with Hank’s sex tape, and Norm Macdonald said the word “cock” to me, and they all thought that was mind-blowing to say to the Fonz. It was amazing to see how the show was done. Before taping, everybody met in Garry’s office and you literally read the script out loud again, then he had the last edit.

Rita Moreno (actor): It was a strange experience. I felt like everybody was crazy but me. I tried to say something to Garry but he didn’t listen; he was talking to about five people at once, just talking, talking, talking, and I could never get in a word edgewise. It was bizarre. It was always a lot of people walking and talking and yelling. I felt like I was in a crazy house, or an asylum. I went home and thought, “I’m glad I don’t work on that show.”

Chris Albrecht: Garry was not low maintenance.

Judd Apatow: The debate we would always have in the writers’ room was, Would you rather work for a really difficult person who’s a genius or work for someone who’s mediocre, who was really easy to deal with?

There were definitely people there who were very offended by moments when Garry had no energy to be polite. A lot of that was about exhaustion. We shot seventeen pages a day for two days to get the show in the can. In addition to that, we would do long nights shooting the talk show elements. No one really knew how to shoot single-camera comedy in a way that made the star’s life livable. Garry was one of the first people who was the writer, director, producer, and star; it was way too much work and our show was set up in a way that did not serve him.

Bridget Potter (executive): One show was less than twenty minutes long. It had been longer but Garry didn’t like certain parts and wasn’t going to make it any longer. It was one of those things that we allowed him to do.

Michael Fuchs: At one point, Garry wanted to take a year off and we had to work that out. We were very good with talent that way, unlike networks that were stuck with the rigidity of their schedules.

Carolyn Strauss (executive): Watching and listening to Garry was so amazing to me. He would walk away from any joke—no matter how funny it was—if it didn’t work for the character, or if it didn’t work for the story. It wasn’t about hanging on to jokes, it was about hanging on to the integrity of the characters and the integrity of the piece. To this day, I consider the way he did that to be incredibly rare. He had so much confidence in his characters and what he was trying to do with the show that it made a huge impression on me.

Garry took the comedy format to a new level and set a standard that we hoped to achieve with other scripted shows.

Paul Simms (writer): I was warned when I went to work there by people who had worked with him before that Garry always turns on his number two. He’ll always at some point develop resentment and hostility toward whoever was supposed to be his right-hand person.

Inevitably the point came where I rose up high enough that I was the number two. Then things got difficult between us. People rarely talk about the fact that around season two or three, Garry was taking a lot of Vicodin, and it made work really difficult because when you’re under the influence of that, it makes you unfocused and hard to pin down to make decisions. And when you’re not under the influence, it makes you short-tempered and full of rage. So that was difficult to deal with. Then of course there was the inevitability that because he was doing it, I started doing it, too. Now you had two people who were alternately taking Vicodin, were alternately unfocused and then full of rage and hostility toward each other. Recipe for success.

I had a very fruitful and tumultuous three-year relationship with Garry, where we were very close and worked together very closely. Ultimately, we ended up estranged and bitter enemies.

Linda Doucett: Garry finally said to me, “We’re going to give you your own story line,” and it turned out to be the one where my character, Darlene, is asked to pose for Playboy. I had been asked to do it in real life and said I would do it if we could incorporate it into the show.

Because of my Amish background, I’d like to go on the record and point out I was never totally naked, just topless. Garry had a beach house in Malibu where we spent 30 percent of our time, and we did some of the shoot out there. Some of the poses were pretty provocative, including one with me lying across a bed with my head hanging off the side of the bed. When I saw Garry’s reaction to that and a few others, I asked that it be dialed back. We never showed any of it on the show. It was a bad career move on my part.

Peter Tolan (writer): We loved Rip. He was great on the show, but he had more than his share of demons, and he could be angry and abusive to the cast and crew. It got to the point where Garry and I had to sit down with him and confront him about his behavior, which was a joke from the start, what with two nonconfrontational people going up against one of the most confrontational actors in Hollywood history. Rip came in and sat down opposite us, and Garry screwed up his courage and told Rip he was a bully and his abusive behavior would have to change. Rip spread his legs wide, leaned into us and said, “Oh yeah? Or what?” What, we were going to fire him? He knew that would never happen. Rip was crazy from day one and acted out in every possible way, but he had us completely by the balls and we all knew it.

One week, we had Burt Reynolds on the show. He was supposed to be Larry’s neighbor, and was going to be talking to Garry over a fence. He goes, “What am I going to be doing over here?” They said, “You’re just talking to him over the fence.” Burt says, “I want to be doing something. I want to dig a hole.” So we had to get a bucket of dirt and a shovel.

The day starts, and somebody from Brillstein-Grey assigns a PA to Reynolds, and the instructions are, “Get him whatever he needs.” Reynolds shows up and the kid says, “I’m supposed to get whatever you need.” Reynolds says, “I need a bottle of vodka and a bottle of soda.” So the kid doesn’t talk to anybody, and goes right out to the liquor store. Reynolds is fucking snockered when he comes down to shoot, and it’s not going well. In fact, at one point, he threw dirt over the wall onto Garry, and Garry was like, “What the fuck is this?”

Then Burt has this amazing meltdown in front of the cast and crew. He’s standing behind this fake wall with fake brick, and he ends up tearing pieces off and throwing them at the camera crew. Complete meltdown. Huge. I’ve never seen anything like it. Then he marches off. Who do I happen to be standing next to when this happens? Rip, who just goes, “Burt’s a troubled boy.” I thought to myself, “Who are you kidding? You’re the gatekeeper of the troubled boys. Fuck you.”

Linda Doucett: One episode, they were cutting lines, and Rip didn’t like it when his lines got cut. He was getting really angry, and the AD comes into the writers’ room and says, “Rip is going insane. He’s smashing everything in his dressing room and he has a gun.” Everybody froze and Garry says, “Oh shit, we have a show to shoot. Send Linda in. He won’t shoot her.”

Everybody starts laughing and he goes, “I’m serious. Linda, go.” I go knock on the door. “Rip, it’s Linda. Please don’t shoot me.” I come in and he goes, “Hi, honey.” I asked him, “Rip, what’s wrong?” He says, “Oh, this damn TV stuff.” I said something like, “Rip, it’s really chilly out there. I know you want to keep working.” And he goes, “Yeah, God dammit. You’re right.”

Chris Albrecht: Larry Sanders was one of the first shows on HBO that opinion makers followed, which was good for us. Garry was a visionary; watching him pull all that together certainly gave us a lot of experience, and it showed a whole other host of people what you could do on HBO.

Michael Fuchs: Brad had fucking nothing to do with the show creatively, but it put him in the TV business. The show was a critical success, not a giant ratings killer, but we were never slaves to ratings. Our economics had nothing to do with ratings. Historically, the show stands up very well. Hard to believe Brad and Garry are gone. Now I can take full creative credit!

Brad Grey had bought numerous plots of land on Monaco Drive in L.A.’s plush Pacific Palisades, and among Grey’s proposed constructions was a 13,143-square-foot home replete with seven bedrooms, twelve bathrooms, and nearly every imaginable luxury. Grey was said to be nervous about Shandling getting a look at the place, a worry that would definitely be borne out. The comic’s visit to the great Grey manse, and the Shandling brouhaha that followed, would lead to the so-called David Geffen rule, “Never let them see your house.”

Chris Albrecht: What happened was Garry walked into the construction site where Brad was building this massive estate with a pond. And Garry was still trying to get through building his much smaller house. I think he was comparing what Brad had to what he had and realizing that a lot of what Brad had was built on the back of his work.

In January 1998, Garry Shandling sued Brad Grey in California Superior Court for the staggering sum of $100 million, beginning an eighteen-month legal wrangle that destroyed what had been one of Hollywood’s most fabled friendships.

Judd Apatow: It’s hard to know how the lawsuit affected Garry medically. Garry did have physical problems. He had health issues. He used to eat Excedrin all day long. He had a fibroid problem, he had pancreatitis. I wouldn’t want to say that the stress from that situation made him sick. One could say that Mike Nichols and him not getting along as collaborators on What Planet Are You From? broke his spirit even more than Brad because he was so looking forward to a positive collaboration with Mike for creative and personal reasons, but it was such a bad match that he never wrote a screenplay again or tried to make another movie.

Garry’s spirit was broken. Ultimately, he couldn’t handle show business even though he satirized it. I think it was too much for him. He wasn’t strong in that way. He didn’t realize that people would hurt each other for real, and I think it really rocked him.

Brad climbed and climbed and went on to become head of Paramount Studios. Meanwhile, he had health issues, too. The tragedy was Garry and Brad both died the same year.

After Garry died, I went back and read old emails from him, and sat at my desk, bawling. He was a beautiful, hilarious, tortured, inspired, spiritual person. There’s never been anyone like him and there never will be. He was very complex. He wasn’t perfect. But he was trying to be better. He was trying to evolve.

Adapted from Tinderbox: HBO’s Ruthless Pursuit of New Frontiers by James Andrew Miller. To be published by Henry Holt and Company November 23rd 2021. Copyright © 2021 by James Andrew Miller. All rights reserved.

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