And it encapsulated everything that made Garry Shandling, who died today at the age of 66, a brilliant comedic actor. Larry Sanders, in Shandling’s hands, was a mess of contradictions—as The AV Club’s Kyle Ryan described him, “equal parts ego and insecurity, entitled yet spineless.” As a host and a boss and a human being he was maddeningly complicated, switching from totally repellant and incredibly charming and back in a matter of seconds.
Larry Sanders was also that rarest of American comedic characters: someone who was both full of pathos and unlikable. In many ways, Sanders had more in common with British characters than American ones, but The Larry Sanders Show, the greatest satire of Hollywood and celebrity ever aired on television, was so thoroughly American it didn’t matter. We haven’t seen a character as insecure or as cringeworthy as Larry Sanders since the show went off the air in 1998. Right now, only Veep, which was created by the master of cringeworthy British comedy, Armando Iannucci, can compare with The Larry Sanders Show’s biting, prescient humor about both celebrity and the nature of work. Larry Sanders may have been set in Hollywood, but it was ultimately a workplace sitcom.
Guided by Shandling (and it must be said, Jeffrey Tambor’s performance as Hank Kingsley, one of the greatest characters in the history of television), The Larry Sanders Show was Shandling at his absolute best: complicated, brilliant, and funny as hell.