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Yesterday's TV, Today's Economy: The Larry Sanders Show


It's hard not to wish that Shandling, Torn and Tambor were still around to provide sardonic commentary on the latest developments in show business and online entertainment.

The Larry Sanders Show went off the air in May, 1998. Comedy kingpin Judd Apatow, then a staffer on the show and just one of the many talents it helped nurture during its influential run, watched stars Garry Shandling, Jeffrey Tambor, and Rip Torn shoot the last scene of the finale. "They did it in one take, and wrapped the series," he recalled while reminiscing with Marc Maron on the WTF podcast last summer. "Those were ballsy guys! What if there was a hair on the gate? They were guys at the top of their game."

While the decision to leave at a creative peak was a wise move artistically, it's hard not to wish that Shandling, Torn, Tambor
(whose role as sidekick Hank Kingsley is, and there is not a drop of hyperbole in this statement, one of the greatest and most appalling comedic characters in all of American culture), and their supporting cast were still here to provide sardonic commentary on the latest developments in that crazy business they call show.

It's not that they didn't have plenty of material to work with during their six-year run. Parodying the first Late Night Wars between
Letterman and Leno, the rise of cable, the ever-bloating swell of celebrity culture, the vicious in-fighting, ridiculous egos and
pathetic personal lives of 1990s late night figures, The Larry Sanders Show was groundbreaking TV in content and style. Watching it now, you can see the roots of The Office, of Arrested Development, of most of the rapid-fire, single-camera, no-laugh-track developments that now dominate modern TV comedy. As well, you can see the fragmenting of the late-night audience – once a single fiefdom run by Johnny Carson – the increasing creep of corporate oversight, the sheer headless-chicken nature of the entertainment machine.

But what hay the show would have made of the stench of desperation emanating from 30 Rock and Burbank as audiences late-night and otherwise subdivide to the point of non-existence, of the current, bewildering maze of cable options, Netflixing, DVRing, YouTubing, bittorrenting and Hulu-ing. Imagine hapless, horrible Kingsley in a world of viral video and cellphone cameras! Imagine the Second Late Night Wars – by far the most entertaining thing associated with that time slot since Sanders went dark -- as seen through the eyes of Larry and his dysfunctional gang.

In today's entertainment multiverse Larry Sanders would still be facing competition from old dogs like himself, with Leno, back on The Tonight Show after last year's unpleasantness and commanding a reduced but still definable lead in audience numbers with an average of 3.9 million nightly viewers, according to Nielsen . This is smaller than the 5 million or so he was pulling in before Late Night Wars 2, but then again, these numbers are down across the board for network TV.

But Leno would just be the biggest, blandest competitor in a particularly congested era of late night: Letterman holds on in second place, while Conan O'Brien battles it out for that coveted18-34 demo in a crowded field that includes Jon Stewart (who played a young rival late night host to Sanders in that final season of the show) and Stephen Colbert over at Comedy Central. Then there's Jimmy Fallon, Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Kimmel, Chelsea Handler, George Lopez -- or for the watch-and-bake crowd, there's the animated surreality of Adult Swim. If anything really interesting happens -- if a sketch creates a meme or a star blurts out a string of drugged obscenities – you can be sure it'll be excerpted and put on the Web within hours.

The problems driving Larry back into a prescription pill daze or driving Rip Torn's Artie to down a few too many Salty Dogs of an
evening would include the fact that a graying audience is simply hitting the sack earlier every night, while the young 'uns just don't
really see the point in watching appointment TV. Networks are still generating relatively big bucks for low overhead during the late night slot. Talk shows are certainly less expensive than scripted drama, and Letterman, for one, was generating $271 million in ad revenue as of 2009. But it's unlikely that those numbers – for all but the most limber and "multiplatform" of shows – will do anything other than continue their downward trend.

Like a lot of '90s media survivors still grimly hanging on right now, Larry Sanders would probably be cursing the Internet for ruining
everything. Or perhaps, depending on his medication, checking out the possibilities of starting up a web-series or a podcast á la Marc Maron. At the very least, it would give him something to do in his twilight years -- and within a decade or less, it might just about be the best chance he'd have left to reach an audience.
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