5 Reasons Why The Larry Sanders Show Was More Influential Than Seinfeld
The 1990s were a golden era for television comedy. We were moving out of the Murphy Brown/Designing Women era into a time when the witty Frasier cleaned up at the Emmy Awards and culture-setting Friends told everyone how to get their hair cut. But no show defined the decade like Seinfeld, the show about nothing that made bajillions in syndication for Jerry and the gang. The show was a no-doubt innovator, with multiple storylines, cleverly communicated adult themes, and never, ever an understanding hug at an episode’s end.
There was another 90s show, however, with even more lasting influence than Seinfeld -- Garry Shandling’s The Larry Sanders Show. As the show-biz satire celebrates its 30th anniversary, here are 5 reasons why Sanders, not Seinfeld, served as the blueprint for 21st-century television comedy.
Sanders canned the canned laughs.
While Seinfeld’s cynical edge set it apart from popular 90s shows like Home Improvement and Family Matters, the show’s filming style was mostly rooted in sitcom tradition: Three cameras captured the action in Jerry’s apartment while a live studio audience provided the laughs. As the show became more popular, the crowd reaction got increasingly annoying -- every Kramer slide through the front door stopped the action for obligatory applause.
Sanders went a different route. The show was filmed like a movie and, even more strikingly, did not have a laugh track at all. For a generation raised on Malcolm in the Middle, Parks and Rec, and Modern Family, the absence of prerecorded chuckles feels completely normal. In the 1990s, it was practically revolutionary. For years, networks were convinced (and had ‘scientific’ research to back it up) that audiences preferred comedies with canned laughter.
The Larry Sanders Show (and if you want to count it as a sitcom, The Simpsons) proved that just wasn’t true. Sanders’s no-laugh track style directly influenced Ricky Gervais and his version of The Office, who realized comedy was funnier without the invasive yuks. Turns out audiences aren’t idiots who need to be told when to laugh after all!
Sanders leaned into the uncomfortably awkward.
We know, we know, Seinfeld did its fair share of cringe. When George’s weekend companion gets an eyeful of his compromised appendage after a dip in a cold swimming pool? That was definitely new territory for network television, a predicament that would never happen to, say, Urkel.
But while George’s dilemma is played for jokes, Sanders takes a different approach. Check out this scene where Larry clumsily confesses his feelings for Paula (Janeane Garafalo) right after she’s been fired from his show.
Funny? Absolutely. But the humor is based on actual discomfort, without a punchline to be found. It’s a style that served as the lifeblood for Michael Scott and friends in the next generation of sitcoms.
Sanders paved the way for non-network comedies.
In 1993, The Larry Sanders Show was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series, the first of six such nominations it would receive. Though it never won the big prize (it lost to Seinfeld once and Frasier for five years running), it still made history as the first non-network comedy to be nominated.
Sanders’ Emmy breakthrough opened the awards floodgates for a number of cable sitcoms that followed, including Sex and the City, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Entourage, Flight of the Conchords, Weeds, Girls, Veep, and Silicon Valley.
Why is that recognition a big deal? Premium channels and streamers invest more in shows that are perceived to add prestige, which is how we get a lot more Barry, Hacks, and Ted Lasso. Even better, we get a lot less Big Bang Theory, a three-camera, laugh-ridden show in the tradition of Seinfeld and Friends. Heck, these non-network, Sanders-esque shows can even say “hell” and “shit,” you know, like grown-ups do.
Sanders popularized the backstage comedy.
Workplace comedies are nothing new. But showbiz workplace comedies are a different animal -- in earlier years, we often got to see the show (heck, on Seinfeld, we often watched Jerry telling jokes on stage) but rarely were we given a glimpse at the ugliness just beneath the glittery surface. For example:
In a single three-minute clip, you can see what we’re talking about:
* The crippling insecurity that plagues needy celebrities, even megastars like Robin Williams
* The casualty cruelty directed at Hank Kingsley, who gladly accepts it in exchange for a little affirmation and social currency in the form of an autograph
* The vicious interactions that we might imagine are happening between commercial breaks but we never get to witness
Lucy and Desi putting on a show never looked like this!
Larry Sanders created an appetite for backstage comedies that continue to this day, including biting classics like 30 Rock, Entourage, BoJack Horseman, and Hacks.
Sanders made it OK for characters to be unlikable.
Seinfeld made a big deal about how terrible its characters were. That was the central joke of its final episode -- Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer were actually so awful that they deserved to be locked up.
A funny joke, and yet, it was a winking one. Take George, for example. He did objectively terrible things -- making up a fake charity, pushing kids out of his way to escape a fire, even inadvertently killing his fiancee for God’s sake.
But was he truly unlikeable? Audiences freaking loved George! That’s partly due to Jason Alexander’s winning performance, and partly due to making all of George’s faults a product of his profound insecurities. Every horrible action was a punchline. Seinfeld’s comedy was darker than what came before, but we still cared for its protagonists.
Let’s contrast George with Hank Kingsley.
Yikes! Looks like comedies don’t always have to rely on jokes. On Sanders, the pettiness was real. Hank’s jealousy and outright hostility toward other characters was real. Maybe we felt sorry for Hank, but he was more pathetic than lovable.
Among all the characters, the sex was bad more often than it was good. People did horrific things and rarely redeemed themselves, paving the way for similarly despicable characters on shows like Arrested Development and Girls.
Call us crazy, but we like not liking everyone. And no one made the unlikeable more entertaining than Larry Sanders.
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Top image: HBO