With all the preposterous posturing on the post-Johnny Carson late night talk show landscape, can a satirical series set inside a fictional late-night show be nearly as funny as the real thing?
"Actually, I'm worried about that. I hope so," laughs Garry Shandling, who makes a welcome return to the cable series scene tonight with the debut of "The Larry Sanders Show" (at 10:30 on HBO).
"I think we are right in the moment with this series," says the comic, who plays the title character, a somewhat insecure host of a "Tonight Show"-styled program. He describes it simply as "a funny show about what goes on backstage at a talk show; it's very real."
How real? With Mr. Shandling having had his own show and also having served often as a guest host on "Tonight," you get the feeling he took careful notes.
Judging from the first three episodes provided for preview, the show is very funny and boasts a keen, topical edge. Indeed, in a telephone interview, Mr. Shandling says, "It's nearly a dramedy."
And he jokes that "each host [Jay Leno, Arsenio Hall, et al.] will watch the show and think we're talking about them."
Each episode begins as if "The Larry Sanders Show" is also beginning, with announcer and Ed McMahon figure Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor) intoning to the studio audience, "This is very exciting, isn't it?"
Sanders/Shandling walks through the curtain to perform a short monologue -- tonight he alludes to Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton's "Arsenio Hall Show" appearance by noting that former candidate Jerry Brown had been on his show. "He didn't actually play any numbers with the band, but he scored some good coke."
But the show soon dissolves into a mostly conventional sitcom scenario, unlike the star's former "It's Garry Shandling Show" on Showtime (until 1990). That show often "broke the fourth wall," as Mr. Shandling spoke directly to viewers.
"There's no winking into the camera, so to speak. It's a real show about real people," says Mr. Shand- ling, noting a number of stars have signed on for guest appearances as themselves, including Peter Falk, Carol Burnett, Jon Lovitz, Bob Saget and even potential "David Letterman Show" inheritor Dana Carvey.
The talk show wars make a frequent broad target.
In Ms. Burnett's guest spot in the second episode, for example, she says to an aide, "They'll give a talk show to anyone these days." (She also uses some language you never heard on her show; this is cable, after all.)
Mr. Shandling says that he has talked to Mr. Carson, who left "The Tonight Show" in May after 30 years at the desk, about doing "The Larry Sanders Show" himself.
"He said he'd call me in five or six months, when he feels like working again."
In tonight's premiere, we meet the cast of regular characters, as Larry is being pressured by his network to do live commercials for the Garden Weasel, a weeding product.
"Our advertisers want it, so we want it," says a network exec.
Sanders does not want to do the ads, but worries, "I'm a day away from being the funny weather guy in Tucson." (The inside joke is Mr. Shandling is a native of the Arizona city.)
His producer (the wonderfully oily, crude Rip Torn) is in the middle, his wife (Megan Gallagher) counsels, "It's just a commercial," and insecure announcer Hank covets the opportunity to do yet another ad.
In the end, the episode offers huge laughs as Sanders does the ads with his own special style, at the same time ratifying TV's long tradition (going back at least to Lucille Ball) of spoofing its own commercials.
Sanders' home life gets some focus in the series to show the life of a celebrity is not entirely glamorous.
After a social visit from Jon Lovitz, his wife complains, "This is not my idea of a fun time, having a comedy club in my own home." And when an intimate moment is interrupted by the phone, Larry clicks on the TV and explodes to find a comic he discovered (real comedian David Spade) doing the rival Leno show.
"I think it explores a little of the hypocrisy that goes on before the cameras and what really happens backstage," says Mr. Shandling.
Actually, viewers may find "The Larry Sanders Show" a lot more entertaining than some of the real talk shows on the air.