Shandling finds the grass still greener on his side of the talk show fence

TELEVISION PREVIEW

June 01, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Garry Shandling is so hot that when asked if he can talk about "the network offer," he has to ask which multimillion-dollar network offer to host a late-night talk show you're referring to.

"The one I cannot talk about is CBS; I cannot talk about the CBS situation at all," Shandling said in a recent telephone interview.

"However, I can talk about the NBC situation. And that was a difficult decision for me to make, because I have an affinity toward late-night television. I grew up watching it, and it was certainly the catalyst to my career. When I used to guest-host 'The Tonight Show,' I was very comfortable behind the desk."

"The Tonight Show" is where Shandling's series of talk show offers started -- back in 1988 when Johnny Carson offered him official status as co-guest-host along with Jay Leno. At the time, it was believed that Carson wanted Shandling to succeed him. But Shandling had a critically acclaimed sitcom, "It's Garry Shandling's Show," on the Showtime cable channel and declined the offer.

Then, two years later, Tribune Entertainment offered Shandling what insiders say was a blank check to do a syndicated talk show. When Shandling declined, the job was offered to Dennis Miller minus the blank check.

Recently, there was a firm offer from NBC of $20 million for four years to replace David Letterman. That job went to Conan O'Brien for one year at less than $1 million after Shandling turned it down. And, now, there's a similar offer from CBS to do a late-night talk show in the time slot after Letterman, starting sometime in 1994. That offers is still being discussed.

And that's only the real-life talk shows. There's also "The Larry Sanders Show," the HBO sitcom starring Shandling as the fictional talk show host Larry Sanders. The series starts its second season of 18 new episodes at 10 p.m. tomorrow.

With no apologies to "Seinfeld" fans and only a few apologies to devotees of "The Simpsons," it's time for somebody to say that "The Larry Sanders Show" is the funniest and smartest sitcom on TV. Tomorrow night's episode -- with Larry getting dropped by stations in Tulsa and Phoenix, passed over for Emmy nominations, divorced by his second wife, dating Dana Delany and Helen Hunt, questioning the sincerity of quotes from David Letterman in a Los Angeles Times story and suffering a heart attack -- includes some of the best writing and acting on TV.

The brilliance of "The Larry Sanders Show" is in the way it plays with our mixed feelings and fascination with talk show hosts.

We are suspicious of the sincerity of an Arsenio schmoozing away on the couch, for example. And we know the guests aren't generally telling us anything important about their private lives unless it's in the best interests of their careers.

Yet, we want to believe that Dave is letting us in on the jokes and that guests really are sharing something that we want to know. We want to believe, in other words, that we are more than mere consumers being served up to advertisers by Dave, Arsenio and Jay for their own great profit.

"I'm fascinated by all the interest myself," Shandling said. "And I said this the other day to a friend of mine: I've gotten more publicity for [the NBC] job offer than I've gotten for jobs I actually have. It's unbelievable. I had strangers coming up to me on the street saying, 'Are you going to take the NBC deal?' "

The void after Johnny

"I'm trying to figure out what the fascination is. No. 1, I think it totally has something to do with Johnny [Carson] leaving. And I think people will just begin to recognize what a gigantic talent Johnny was, because now we're in a state of anarchy with him gone. That's how I feel. I think it's like the leader of a country leaving, and now everyone's just struggling for power.

"No. 2, I think there must be some intimate connection that the viewer feels with late night, because they're in bed watching every night that particular person at that hour of the evening. And it's just more intimate than watching 'Hawaii Five-O.' "

Shandling said the moments he savors most on "Larry Sanders" are when the fictional and real worlds of late-night talk meet. "We're just beating out an episode now about the Conan O'Brien story," he said. "The network comes to Larry and they want to put on another late-night show after Larry and they start talking names around and ultimately settle on an unknown."

Tomorrow night's episode has several of those moments. One features Sanders, sitting in his office with his sidekick, Hank (Jeffrey Tambor), and reading a real story about David Letterman that appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

"Did you see this Letterman article?" Sanders says disgustedly. "Listen to this. This is a quote from Letterman: 'I'm looking forward to the competition. That is what will make the show better.' " Sanders reads the last sentence in an mocking tone and groans at the implied phoniness.

"Yeah, but did you see this?" Hank responds. "Look what Paul Shaffer says: 'I don't care where Dave goes as long as I go with him.' What a little kiss-ass."

Hank says this while giving Larry a neck massage and kissing up to him.

Shandling said Letterman seems to enjoy such satire.

"Dave hasn't seen that episode yet," he said. "But I'm going to send it to him. I send tapes sometimes to the Letterman show, because Peter LaSalle, who's one of the executive producers, is a friend of mine, and he forwards the tapes on to Dave.

"Dave called me one day about a year ago after he saw the initial episodes of 'The Larry Sanders Show,' just raving about the show and how much he enjoyed it and how real he found it. And that was just great to hear, because then you know you're really hitting the mark. I mean, if Dave Letterman is finding it to be real, then it's probably real."

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