Shandling's talk show is unreal, and very funny


They say that the best humor is based in truth.

It's a frightening prospect when watching the behind-the-scenes antics of a talk-show host in HBO's hysterical "The Larry Sanders Show." Is the backstage banter of late-night biggies like Dave, Jay and Arsenio really this funny?

According to Garry Shandling, it is. And he should know. During his rise to fame as a stand-up comedian, Mr. Shandling has done them all, including serving as a regular guest host of "The Tonight Show." As the writer/producer/star of "The Larry Sanders Show," a sometimes scathing send-up of the talk-show world on- and off-stage, Mr. Shandling insists most of the show comes from real life.

"I think the show's incredibly accurate," Mr. Shandling said the other day from Los Angeles while on a breakfast break.

Mr. Shandling's hard at work on new shows, as HBO has picked up"The Larry Sanders Show" for another 22 episodes.

"All the stuff, for the most part, is rooted in total reality. That's the way talk shows are. And probably every host watches the show and goes, 'Oh, I've been there.' The guys at the Letterman show, the producers, are my friends, and they just said it feels like they're still at work when they watch the show."

Not that the talk-show biz isn't a prime candidate for parody, particularly now. With the departure of late-night guru Johnny Carson, the rise and fall of late-night hopefuls like Pat Sajak, Rick Dees, Byron Allen and Dennis Miller, and the current quest for guests on "Late Night with David Letterman," "Arsenio Hall" and "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno, Mr. Shandling doesn't have to look too hard for material.

Fans who might be expecting the self-effacing humor of Mr. Shandling's previous TV wonder, "It's Garry Shandling's Show," will find some similarities to his new incarnation. And there's no time like the present for comparison: HBO this week has launched a "Larry Sanders" marathon, airing a new show each weeknight opposite most of TV land's real late-night hosts.

"It think it's great," Mr. Shandling said. "It will give people a chance to really get sick of the show."

"The Larry Sanders Show" centers on the fictional host of a late-night talk show and his personal life behind the camera. And like the cast and crew of the network news show "F.Y.I." on CBS' "Murphy Brown," Larry and his co-workers aren't above the occasional snide remark about their real-world competition. How the other hosts take their satirical counterpart's barbs?

"I talked to Arsenio, who loves the show," Mr. Shandling said. "Leno thinks it's really funny, and Letterman called me up just to say how much he loves the show.

"So I don't think anybody is insulted by it. I think that they appreciate the fact that it's not distorted in a television sitcom way.

". . . When Larry pretended he's Maury Povich on the telephone, Maury Povich wrote me and told me how much he and Connie Chung enjoy the show.

"And then you get this really weird picture of Maury Povich and Connie Chung sitting there in their PJs watching television, which is, you know, fairly frightening."

Mr. Shandling said he thinks most of the hosts take the show's name-dropping in the light-hearted spirit in which it's intended.

"I think this coming season we'll drop more names, actually," Mr. Shandling said. "That's the plan, not in any evil way, by any means, because I don't believe the show is mean-spirited at all. I think we're really going to mention more names because that's really what goes on. Those shows backstage, it's just a constant babble of show biz names. You'd think you were on 'Hollywood Squares.' "

And speaking of celebrity talent, the list of celebrity guest spots on Larry's show is growing daily. The first 13 shows have seen the likes of Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Carol Burnett and Martin Mull, among others.

"The celebrity talent have been ecstatic about the show," Mr. Shandling said. "Since the show's been on, people like Geena Davis have called me and said, 'I'd love to do the show sometime.' So I think we'll have some wonderful celebrities this coming year."

Writing, producing and starring in "The Larry Sanders Show" doesn't leave much time for anything else, Mr. Shandling admits.

"It's not totally by choice," he said of his jack-of-all-trades involvement.

"I was a television writer before I was a performer, so I write a lot. I know exactly what the show is, so I end up running and controlling it. It's really overwhelming sometimes, and I think it affects my acting most of all.

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