The classic late-night TV show is kind of a relic of the past, living on mostly through sliced-and-diced into YouTube-ready viral clips by Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon.
But the whole corny pre-internet package of celeb guests, lame gags and stupid pet tricks that Johnny Carson and David Letterman exemplified got its magnum opus in the late Garry Shandling’s The Larry Sanders Show, one of the best satires ever created.
The 1992-1998 series told the behind-the-scenes tale of the fictional Sanders show, with Shandling (Sanders), his pit bull producer Artie (Rip Torn) and especially, his tortured sidekick, Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor). Tambor’s performance and the show’s fantastic writing elevated Hank’s travails to an almost Shakespearean depth. Hank is the perpetual #2, a huckster and a glad-hander who’s also pathetically needy. He’s one of the greatest characters ever seen on television.
Hank Kingsley contains multitudes. He’s conniving, crude, arrogant and perverted; and yet, at the same time, he’s often shown to be sympathetic, insecure, lonely and capable of surprising kindness.
“Hank’s Night In the Sun”, when Hank finally gets his moment to guest-host Larry’s show, is a rich rise-and-fall-and-rise-again tale of Hank’s ever-present hubris being sabotaged by his many weaknesses. It’d be easy to just make Hank a monster, but take the scene where, consumed with nerves, he asks Rip Torn’s Artie for some reassurance and gets a gruff, “You do not suck” in answer. With all sincerity, downtrodden Hank responds with, “That’s one of the kindest things anyone has ever said to me.” There’s no sarcasm there. Hank’s heart is always on his sleeve, right next to his ego.
Tambor, sadly, is the only surviving member of the show’s main trio of characters – Shandling died way too young at just 66 in 2016, and Rip Torn passed away just last year. But “The Larry Sanders Show” lives on as one of the best TV sitcoms of all time.
Jeffrey Tambor is one of the great character actors in sitcom history, going all the way back to his goofy supporting work in the late ’70s The Ropers spinoff from Three’s Company. His default mode is a kind of clueless arrogance, but Tambor paints many different shades in that narrow template. While his later work in Arrested Development and Transparent is fantastic, to me his Hank Kingsley is his Mount Rushmore.
It’s easy to play a buffoon. It’s harder to make them magnetic. But I can’t take my eye off Hank Kingsley whenever he’s on screen in Sanders, which boasted one of the greatest casts and guest actor casts in all of television history.
We all would like to be a Larry Sanders, star of our own show, king of the mountain, but in reality I’m way more likely to be a Hank Kingsley, knocked flat again and again by my own foibles, but still getting back up again every single time. Hey now!