How Garry Shandling Shook Up Late-Night TV

“The Larry Sanders Show” was fictional, but it influenced how today’s talk-show hosts approach their jobs

Garry Shandling was never a full-time late-night talk show host, but he played one on TV.

And if Shandling hadn’t done that — if he hadn’t created the character of Larry Sanders, the egotistical host of a late-night talk show and the centerpiece of a comedy series that ran for six seasons on HBO in the 1990s — the current landscape of late-night might look very different.

Sure, David Letterman is almost certainly the single biggest influence on today’s crop of late-night hosts, on the Jimmys and Stevens and Seths and Conans who embrace the silliness of the gig and try to simultaneously play it straight and make fun of what they’re doing.

But those guys were unquestionably watching “The Larry Sanders Show,” too. They’re all the children of Dave and Larry, who made late-night meta as a new generation of comics were learning the game.

It could have gone differently: When Letterman left the 12:30 slot on NBC for an 11:30 show on CBS in 1993, Shandling was offered Dave’s old “Late Night” show. He had the experience, having frequently served as guest host on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.”

But he didn’t have the inclination; on the heels of deconstructing the sitcom with the fourth-wall-breaking Showtime series “It’s Garry Shandling‘s Show,” he opted not to embrace the talk-show format, but to mess with it by sticking with “The Larry Sanders Show.”

The sitcom, one of the most influential of the ’90s, had begun in 1992, a year before he was offered Letterman’s old job. Every episode included sequences that looked like a regular talk show, but those were informed and subverted by hysterical, dark backstage scenes that made it impossible to look at talk shows the way we did back in Johnny’s day.

Larry Sanders’ inept sidekick Hank Kingsley, played to perfection by Jeffrey Tambor, just about killed that role for everybody that followed; his producer Artie, a brilliant Rip Torn, laid bare the calculations and compromises behind every episode of every late-night show. And the parade of guest stars playing unpleasant versions of themselves not only paved the way for shows like “Entourage” and “30 Rock,” it also put every talk-show guest on notice that we didn’t buy those fake smiles on the couch.

It was a spectacularly uncomfortable, spectacularly funny deconstruction of the world of late night — and by the time “The Larry Sanders Show” went off the air in 1998, anybody who took over a talk show and tried to play it straight looked very foolish and very old-fashioned.

So now almost nobody plays it straight. Post-Dave and post-Larry, it’s the post-modern era for late-night.

There are other reasons to celebrate the accomplishments of Garry Shandling — the way he created wit born out of discomfort, the comedy that led with neurosis and insecurity rather than burying it deep, the fact that his shows helped bring us Tambor and Bob Odenkirk and Jeremy Piven and Sarah Silverman and Mary Lynn Raskjub and Janeane Garofalo.

But in some ways, his most long-lasting legacy comes every night at 11:30, when the children of Larry Sanders take over the airwaves.