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The Larry Sanders Show

By Dave Best

Like music, comedy is often a highly personal and divisive subject. Who amongst us hasn’t felt the sting of embarrassment when you show somebody a clip or show which you find pant-wettingly hilarious only to have them dismiss it and look at you like the pant-wetting freak you apparently are (damn you, Tim and Eric!). Nor are ratings necessarily a reliable barometer for quality in comedy as demonstrated admirably by Two and Half Men or - on the other side of the coin - Arrested Development; two shows whose ratio of viewers to quality is seriously out of whack. There is, however, one indisputable factor, which regardless of personal taste or popularity, marks a comedy out as special; its legacy, and H.B.O’s The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998) has a legacy which is still influencing TV comedy to this day.

L-R: Rip Torn, Garry Shandling, and Jeffrey Tambor
T.L.S.S stars Garry Shandling as the titular Sanders, the host of a fictional late night talk show. Shandling was inspired to create the show after his experiences guest hosting on The Tonight Show and although we are now swamped with comedy shows set in the entertainment industry, this was one of the first and remains one of the best. Each episode follows the cast and crew as they attempt to put the show together despite the various personal and professional obstacles which arise. The twist to this simple format is that in addition to all of the behind-the-scenes segments the show also features excerpts from the fictional show-within-the-show which are filmed in front of a live studio audience and often feature plenty of improvisation. This blend of single and multi-camera content might sound a bit odd, but it all comes together to produce a unique and, for its time, ground breaking show.

Yes, that is Kasidy Yates from Deep Space Nine and yes, you are a nerd.
Sanders is a neurotic, whiny man-child who, although very capable at his job, struggles to feed and dress himself each day without the help of the unappreciated staff that surround him. Shandling manages to give the character just enough charm and humour for him to remain likeable, but this is an ensemble show and the real stars are the supporting cast, chiefly Rip Torn as the show’s manic producer, Artie, and Jeffrey Tambor as Sanders’ on-screen sidekick and perennial loser, Hank.  Torn and Tambor are each on career-best form and steal pretty much every scene they are in.  Indeed, some of the greatest episodes across all six series are those which are centred around Artie or Hank (see S3E06 ‘Hank’s Night in the Sun’ or S4E03 ‘Arthur after Hours’). The show was also a proving ground for newer talent (both on and off camera) who would go on to become headline comedy names themselves, such as Janeane Garafolo, Jeremy Piven, Bob Odenkirk and Judd Apatow.

If this picture makes you feel warm inside then definitely check out The Larry Sanders Show
In addition to the regular cast, T.L.S.S also features a multitude of celebrities playing themselves as guests on the fictional chat show. More often than not the writers have fun playing with the public perception of the celebs and draw a lot of laughs from this, a comic device which is still regularly used to this day (see Curb your Enthusiasm, Entourage, Extras) but which at the time was a fresh and - for the celebrities themselves - fairly risky idea. Not only is this a great source of comedy but, watching it now in 2012, there is the added feeling of nostalgia and warmth which comes with watching the 90’s icons and events on screen. To an extent, it has become comfort TV for people of a certain age....and even if you don’t get the nostalgia angle, it’s bloody funny. Honest.

The Larry Sanders Show is available now on DVD. Alternatively Netflix have all 6 seasons available for streaming.

Suggested further viewing: Its Garry Shandling's Show, Arrested Development, 30 Rock

For further information visit The Larry Sanders Show's IMDB page: www.imdb.com/title/tt0103466


Shoot The Piano Player

by Dave Gourdoux

Original French Title for Shoot The Piano Player
I first saw Francois Truffaut’s film Shoot the Piano Player sometime in the mid 70s, when channel 11 out of Chicago used to play classic foreign films from the Janus film library in the afternoons. It was right at the time I was becoming a serious film buff and started buying books and encyclopedias on movie history. It was lucky coincidence that Channel 11 was airing many of the greatest films of all time at the same time I was reading about them. I remember seeing Fellini’s La Strada, De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Shoeshine and Umberto D, Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim. I also began studying the classic American directors, John Ford (How Green Was My Valley and The Grapes of Wrath), Orson Welles (Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons) and John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), among others. As great as many of the American films were, there was something different about Fellini, Bergman and Truffaut. It was their sensibility, their willingness to take chances, the unusual subject matter and characters. For example, I immediately fell in love with La Strada, though it wouldn’t be until after several viewings that I got a sense for what was really going on. I knew the three main characters were symbols for something; exactly what, I had no idea. What I was falling for was the pure sensory beauty of the film, the poetry of the images. It was, in visual terms, what William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor were doing to me with language.

So it was right in the middle of the most passionate time of my love affair with movies that I first saw Shoot the Piano Player. It was radically different from Fellini or Bergman, and I recognized the American gangster movies of the 30s and 40s it seemed to be paying homage to. It was goofy and eccentric, with low brow slapstick and sight gags and stupid humor. But as it went on, a remarkably sophisticated and deceptively complex story was being told, a story that immediately drew me in, and it connected with me on a level that no other film ever has. Unlike La Strada and The Seventh Seal, I got it right away.

And I wasn’t the only one. Through the years, films like Bonnie and Clyde and Pulp Fiction would transform the American gangster genre, and it was obvious that directors Arthur Penn and Quentin Tarantino had also seen and been affected by Shoot the Piano Player. More on that later.

Shoot the Piano Player is about Charlie (wonderfully played by Charles Aznavour), who we find at the beginning of the film playing piano with a jazz trio in a cheap Parisian bar. He lives in a small apartment above the bar with his still school-age younger brother.  In the apartment across from his lives a prostitute who, when not doing business at the bar, helps Charlie out, by baby-sitting his brother and seeing to other needs he might have. Early on we are introduced to another of Charlie’s brothers, an inept, bungling, crude oaf of a gangster, who is being chased by a couple of other comically inept but dangerous gangsters. We also learn, early on, that Charlie is secretly in love with the beautiful bar maid Lena (Marie Dubois), but is too painfully shy to act, to make his feelings known.

Marie Dubois and Charles Aznavour
Charlie and Lena inadvertently get drawn into the gangster story and are captured by and then escape from the gangsters that are after Charlie’s brother. They flee to Lena’s apartment. This is where the story really gets interesting.  Without revealing too much of the plot, Lena knows something about Charlie that no one else knows.  Via flashback, we are told the tragic story of Charlie's past. 

The flashback story is fascinating in itself, and is vital for understanding who Charlie is and who he was, how the past informs the present, and why Charlie seems to be so ineffective at everything except playing the piano.

Shoot the Piano Player is actually very short and shot on a shoe string budget, but there is so much going on, and Truffaut moves it about so quickly, packing so much information in each frame while at the same time experimenting with different point of view camera shots and throwing in his cheap sight gags. In the meantime, while we are being entertained, on a more subtle level we watch Charlie struggle with questions of identity, while Truffaut explores complex themes related to life versus art. Charlie is born with a gift for art that he didn’t ask for, and he has no idea how to live. Much is made of his shyness and timid nature; he drifts through life, uninvolved, while those around him, those moved by his artistic gift, suffer for it, and he bounces from one tragedy to another, always finding a piano somewhere to play. The film has at its core a tragic melancholy, yet it is vibrant and alive and fun the whole time – it’s how well Truffaut makes this contradiction and dichotomy work that makes it so radical and remarkable.

The film exists in a world of its own making, and although it draws on many of the American film noir movies of the 30s and 40s, it has a timeless quality to it. This is due in large part to the soundtrack, scored by the great Georges Delerue. The music is gentle but powerful and evocative.

I mentioned Bonnie and Clyde and Pulp Fiction, two landmarks of American cinema. Both films are known for their groundbreaking and graphic use of violence, and you won’t find anything of that sort in Shoot the Piano Player. What you will find is the same contradiction at work, the same sensibility in the treatment of the criminals. In Bonnie and Clyde, Faye Dunaway, Warren Beatty and their gang are portrayed as simple and comic everyday people. We laugh at them and with them, and we see ourselves in them. The way Arthur Penn establishes this is through the same kind of dumb jokes and friendships that Truffaut used to make his characters so likeable. In Pulp Fiction, in the dialogue between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, and in the interaction of the various pimps and drug dealers and gangster types, Tarantino takes this approach to a new level, making us identify and care about these unsavory types. In both Bonnie and Clyde and Pulp Fiction, the violence is graphic, and it is jarring because of our identification with both its victims and practitioners. Though both films are unique and bold statements that stand on their own, they both owe a debt of gratitude to Truffaut.

Truffaut was one of the great originals of all cinema, and is one of my two or three favorite directors of all time. The thing that I think sets Truffaut apart from other directors and runs through all of his films is his respect for basic humanity. Even when exploring the darkest of subject matters, Truffaut maintained his romanticism and found the light in the darkness of the stories he told, whether it was the unabashed love of the three main characters in Jules and Jim, the attempt to preserve humanity in Fahrenheit 451 or find it in The Wild Child, or the hanging on of a romantic ideal against all reason and logic in The Story of Adele H. It is the value Truffaut places on this humanity, the belief that it is core to being human, that has resonated with me through all these years, and has been evident in the other artists I’ve admired, from Kurt Vonnegut to John Steinbeck to Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen.

In these dark and cynical times of the early 21st century, it's a shame Truffaut is no longer with us, but his body of work endures and is more relevant and important than ever. 

For more information, visit IMDb: www.imdb.com/title/tt0054389


The Far Side of Gary Larson

By Jav Rivera

Growing up swiping the comic section of my dad's newspaper, I remember reading the usual strips (Garfield, Peanuts, etc.).  But as I aged, I grew more and more fond of this strange, single-panel comic entitled The Far Side.  The comic strip was always weird and a bit morbid, and despite my youth, I continued to read it regularly.  It wasn't until high school when I realized how unique this comic was.  While the surrounding strips became dry and tired, The Far Side continued its steady hilarity and ambiguity.

Running from 1980-1995, creator Gary Larson's comic strip had a surrealistic style.  The Far Side often focused on anthropomorphic views of the world, bizarre situations, and relationships between man and animal.  He specialized in biological points of view, frequently using animals (especially insects, cows, ducks, dogs, cats, and cavemen).  His background in biology helped bring a unique insight to creatures and their eerie similarities with modern society.

Gary Larson
But The Far Side almost never happened.  Larson was working at a record shop in Seattle, Washington when he decided it was time to make a career change.  He produced a few crude drawings and took them to Seattle-based magazine Pacific Search (now The Seattle Times: Pacific NW Magazine). Eventually, in 1979, Larson submitted his work to The Seattle Times under the title Nature’s Way, which was published weekly.

Despite early hesitation to submit to other publications, Larson decided it was time to raise the stakes and made a trip to San Francisco.  He used all of his vacation time from his current job at the Humane Society and took his one and only portfolio to the San Francisco Chronicle.  He left his portfolio with them and quickly realized he didn't have another to take to other publications.  Day after day he called the receptionist at the San Francisco Chronicle in hopes that the cartoon editor had made a decision.

Towards the end of his short vacation, Larson paid an in-person visit with the intent of taking back his portfolio and leaving California as a failure.  By chance, while waiting by the receptionist, Larson was handed the phone.  On the other line was cartoon editor Stan Arnold, who had reviewed Larson's work.  Arnold asked, "Are you Gary Larson?".  When Larson confirmed, Arnold told him, "You're sick!".  After a short pause, Arnold continued by stating, "I love 'em!".  They met face-to-face and discussed syndication.  Arnold suggested a name change from Nature's Way to The Far Side.  Larson agreed without hesitation.  History was made on that fateful day.  Ironically, this happened a week before The Seattle Times dropped Nature’s Way.  Furthermore, Larson has stated that if he had been dropped a week earlier, he would have never pursued his dream.

In 1989, The Pre-History of The Far Side: A 10th Anniversary Exhibit was published to highlight ten years of The Far Side.  Not only is it a great example of his work, but it's also one of the only resources that contains any biographical information on Larson.  To my amazement, no one has published an official (or, for that matter, an unofficial) biography.  The final third of the book contains a collection of Larson's work on The Far Side. But more interesting are the first two thirds, which contain a brief history of Larson's early career.  It also goes into the mostly negative reception of his comic strips and even includes letters from angry readers.  Most of these letters pin Larson as an animal-hating, unfunny man.  Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, since Larson has a intricate interest in animals, and for every comic where the animals are the butt of a joke, there are twice as many comics where the animal triumphs over a human.

In addition, these negative responses stem mostly from misinterpretations.  I admit there have been several of his comics that have left me baffled, but for the most part, when you "get" Larson's sense of humor, you "get" his gags.  In other words, the more you read, the more they make sense.

Throughout the book, Larson speaks humbly and self-deprecatingly about his "rise to fame".  Every page is a reminder of why his award-wining work has such a strong following.  It's a great insight to his thinking process and how a joke can come out of nowhere.

(Also available: The Complete Far Side: 1980–1994; ISBN 0-7407-2113-5)

The Prehistory of the Far Side: A 10th Anniversary Exhibit (ISBN 0-8362-1851-5) - Released in 1989
Larson's following is unquestionable.  Even those who may not know his name are sure to have seen some of his more popular comic strips.  The young boy pushing a "pull" door in front of the Midvale School for the Gifted has to be one of the most recognizable.  His drawings involving scientists behaving like children are also among many fan favorites.

Then there are the more obscure ones that most people simply "don't get".  But it's Larson's use of odd references that have become standard practice among the most popular television series (The Simpsons, Family Guy, Futurama, etc.).  The Simpsons have even featured Gary Larson on a couple of episodes.

Although Larson retired The Far Side after only 15 years, his work remains recognizable around the world.  His works can be found in endless products (mugs, shirts, calendars, etc.) and in numerous The Far Side books (as of 2012, twenty-three have been published), which were all on the New York Times bestseller list. And outside of The Far Side, Larson has also published There's a Hair in My Dirt!: A Worm's Story (ISBN 0-06-093274-0), a short illustrated story about a worm.

Class photo
Whether or not you're already a fan, The Far Side is still as hilarious and relevant today as it was back in the 80s and 90s.  Gary Larson, a genius cartoonist who almost wasn't, is certainly worthy of a 2nd look.

For more information, visit Gary Larson's official site: www.thefarside.com.

TRIVIA: In 1989, the Committee on Evolutionary Biology honored Larson by naming a Mallophaga (chewing lice species) after him.  This specific lice, belonging to the genus found only on owls, is named "Strigiphilus garylarsoni".