Johnny Carson ruled late-night TV for three decades, from the time he took stewardship of “The Tonight Show” in 1962, through 1992, when he retired—a tearful Bette Midler sang him off with “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)”—and was replaced by Jay Leno, never to be heard from again until his death in 2005.
After he took over from Jack Paar, Carson left a host of would-be competitors in his wake—from Les Crane, Joey Bishop, Dick Cavett and Pat Sajak to Dennis Miller, Arsenio Hall and Joan Rivers—but those were the days of three network channels. With the advent of cable, a whole new crop of talk show hosts have looked to fill the void… David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Stewart, Conan O’Brien, Craig Ferguson, Carson Daly, Chelsea Handler and more. Sometime next spring—when NBC finishes its coverage of the Winter Olympics, Leno will end his own, briefly interrupted 22-year sting when he’s replaced by Late Night‘s Jimmy Fallon, with another SNL alum, Seth Meyers, taking over for the latter, as Lorne Michaels begins to make late night turf his own for Comcast’s NBCU.
Perhaps the greatest TV talk show ever, though, wasn’t actually a “real” program at all, but HBO’s groundbreaking “The Larry Sanders Show,” a fictional chat fest which was even more authentic than the actual thing it mercilessly satirized, debuting in 1992 just in time for Johnny’s exit and a new era of late-night television. Going beyond the breaking-the-fourth-wall experiments favored by Ernie Kovacs and Letterman, Garry Shandling—who often sat in for Johnny over the years—made the perfect unctuous host, totally self-involved, chatting it up with real-life celebrities playing themselves, with Jeffrey Tambor as his Ed McMahon, defending his catch phrase, “Hey, Now!” which later became a frequent voiceover on the radio show of Howard Stern, himself touted as a possible late-night host over the years. Rounding out the cast was the rambunctious Rip Torn as producer Artie, Larry’s own Fred DeCordova.
Click the image below to watch “The Larry Sanders Show” on Streampix
Running for six seasons until 1998—all of which are now available via Streampix—The Larry Sanders Show helped establish HBO as a creator of original content, paving the way for the success of “Sex and the City,” “The Sopranos” and “Entourage” in its mix of fiction and real life.
You can start with the following five of the best episodes of The Larry Sanders Show’s six seasons.
Season 1, Episode 13: “The Hey Now Episode”: Larry tries to curtail the use of Hank’s pet phrase in public in one of the greatest comic bits since Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s On First”
Season 2, Episode 6: “The Hankerciser 200”: Hank raises warning flags with his endorsement of an exercise machine, while Artie conducts a tour of the set for his TV class.
Season 3, Episode 8: “The Mr. Sharon Stone Show”: Larry crosses the line between the professional and personal when he asks show guest Sharon Stone out on a date.
Season 5, Episode 1: “Everybody Loves Larry”: Yet another guest host, Jon Stewart, plots with his manager to take over the show, while Larry ponders whether David Duchovny is gay.
Season 6, Episode 8: “I Buried Sid”: In a teleplay co-written by Judd Apatow, Hank frets that his jealous criticism led to the suicide of Larry’s longtime cue card guy.