LOS ANGELES, Dec. 25 (UPI) -- My favorite (two days late) Christmas present to myself this year is watching Bravo's Dec. 27 "Larry Sanders" marathon, a 6 ½ hour comic wallowing in the pettiness of Hollywood culture that begins (set those DVDs!) at 9:30 p.m.
This season the cable channel began running repeats of "The Larry Sanders Show" weeknights at 10 and 10:30, with commercials added (and obscenities deleted) to the original HBO series - a groundbreaking show of the '90s.
"Larry Sanders" was a peerless and, to my mind, still sorely missed masterpiece of misanthropic comedy. There will be no new episodes, which makes the Bravo repeats -- unavailable for years -- all the more precious.
By why, oh why, did Shandling have to pull "Larry Sanders" at its peak?
"I've never been able to sustain interest in anything once it's been sort of perfected," Shandling said, speaking at a Museum of Television & Radio evening in Los Angeles celebrating his work. "I didn't see how it was possible for the show to get better."
The writing on "Larry Sanders" was so stellar that Shandling and his team could still quote much of it chapter and verse even after the show completed its original HBO run.
Shandling noted that the fifth episode actually became the pilot because it was the one in which everything finally clicked.
The plot revolved around Larry being asked to endorse something called the Garden Weasel, "and I said to Artie, 'Don't you think it's unethical to promote something I don't use?'" recalled Shandling.
"And Artie said, 'Jesus, Larry, don't pull that thread -- the whole world will fall apart!'"
Artie, of course, is talk show host Larry Sanders' cynical manager/producer, brilliantly played by Rip Torn. Artie's mission in life is to protect the neurotic Sanders character, played by Shandling, from the slings and arrows of real life.
"I killed a man like you in Korea once," Artie famously remarks to a ball-breaking woman network executive giving Larry a hard time.
"You're not going to enjoy this," Artie warns Larry in another episode, in which Larry expressed interest in actually managing his staff. "Kicking ass in the morning for me is better than cappuccino!"
Prior to "Larry Sanders," Shandling had another groundbreaking cable show, "It's Garry Shandling's Show," in the '80s. It starred Shandling as himself constantly stepping out of character to address the audience.
This technique, Shandling said, was actually inspired more by Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" than, as you might assume, by the old Jack Benny radio show.
In any case, it made the networks nervous, which explained its slide once it moved to Fox.
"They said, 'You can't talk to the camera because people want to feel like they're observing, like they're listening in,'" Shandling recalled. "And I said, 'In that case, why not have the newscasters just talk to each other?'"
"It's Garry Shandling's Show" shifted from NBC, where it was originally developed, to Showtime and later to Fox in the fourth network's first year. But it never quite worked there. This seemed mysterious to me at the time, but Shandling explained that the reason was actually quite simple.
"The mistake was that we'd written a show without commercial breaks - it was relatively slow-placed," he said. "So cutting in the commercials really hurt it. It's an important point of writing sitcoms."
After "It's Garry Shandling's Show" went off the air, Shandling was offered various talk shows. "I had a meeting with (former CBS chief) Howard Stringer," he said. "It was very serious and a lot of money. I realized I had to make a decision: Did I want a talk show or a show about a talk show?"
"My ex-girlfriend, God love her, said, 'Take the money.' I remember I was sitting at A Votre Sante in Brentwood when I made the decision. It was a very important moment in my life. I can't remember what I ordered... Oh, yeah, the vegetarian quesedilla, which was cold inside, I remember that."
Shandling was a successful sitcom writer in the '70s on shows such as "Sanford and Son" and "Welcome Back, Kotter." But he gave all that up one day at a story meeting for "Three's Company."
One of the producers had complained, "Well, Chrissie wouldn't say that."
The thought of a motivation for a shallow character played by Suzanne Sommers was too much for Shandling. "I just locked," he recalled. "I said, 'I don't think I can do this.' And I stopped right there and went on to perform."
His big break with his own material came in 1981, when he appeared on "The Tonight Show," although those who saw him drink a glass of undissolved Ovaltine granules in 1979 on "Dinah!" aren't likely to forget it.
But cracking Johnny Carson up was a watershed moment, as it always was for any young comic.
"I always hoped equally after sex that a woman said I could come back another night," Shandling noted.
Shandling was for many years a regular guest host on Carson. "I just can't do it on a regular basis," he added, talking about his post-"Larry Sanders" career. "But I do get a pang now and then because it's a good form for me; it's oddly organic."
Just in case there were any doubts about that, Shandling tossed off several random one-liners:
"I was telling my shrink some problems the other day, and she said: 'Hey, don't pull me into this.'"
"This is the hypocrisy of the government: a drug like Ecstasy that puts you in the mood for sex, that's illegal. But a pill that just gives you a hard-on, that's OK. I don't need Viagra. I need a drug that makes me want to have a conversation after."
"I still have my dog, Shep. He licks himself, then stares at me, then goes back to licking himself. I think he wants to have sex with me. I think he's fantasizing."
"The Larry Sanders Show" was such a lacerating look at the pretensions of show business that you have to wonder if any of the celebrities who guest-starred as themselves ever regretted it afterward.
"You know, it was a collaborative effort," said Shandling. "Guests were invited to changed the material. Chevy Chase came up with that line about his show being cancelled."
Scenes that showed Larry passing David Duchovny in the hall and not recognizing him, or feeling miffed at being imitated by Dana Carvey on "Saturday Night Live," were lifted straight from real life.
"It was whining, the big hair, prosthetic lips - all wrong," recalled Shandling about Carvey's impression of his most distinctive traits. "So I bump into Dana later and he said, 'Oh, God, how should I apologize?' And I said, 'Come on "Larry Sanders," we'll do this scene.'"
"Larry Sanders" writer Judd Apatow, whose post-"Sanders" career has so far included "Freaks & Geeks" and "Undeclared," noted that stand-up comic Bobcat Goldthwaite hadn't exactly enjoyed watching HIS episode.
The problem, Apatow said, was that Goldthwaite hadn't bothered to read the whole script and missed the parts where other characters kept remarking how awful Goldthwaite's schtick is.
On the other hand, Goldthwaite at least was honest about it.
"He said to me later, 'I really didn't like it,'" said Apatow, imitating Goldthwaite's whiny voice. "'But I guess the reason I didn't like it is because it's true.'"