Johnny retired in ’92, and Jay got The Tonight Show over Dave. Spurned, Letterman took his act to CBS, creating The Late Show in ’93. For thirty years Carson took on all comers at the 11:30 pm hour, vanquished them, and retained the title “King of Late Night.” Satellite and cable proliferated and a new world order dawned as he took his final bow. New networks looked for new faces to annex a portion of the late night kingdom with talk shows of their own. Many tried, but the night belonged to (in order of popularity) Jay, Dave, and Larry Sanders. That is the history of the late night talk show wars in the alternate reality of The Larry Sanders Show, a fictional before the camera and behind the scenes look at the making of the titular talk show created by Dennis Klein and frequent guest host of The Tonight Show and one time potential replacement for Johnny Carson, Gary Shandling.
A sitcom at its core, the show is both an exultation of Hollywood and a satirical exploration of the fascination with both lowbrow and highbrow celebrity that was just hitting its stride in the early to mid 1990’s. Whether it be Bill Clinton or Kato Kaelin, Sanders (played by Shandling) hoped to share his prototypical talk show set (Sanders behind the desk, the celebrity in a comfortable chair until his or her segment ends when he or she may move to the comfortable couch or exit through the blue curtain) with them and sidekick, the dimwitted Hank Kingsley (expertly rendered by Jeffrey Tambor). To bifurcate the diegesis, the talk show portions were shot on video tape while life backstage was shot on film with a single camera to provide the documentary feel that had not yet reached the level of ubiquity it enjoys today. Stars of music, television, and movies parody their public personas as guests on the show. Some, like Ryan O’Neal, chronic beater of his then lover, Farrah Fawcett, willingly mock themselves for the scandals that returned them to the twenty-four hour news cycle.
The premiere episode of the fourth season typifies the series at its height. It opens with the show’s charmingly brusque producer Artie (Rip Torn) attempting to conduct a staff meeting while all eyes, especially Larry’s, are fixed to the O.J. Simpson trial on television. The episode aired in ’95 when the trial was at its height, and is titled “Roseanne’s Return.” Ten months have passed since the end of Season Three saw Larry and Roseanne Barr beginning a romance. It has ended badly, and Larry, squeamish and afraid of confrontation, wants her off the show but Artie won’t bump her because he wants the ratings. Hanks displays the near pathological self-absorption embodied in all the show’s celebrity characters when he explains how he is one of the real victims of the OJ trial because he lives in Brentwood and his morning commute has been adversely affected by crowds of gawking tourists glimpsing at his neighbor’s house. Larry turns to a therapist to the stars to help him through his fear of Roseanne. In the waiting room he runs into Chevy Chase, who humbly lampoons his own short-lived, disastrous foray into late night talk shows.