March 15, 2011
Exit, Stage Leftby Arthur Smith
I’ve been having a lot of fun catching up with the prescient show-biz satire The Larry Sanders Show on IFC lately. Though littered with then-current cultural references and featuring awful nineties fashion choices (Larry’s suits are beyond ghastly), the show has hardly dated a bit; its breathless documentary shooting style, acid irreverence, and rapid-fire wit all resonate just as resoundingly in this brave year of 2011 as they did in their heyday.
Such were my thoughts as I settled in for “Off Camera,” a terrific installment from 1993. This episode features Rip Torn’s rip-roaring producer Artie attending to his duties—from wrangling immature celebrities to micromanaging the lighting technicians—while fending off a twerpy Entertainment Weekly reporter with his signature combination of courtly charm and bulldog toughness. Nothing rumples Artie’s natty exterior, although a dressing room romp with randy guest Elizabeth Ashley does result in a tenacious cowlick.
It’s a terrific showcase for Torn, but what struck me watching this time around was the fact that Larry’s other guests that night—Gene Siskel, John Ritter, and Warren Zevon—have all since died, a fact that cast a strangely melancholy pall over the proceedings. All three get to skewer their personas with delightfully delivered bits of business: Siskel, the abrasive Chicagoan, goads Ritter into a near fight, Ritter sustains a head injury and does some masterful physical comedy ensuring the show goes on, and Zevon churlishly begs off of singing his hit "Werewolves of London" in favor of "The French Inhaler," one of his most achingly lovely (if cryptic) ballads.
The realization that these vital, funny, relatively young men had all passed on struck with some force. The Larry Sanders Show often dealt with the evanescence of fame, the insecurity of performers who know longevity in their field is a dicey proposition. The metaphorical freight here is obvious, but no less affecting for it. Life, like careers, is finite, and the curtain will inevitably fall. Watching this episode again was achingly bittersweet: for all of the brilliance and freshness on display, time has moved on, and the world has changed. The episode didn’t feel dated, but I did.
I’ll give Warren Zevon the last word, the mysterious coda from that sweet and bitter ballad:
“She said: So long, Norman.”
Arthur Smith worked in a film archive and failed to earn a living as a professional musician before joining the Paley Center in 1997. He’s not bitter, but has unhealthy fixations on tweedy clothing and Marvel comics.Interests:
60s Pop Music, Comedy, Comic Books, Great and/or Terrible Movies, and Exotic Brunettes
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