74. "Hank's Night in the Sun," The Larry Sanders Show (1994)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for winter 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here and an introduction to the project is here.
The Peter Principle — which holds that everyone is eventually promoted to a level above his or her competence — has been a basic fact on most sitcoms, long before The Office made it its central premise. We've already seen that attempts at improving one's appearance generally fail in sitcom land; the high odds that a career advancement will result in disaster is another way that sitcoms can be simultaneously depressing (because nothing ever changes) and comforting (because it's for the best that nothing ever changes).
There are some exceptions to this rule, and many are held in great affection. The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Parks and Recreation stand out as examples where the protagonist is up to new responsibilities; Mary Richards and Leslie Knope may screw up in individual episodes, but there's a clear arc of their growing into leadership roles as their series evolve. (Even if Leslie loses her current campaign for City Council, it won't be for incompetence.) All in the Family and Roseanne could also fall in this category in that their main characters graduate from menial jobs to become small-business owners.
But those "sweet" shows are outnumbered by the bittersweet (Ralph's doomed business failures on The Honeymooners, the various unsuccessful attempts to escape the garage on Taxi) and the downright sour (on Married ... with Children, Al Bundy not only screws up every attempt to better himself, he has to endure the mocking of his family when he inevitably fails).
The more desperate ambition belongs to sidekick Hank Kingsley, who finally gets the chance to become "guest host" after Larry gets food poisoning. (No, Hank didn't cause it.)
At first, producer Artie asks Paula, the show's booker, to get anyone else:
Artie: Call in this order: Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Lewis, Bob Saget, John Ritter, Howie Mandel, Louie Anderson.
Paula: Howie Mandel?
Artie: You're right. Flop Howie and Louie. When you call Seinfeld let him know he's our first choice. When he says no, let Richard Lewis think that he's our first choice and so on down the list.
Paula: The way your mind works amazes me!
Artie: I'm only now comfortable with it myself.
When time runs out, Artie asks,"Paula, are you aware I'm about to open a box far nastier than Pandora's?" Cut to Hank on the coach in his office, struggling with a pile of take-out food in his lap. Hank panics at the thought of taking over for Larry, but he can't let the opportunity pass.
Artie: (as Hank is about to go on stage) Listen to me, buddy. I've been in this business, man and boy, for 40 years. I know things, Hank. Let me tell you one of the things I know: You do not suck!
Hank: That's one of the kindest things anyone has ever said to me.
The show is not a complete disaster, but Hank lets this minor achievement go to his head. In the tradition of Barney Fife when he's put in charge of the jailhouse, M*A*S*H's Frank Burns when he's put in charge of camp, and The Office's Dwight Schrute when he becomes manager, Hank becomes a power-mad lunatic. He threatens staffers (though he's taken aback when he snarls at head writer Phil, "Do you like your job?" and Phil responds, "No.") and he schemes to get another turn in the spotlight.
Hank does show some self-awareness about his personality change, though he still doesn't recognize the Peter Principle when it's staring him in the face.
Hank: (to assistant Darlene as he waits for his cue to go on stage) Let me tell you something. I prayed. I actually got down on my knees, and I prayed that Larry would stay sick so I could host the show tonight. I mean, I wished this man unwell. Do you understand that?
Darlene: God, Hank, no.
Hank: I'm still doing it. I hope he stays sick through the weekend, and the week after that, and the week after that.
Darlene: Hank, don't!
Hank: You don't get it, do you? You see, it's not Larry who is sick. It's me. It's me. I am very sick. I am sicko. I'm so fucking sick. But (as he opens curtain)... I'm finally where I belong.
Being No. 1 is not where he belongs, of course, and even Hank realizes it after his cockier personality turns off the studio audience. He's back to being second banana, laughing loudly at jokes he doesn't even get (and falling asleep during the show in one episode), and he's almost certainly thrown away any chance at hosting Larry Sanders or any other talk show.
Is the lesson too harsh to be funny? I don't think so, but it would be easier to laugh at Hank if he were more of a boob, like The Mary Tyler Moore Show's Ted Baxter, or if he were as nasty as Taxi's Louie DePalma. The more measured performance by Jeffrey Tambor as Hank introduces a cringe factor when he does act like an ass, making him something of a forerunner to Ricky Gervais and Steve Carrell in the British and US versions of The Office. With "Hank's Night in the Sun," the Peter Principle in sitcoms got a bit less slapsticky (see Lucy and the conveyor belt) and a bit more uncomfortably recognizable.
The Larry Sanders Show is on Netflix streaming video, and there are a few clips on YouTube. Here's the morning after Hank's "maladroit" triumph:
After Hank has finagled a second night as host: