33. "Arthur After Hours," The Larry Sanders Show (1995)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 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 on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
"Arthur After Hours" is about a tragic figure most commonly found in the worlds of politics and show business: the right-hand man. Talk-show producer Artie* is a born leader, able to make snap decisions and put them into action. All the hard workers on the fictional Larry Sanders Show seeks his approval, and all the slackers are terrified of him. He's the most powerful person in his world — except for the jerk who gets all the credit for Artie's efforts.
*None of the regular characters on The Larry Sanders Show have last names except for the on-air talent of Larry Sanders and Hank Kingsley. CORRECTION: And also Larry's assistant, Beverly Barnes.
I saw this dynamic a lot when I worked on Capitol Hill a couple of decades ago. A well-run congressional office would usually have an Artie-like chief of staff who could deploy all the worker bees effectively and head off crises before they happened. But from time to time, he or she would be undercut by the congressman himself. The star of the show might suddenly want nothing to do with the piece of legislation his staff had been working on for weeks, or he might order everyone into work on Saturday morning because he's bored (despite the chief of staff assuring everyone they had the weekend off).
Artie: Night after night, you work, work, work to put on the show, and you do the best you can, and after all, what does it add up to? 'Cause all people remember is the night the chimp grabbed Larry's balls.
This episode begins with a brief reminder of Artie's walk-and-talk management wizardry (upon being presented with an array of neckties, he barks, "checks for Larry, birds for Hank, throw that one away"). Then we get a clip of the show-within-a-show, in which Sandra Bernhard plays herself as a talk show guest who seems edgy and daring without actually saying anything. Larry insists on keeping her on the couch longer than planned, bumping Ryan O'Neal (one of Artie's best friends) off the show. Because Larry can't risk getting anyone on Earth mad at him, Artie has to take the blame and let O'Neal dump all over him.
Artie is such a father figure that it's unsettling to see him humilated like this. (It reminds me of Kevin seeing Jack verbally abused on the "My Father's Office" episode of The Wonder Years.) And it's unsettling to Artie, who demands a conversation with Larry about the incident. Larry, typically, flees the office instead.
So Artie spends the night in the studio — drinking, singing along to Hank's karaoke machine, and growling his frustrations with Larry. I put "Arthur After Hours" on this list primarily because of Rip Torn's raw, nothing-held-back performance as Artie. It's rare to see a sitcom character so emotionally exposed, and Torn does a great job showing how much his Superman workday persona is eating him up inside.
I particularly like his angry performance of the self-pity song "I Wanna Be Around," popularized by Tony Bennett in 1963. No doubt who he's singing about here:
And that's when I'll discover that revenge is sweet
As I sit there applaudin' from a front-row seat
When somebody breaks your heart like you broke mine
Still seething, Artie leaves a resignation message on Larry's email. And the most insulting aspect of it is that Artie, famous for his obscene vocabulary (it's not TV, it's HBO!), refrains from colorful language. Instead, he outsources that job to new best friend, a janitor named Nikolai:
Sadly for Artie, his only real career move would be to become the right-hand man to another spoiled, oblivious TV star. (If he abandoned show business altogether, there would inevitably be rumors that he cracked and couldn't handle the job anymore.) So there's nothing contrived about Artie swallowing his pride the next morning and getting back to work, even going through the motions of dismissing Larry's insincere offer to call Ryan O'Neal and take the blame for bumping him.
And since seeing this episode, whenever I come across a seemingly powerful right-hand man, I always wonder: Is there a karaoke machine in his closet?