The Larry Sanders Show was the first time I ever heard “fuck” on television. It was also the funniest, most honest goddamn show I’d ever seen.
Every character was emotionally broken in some way:
Larry keeps people at arm’s length, hoping to get through life without getting hurt. In reality, he’s a walking, open wound.
Hank is six feet of insecurity in tap shoes. (“Hey now!”)
Artie drowns his pain in salty dogs.
Even Phil, the show’s wisecracking writer, eventually falls in love after seasons of playing the hardened cynic.
Larry, Hank, Artie, Phil, and Paula weren’t just glib caricatures. They were fully-realised human beings, complete with faults and foibles.
The show’s guests were flawed as well. Real celebrities appeared in episodes dealing with real-life crises: Burt Reynolds’ divorce from Loni Anderson, Chevy Chase’s epic talk show failure, Ellen Degeneres’ coming out.
While every script was tightly written, the cast often improvised on set. Shandling also made copious notes on scripts. Beside a line of Larry’s dialogue, one of his notes reads:
“Feel it. Then say it.”
In improv, we have a tendency to talk, not feel. And being deadpan can get you laughs, no question.
But how many times have you been in a scene where someone dies, or wants a divorce, or gets fired, and no one reacts?
Expressing emotion can be scary in real life. But what better place to explore it than onstage? Instead of being unfazed by everything, try overreacting for a change.
Scream with terror when someone mentions asparagus.
Tear your boss a new A for saying “Good morning.”
Cry when your scene partner sings the Care Bears theme.
Feel your response, then speak it.
One way to get out of your head and into your emotions is to move. David Razowsky teaches an exercise that’s incredible to watch, and a revelation to perform:
Two people go up, and exchange five lines of dialogue with no emotion or inflection; they just say the words in a monotone.
Person #1: Hi.
Person #2: Hello.
Person #1: How are you?
Person #2: Fine thanks.
Person #1: Glad to hear it.
Before a line is spoken, the actor has to move. They can move wherever they like in the space. Once they come to a natural stop, they say their line.
Their scene partner then has to move before they respond. Again, they can move wherever they like, but they can’t say their line until they’ve come to a stop somewhere in the space.
It’s always surprising to see where people feel compelled to move. It could be a few steps closer, very close, or far away from their scene partner. They could end up facing towards or away from the other person.
It sounds incredibly simple, but having done it myself, it’s easy to hear your partner’s line and start to speak before moving. The important thing is to let your body decide where you’re going to move. Then say your line.
Even though the words are delivered monotone, the scenes are inevitably infused with all kinds of emotions.
As Razowsky says, “Dialogue is informed by movement.”
If you find yourself “stuck” on stage, try moving, then speak. It doesn’t have to be big or frenetic. Just let your body take control. It’ll stop your brain from overthinking and let your feelings respond instead.
(For more great moments from The Larry Sanders Show, click here.)