More people should watch The Larry Sanders Show, released in 1992 in the infancy of HBO and way ahead of its time. But the highest heights and the biggest laughs on the show tend to come from Rip Torn’s character, Artie, producer of the fictional late-night show that provides the series’ name.
Artie is a morass of contradictions. He’s the only person who can speak honestly to Larry (Garry Shandling), but he spends a lot of time lying to him, often spinning dross as gold, whether he’s touting a mediocre guest or trying to convince the host that he’s doing much better than he really is.
After an onscreen disaster with Carol Burnett, Artie, with a reassuring grin, tells Larry, “You finally got to do a sketch with the great Carol Burnett!” Larry responds, “It wasn’t a sketch. It was a massive, spastic f—up.” Artie: “Tomayto, tomahto.”
As needed, Artie cracks skulls or massages egos. His ultimate loyalty is to the host, whom he treats like a horse who could either win the Triple Crown or lie down in the middle of the track, depending on whether he’s being ridden skillfully.
The thing is, anybody who’s ever hosted anything that involved having a producer sees, through the extremes of comedy, a bushel of truth in the Artie-Larry relationship.
I think about this as my longtime senior producer Betsy Kaplan departs the show. I developed a little saying for the days when Betsy would deliver into my hands a show with carefully selected guests who had been pre-interviewed by her to assess their strengths and weaknesses and a rundown that mapped out interesting twists and turns the conversation might take.
Beholding her meticulous work in the minutes before airtime, I would say, “Well, there’s only one person left who could f— it up now.”
I always tried not to. Betsy Kaplan made me a better host because it seemed unforgivable to let her excellent work go to waste.
My first producer — starting out in commercial radio — was Steve Savino, who was so much like Artie that almost any statement one of them made could as easily have come from the other. “Today’s guest: the vivacious and airborne Sandy Duncan!”
I was a terrible host. I didn’t even have a theory about what kind of show I wanted to do, so I would try almost anything, including concepts I lacked the skill and experience to pull off.
Savino’s response was to throw all kinds of guests at me just to see what I would do with them. This was AM radio in 1992, and he had a Rolodex of A-, B- and C-listers who, for whatever reason, would take his calls.
I had a lot of aimless and amiable conversations on air with Michele Lee, despite the fact that I had never seen Knots Landing, in which she had a major role at the time. I also had many encounters with Benjamin Creme, a blissed-out Scottish “esoterician” functioning as John the Baptist for a soon-to-arrive divine presence known as Maitreya. Crop circles and UFOs were implicated, somehow.
Just like Artie, Savino had a basket of stock phrases to explain why the show I was doing was not a fiasco. He would step into my studio during a commercial break and say, “It sounds a lot better coming out of the speakers out there” (he gestured yonder toward a mythical ecosystem of car and countertop radios), “than it does going in here” (he pointed into the microphone where my voice was going).
“No,” I would say despondently. “It doesn’t.”
On days when the phones were dead, when nothing I said or did created a stir among potential callers, Savino would step in and say, “Sometimes they just like to listen.”
I can’t even type those words now without laughing.
I was lucky to have him, just as I was lucky to have all the producers who followed: Slacker Joe Bailey, Bobby Sherwood, Tyler Konvent, Patrick Skahill, Chion Wolf, Josh Nilaya, Jonathan McNicol.
But I don’t think there’s any doubt that the smartest thing I did was to figure out that a former ICU nurse and Farmington board of education member could be a great radio producer.
The best collaborations are the ones that add up to a whole. It was said of Rogers and Astaire that she gave him sex and he gave her class. In the case of Kaplan and McEnroe, she kept him honest and he kept her laughing.
Betsy Kaplan’s greatest shows tended to be the ones where she took someone or something more seriously than most people did. She listened. She empathized. A lot of the guests didn’t know much about this McEnroe guy, but by the time they got on the air with me they knew there was a caring, moral person watching over the sheepfold.
This quality will be forever defined by the show in 2016 when Panna Krom, who had killed her newborn baby right after delivering, sat in our studio after leaving prison. She had been 17, the daughter of Cambodian refugees, when it happened. Other shows passed on this idea, but I was pretty sure we could do it because I had the producer for it.
When the show won a national award, I was told later, the audience gasped just hearing the topic. But we didn’t sensationalize it. We just tried to understand.
My job was to remind her we should have fun sometimes. We did a show on drive-in movies and went to see The Conjuring in the Betsy Kaplan Party Van with the Culture Dogs (radio hosts on a nearby college station) and two interns. Leaving the battery on is apparently a common drive-in movie mistake, so the Party Van got to experience Mansfield Drive-In’s jump start operation.
McNicol, Kaplan and I went to Long Island to interview the great songwriter Jimmy Webb. This show took — I’m not kidding — years to negotiate and only happened because Betsy Kaplan formed one of her empathic bonds with Jimmy’s wife Laura. The result was something so vast and raw and musical that it had to be cut into two episodes. Also, Betsy Kaplan’s other car sustained a flat tire. She won a lot of awards, but she also led the league in roadside assistance.
We have video — offered as web extras — of her brushing a dog’s teeth and getting hustled by a famous gambling con artist named Fast Jack. (These are two different videos.)
When Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy was in studio, I had the former nurse walk in and check his blood pressure. If you knew Malloy, you’d know why.
My producers are all different, but one thing I insist on is the ability to take something commonplace and make it more interesting than it really deserves to be. Betsy Kaplan produced a show on human hydration that people still bring up as something they didn’t expect to listen to for the better part of an hour. But did.
I also became a chronicler of things blurted out in meetings by Betsy Kaplan, such as “I would never charge to let someone pet my alpaca” and “I’m more turned on by women in pants than I am by yodeling.”
Betsy Kaplan’s last show, of this era, was about grief. It featured a conversation between me and Nelba Marquez-Greene, mother of Ana, one of the children killed at Sandy Hook. People will talk about this episode for a long time. Nelba was amazing. She and Betsy Kaplan conferred for weeks and weeks until Nelba felt ready to do this, until Nelba felt safe.
Betsy Kaplan was supposed to be burning up her unused paid vacation on that Monday, but her conscience wouldn’t let her skip this show.
Which is just about the most Betsy Kaplan thing ever.
She thinks she’ll come back in the fall as a freelancer. Of course, people think maybe they’ll drop by the airport and play the tambourine and sell poppies one or two more times after leaving the cult. Then they come to their senses.
I hope Betsy Kaplan does not come to her senses.
You know what my favorite time of day is, most weekdays? (I have missed it for the entire pandemic.) It’s around 12:55. We go live at 1:06. At 12:55, people are making their final adjustments. Locking down a tech problem. Chasing down a missing guest. Going over some last-minute change.
At that moment, I look around. I see the people I’ve chosen to work with getting ready to be good at their jobs. I see this little team fitting together the last puzzle pieces as the air thickens with anticipation.
And I think: “Well, there’s only one person left who could f— it up now.”
This essay originally appeared in Colin McEnroe’s weekly newsletter for Hearst Media CT. As of this writing, the senior producer job is open.
Colin McEnroe is a writer and the host of The Colin McEnroe Show on WNPR and other Connecticut Public Radio stations. He is allergic to penicillin.