TELEVISION / Lauouaof? I nearly bought the Garden Weasel

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The Independent Culture
'IF THE sponsor doesn't like it,' rages the talk-show host in The Larry Sanders Show (BBC 2), 'they can screw a light bulb up my ass and use me as a desk lamp.' The alert among you will notice something unusual about this remark from an American comedy - its strong flavour and unrestrained aggression, for example, which are as startling in this context as a jalapeno pepper in a bowl of cornflakes. The explanation is simple - The Larry Sanders Show was first shown on cable in America, which allows it considerable liberties of language and tone, not least in the way that it talks about network television.

The abiding vice of most American comedy is its inability to leave bad alone. Now that the right not to be offended has virtually been written into the constitution, there is a sort of terror at the notion that characters might say something spiteful and really mean it. Unresolved hostility or bad feeling makes producers so jumpy that it has to be pasted over with a crisp one-liner or, even worse, drenched in Sentiment Lite. But just as you can swear on cable television (and Larry Sanders makes good dramatic use of the freedom, snagging through the synthetic courtesy of American power politics), you can also admit the possibility that malice and dislike don't necessarily kill a comedy.

The series takes the form of an impeccable simulation of a late-night talk show, a hybrid of Letterman and Tonight. Even the guests are real, so that the on-screen sequences are indistinguishable from the real thing (it doesn't matter that they're mildly satirical because both Tonight and Letterman actually have elements of cocky self-mockery about them). Larry Sanders, though, can show the panic beneath the surface suavity - the neuroses, greed and commercial stupidity of high-ratings network television.

It's also refreshing because its repertoire of laughs is unusually wide for American comedy. Cheers and Roseanne are essentially driven, their comic set-pieces the equivalent of a brilliantly planned and executed touchdown. They have to score regularly if they're to beat the opposition. Larry Sanders is more relaxed; it ambles around the subject and knows you can find rich comedy in a scene which not only has no punch-line but which essentially consists of people leaving things unsaid, as in an edgy boardroom confrontation between Sanders and the ball- breaking female executive who wants him to do live ads on his talk show ('What do we do to keep our advertisers happy apart from giving them hand-jobs?' she demands). Most importantly, as Sanders, Garry Shandling delivers a real performance, not just a stand-up routine - his reluctant attempts to sell an implement called the Garden Weasel ('Garden Weasel? Why doncha just call it the Rat-Stick or something?') brilliantly combined a sense of shame and the comic's neurotic hunger for a laugh . . . any laugh.

Eurotrash (C4), the sexiest programme currently on air, is well-named. It has only two selling points - the campy double-act of Jean-Paul Gaultier and Antoine de Caunes and the guaranteed presence of full frontal nudes. Last night the full frontal nude was a generously endowed male porn star, which wasn't quite what I had in mind when I turned on, but the double-act was as engrossing as ever. There aren't enough vowels in a Scrabble set to transcribe De Caunes pronunciation of 'laugh' (the Reader's Digest version would look something like 'lauouaof'). It isn't just how they say things that is wonderful, though, but the cheerfully infantile nature of what they say. Last night, after several episodes in which viewers had been invited to laugh at Europeans, Antoine decided we might be getting above ourself - 'zat's why tonight we jast want to re-mind you zat you're a very seely and insignifi-cant cantry.' 'Nobody cares about you,' Jean-Paul pitched in, 'you are just a sad leetle island wiz bad food zat we see only when we fly to New York.' 'Nicely put, Jean-Paul.' This is, surely, the acceptable face of European unity.