Two new DVD sets take us into the belly of the media beast, which has just eaten a box of Jolly Ranchers and a bagful of Snickers.
Garry Shandling continues looking for love in Not Just the Best of the Larry Sanders Show, released last week, which revisits the tortured world of late-night talk and one particularly troubled host. The HBO program, unique to this day in its mix of fake reality and fiction, was magnificently insightful and hilarious.
And the first season of WKRP in Cincinnati hits store shelves today. Every one of the show's eight characters is a screwball-sitcom TV classic, yet the whole provides a remarkably real peek into the realm of radio.
The two sets demonstrate a contrast in DVD production philosophy. The four-disc Sanders set includes almost as many "extras" - nearly eight hours - as it does shows, 23 specially selected episodes of the program's total of 89. Lame commentary accompanies just a few of 22 WKRP first-season episodes, and there are two cheerless little interviews with a few of the principals.
"The sad thing is that it takes these cameras to make us feel good," Tom Petty says to his good friend Garry Shandling while the two visit "intimately" at Petty's house in one of the Sanders extras. "Two freaks of nature. Two battered, beaten show-biz veterans."
The DVD set gives little aid in defining where Shandling's bundle of neuroses ended and those of his alter ego Sanders began. That pesky dilemma was one of the pleasures of The Larry Sanders Show, which appeared 1992-98 on HBO, growing from two taproots.
Shandling was familiar as a real talk-show host, having filled in frequently for Johnny Carson. And on his previous series, Showtime's It's Garry Shandling's Show, Garry played Garry. His real apartment was replicated on a soundstage, and everybody acknowledged constantly that they were making a TV show.
The fictitiousness of Larry's two enablers, Artie the producer and sidekick Hank Kingsley, was easier to identify, as they provided sublime satirical insight into the TV biz.
Distinguished theater actor Rip Torn won an Emmy for Artie, constantly seeking "huge laughs" and "great television" while trying to keep his booze, Larry's many debilitating foibles, and the network nerds from bringing down the house of cards.
Jeffrey Tambor got only Emmy nominations, but his interpretation of the insecure, untalented and morally bankrupt sidekick Kingsley, whose greatest claim to fame was his "Hey, now" catchphrase, was the best moment in a very successful character career, and one of the great creations of TV comedy, ever.
Larry Sanders set the stage for so much show-biz stuff that followed on TV, from the insider comedy of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Entourage to the more wide-ranging laughs of Sports Night and 30 Rock and even the bloat of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
But this DVD set is so much more than a compilation. It's a new work in itself, in which Shandling chats at length, awkwardly and revealingly, with some of the stars who appeared as slightly skewed versions of themselves on the fake talk show within the show, and as truly skewed versions of themselves in the fake behind-the-scenes comedy. Warren Beatty, Alec Baldwin, Jon Stewart and Jerry Seinfeld are just some of them.
There are also interviews with cast members who have done pretty well for themselves since, including Penny Johnson and Mary Lynn Rajskub (24), comedians Sarah Silverman and Janeane Garofalo, Jeremy Piven (Entourage) and Wallace Langham (CSI).
Much of the time, Shandling, a devotee of Zen Buddhism, seems as if he's trying to assuage an unjustified guilt for misusing his guests and actors. The whole project extends that attitude to his fans.
"Why work so hard?" I asked him in an e-mail.
"Just like the show," he replied, "the whole DVD is a deeper look into the people involved, and captures real life, now. They all deserve that. The cast interviews reveal how intelligent and sensitive each and every one is. . . .
"The answer to your question is to do something new, and use the past as part of the journey that brings us to this moment.
"That's a lot for 50 bucks" (actually $49.95)
WKRP lists for 10 bucks less ($39.98, three discs), not the worst price for a show that many believed would never make it to DVD. Licensing fees for all the contemporary music in the 1978-82 CBS sitcom about a radio station - Pink Floyd, the Eagles, Elton John and others - were thought to be prohibitive.
So the producers just subbed the music, and it's hard to complain when you have Gordon Jump as the bumbling station owner; Frank Bonner as ad salesman and clotheshorse Herb Tarlek; Richard Saunders as Les Nessman, the nebbish with a nose for news; Loni Anderson as super-smart sex bomb Jennifer Marlowe; Tim Reid as the mellifluous Venus Flytrap; uncannily cute Jan Smithers as the rookie; and Howard Hesseman, who should have been arrested for all the fun that he had with DJ Dr. Johnny Fever.
After earlier, less fulfilling, lives as Johnny Midnight, Johnny Cool, Johnny Duke, Johnny Style and Johnny Sunshine.
WKRP provided those characters and stories (Herb in a fish suit, a singing funeral-home commercial, and the immortal horror of flightless turkeys raining on the mall in an ill-conceived Thanksgiving promotion) that puts it near the top among all straight-ahead sitcoms.