Of all the things written about Garry Shandling since his death last week, no one seemed to recognize that he pioneered a very specific type of bromance that is now practically a staple of Hollywood comedies. Blame Judd Apatow — who worked on Larry Sanders and calls Shandling a mentor. This pseudo-heteroflexible relationship has popped up in films like Wedding Crashers, Superbad and This is The End and takes a platonic friendship between straight dudes one step further. But The Larry Sanders Show did it 15 years earlier and with a much sharper sting — starting with a 1995 episode called “The Bump.” Or the moment when David Duchovny first laid eyes on Larry Sanders.
In the episode, the X-Files star gets bumped as a guest on Sanders’s late night show. He’s pissed. In real life, mind you, Duchovny was a huge Larry Sanders fan — he’d have his management send him tapes of the show to watch in Canada during breaks filming The X-Files — and after meeting on “The Bump,” the two men hit it off. So much so that Shandling eventually invited Duchovny to take part in a regular basketball game comprised of close friends. It was during one game when Shandling and Duchovny were both on the sidelines that Duchovny pitched an idea: “I’d like to come on the show and have a crush on Larry.”
The Larry Sanders Show wasn’t the first 1990s sitcom to play with gay panic. In 1992, Seinfeld featured two episodes about Jerry being so smitten with his baseball hero Keith Hernandez that, when they became friends, he started acting in a nervous manner — playing on the cliché of entering a new romantic relationship. And five years later, The Simpsons drew a lot of laughs from Homer’s terror that his new friend John (as voiced by John Waters) was gay and would turn Bart homosexual.
But neither did it as humorously as “Everybody Loves Larry,” the 1996 season five premiere of The Larry Sanders Show. Sanders is convinced that the network wants to replace him with Jon Stewart, and in the midst of that career crisis, Sanders starts to become convinced that Duchovny might be in love with him. (His shaky reasoning: Duchovny really wants Sanders to spend some time alone with him at his beach house, and he rushes right over to the show once he flies to L.A. because he’s so excited to see Sanders.) When Sanders tries to let his friend down easy, Duchovny, totally blasé, explains that he’s not gay. Well, not really.
Two years later, for the series finale, Shandling would bring back Sanders’s friendship with Duchovny. Their sexual tension hadn’t dissipated.
At a time when pop culture was still wrapping its head around presenting gay main characters — this was before Will & Grace, and Ellen DeGeneres wouldn’t officially come out on her show Ellen until April 1997 — “Everybody Loves Larry” felt risky, the episode also finding ways to mock Sanders’s latent homophobia: After worrying that Duchovny is in love with him, Sanders asks Hank Kingsley’s gay assistant, played by Scott Thompson, if he and his friends think he’s gay. Irritated, Thompson responds, “My gay friends?” and then adds, “I don’t think they think about sex when they watch you, but I haven’t exactly taken a survey.”
These days, the ’90s nervousness of “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” has morphed into the no-big-deal acceptance of I Love You, Man. Straight men in mainstream movies have no problem expressing their feelings to other straight men. There’s even a chance they might actually consummate the bromance, as in recent films The Overnight and The D Train in which two self-proclaimed straight men hook up. Even Apatow-ian bromance has no problem going beyond — a 2013 shot-for-shot remake parody of Kanye West’s “Bound 2” has best buddies James Franco and Seth Rogen going for a full-on makeout.
While Sanders and Duchovny never got to take their budding romance to the next level, they surely pushed others to think about the bounds of male-on-male friendship: “This was before all the bromance baloney, you know, when it was a meme,” Duchovny explained last year to The HuffPost Show about “Everybody Loves Larry.” “That was the supremely creative thing about that show — it all went through Garry. If Garry liked something, we would just do that.”
Tim Grierson is one-half of The New Republic’s film column Grierson and Leitch. He is also a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone and Vulture as well as the author of six books, including Martin Scorsese in Ten Scenes.