A Larry Gelbart Rarity


Larry Gelbart died today at the age of 81. I always had reservations about his work, but my reservations shouldn’t be taken seriously, given that every comedy writer I have ever admired or respected considers Gelbart the greatest of them all.

My reservations came about because I felt that, like his contemporary Neil Simon, he had a tendency to go for the easy one-liner and the easy anger/sentimentality at the expense of character. Of course because he was Larry Gelbart, an “easy” one-liner for him would be a better joke than most of us could make after thinking for a year. But his years on M*A*S*H sometimes seemed to teach a dangerous lesson that if you’re facile with jokes and equally facile with social commentary, you can get by with turning potentially interesting characters into one-dimensional authorial whipping boys (Frank Burns) or simply draining characters of any specific personality at all (Trapper). The reason they taught this lesson, of course, is that his writing was so brilliantly executed; if you’re going to do the Neil Simon approach — take a basically non-comic story and then layer one-line jokes on top of it — nobody did it with more skill than Gelbart, not even Simon himself. And on A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum, Gelbart, perfectly teamed with a writer who had more of a character-based approach (Burt Shevelove) wrote one of the best scripts in the history of the musical theatre.

And his other source of inspiration to comedy writers was his constant struggle against the limitations of what network TV allows, not so much the limitations of censorship but of genre, where every show has to be either a sitcom or a drama or a sketch comedy. He said that M*A*S*H was his attempt to do real drama on TV because nobody was doing real drama (since hour-long dramas at the time were very formulaic and their main characters were cardboard cutouts). Along with Norman Lear, he helped to demonstrate that the so-called sitcom could do more serious and interesting drama than the dramas, by combining comedy with seriousness in the way that good plays and movies often do. The modern quality drama owes much more to the serio-comic sitcoms of the ’70s, by Lear and Gelbart and Danny Arnold, than they do to almost any U.S. TV drama from before the mid-’80s. And Gelbart then did what many comedy writers dreamed of doing, creating in United States a show that had no genre classification at all: it wasn’t a comedy, wasn’t a drama, didn’t have a laugh track, wasn’t an hour long, was totally its own animal.

A couple of years after United States flopped, Gelbart created Aftermash, the now-infamous spinoff with the only three members of the cast who didn’t want the show to end (Klinger, Potter, Mulcahy). The show did have some good episodes, though, and he was responsible for an episode that actually got an Emmy nomination: “Fall Out,” which Gelbart both wrote and directed, showcased his gift for taking a downbeat subject, filling it with jokes, and still not seeming to trivialize the subject. Gelbart didn’t get the Emmy nomination for writing it, but he did get a nomination for directing, something he didn’t do often (he did several episodes of M*A*S*H, and two episodes of Aftermash).

Warning: This video is at a high volume level, so turn down the volume before you play it.

Filed under:

A Larry Gelbart Rarity

  1. Very sorry to hear about Larry Gelbart's passing (R.I.P)

    I had no idea that he co-wrote A Funny Thing … That alone would have ensured his reputation but add that to M*A*S*H (at least the first few years) and he was a truly one of the giants of comedy writing.

  2. Gelbart said he left MASH after Season 4 because he had done all he had hoped to do with the series, ending with the B&W pseudo-documentary episode featuring Clete Roberts. Season 4 also was the first with Harry Morgan and Mike Ferell, which basically were "his" characters, not Richard Hooker or Robert Altman's.

    I agree Season 4 was the show's best, and it may have been because Gelbart was more comfortable with a format that allowed the three major characters to be a little more naturally differentiated. While there was some drama in Seasons 1-3, it was harder to get to where Gelbart apparently wanted to go with McLean Stevenson as your overall authority figure — Henry was hard to take seriously until he was dead. In contrast, Wayne Rogers' Trapper was a hotter personality that probably could have worked in the later MASH episodes (and of course, Fox would use Trapper's name for the later drama series), but it may have been too "hot" for Gelbart to feel comfortable with the kind of one-liners he enjoyed. B.J. was more laid back and suited to that (with the added benefit that his laid-back personality meant that Alda's Hawkeye could now be the series' undisputed Alpha Male in the Swamp).

  3. Here a question, Jaime. How come "City of Angels," the 1989 musical for which Gelbart wrote the very funny book, isn't better remembered? It won a bunch of Tonies and, as I recall from seeing the original Broadway production, the nonstop jokes were supported by a clever double plot and good tunes.

    I looked it up to make sure my memory doesn't give it too much credit, and find that Frank Rich raved in the NYT. On the book: "…finally the roars from the balcony merge with those from the orchestra and the pandemonium takes on a life of its own. Only the fear of missing the next gag quiets the audience down." And the music by Cy Coleman: "a delirious celebration of jazz and pop styles."

    It puts "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" in a new context if we consider it as not just a one-time thing.

    • One thing that may keep City from being performed as often as it might be is that most of the score is written in a very aggressive jazz style, which Cy Coleman cited as the closest thing to a pure jazz score that Broadway had heard. (Except for "You Can Always Count On Me," which is a knock-off of a song Coleman had written for Seesaw called "Nobody Does It Like Me.") Like Coleman's operetta score for On the Twentieth Century, the stylistic contrivance may make it hard for the score to catch on with those who don't like that style, and also sounds like the composer is putting us on. (I like the score, but it does sound contrived a lot of the way through, though not as badly as Twentieth Century.)

      Also whereas Sondheim's score for Forum has a lot of pretty, charming songs that give us a breather between the big laughs of the book, Coleman's score for City is even more hard-driving than the book and makes the whole show seem a bit brittle.

      Finally, I think Gelbart's book, while very funny, has a subject that isn't that interesting at its core — writers axe-grinding about how badly they're treated by Hollywood. Anyone who knows anything about Golden Age Hollywood history knows that Buddy, the producer, is right and Stine, the writer, should not expect his stupid novel to be faithfully adapted to the screen. So even with all the interesting and funny stuff, the plot is leading up to the moment when the writer stands up for his right not to have anyone change his precious words, and I doubt I'm the only one who doesn't consider that a very involving story. Whereas in Forum the comedy has something we can really identify with underlying it: Pseudolous wanting to be free. We can all get behind that.

Sign in to comment.