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).
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