Larry Gelbart: Comedy Writer for Ages

Happy birthday, Larry Gelbart (1928-2009)! Among Sid Caesar’s list of legendary writers, Gelbart’s is normally noted somewhere after Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and cast member Carl Reiner, and at the front of a more minor pack that includes Mel Tolkin, Selma Diamond, and Michael Stewart. Yet I have to say, I respond to Gelbart’s work much more than Simon’s, and much, much more than Reiner’s. It speaks to me more, and impresses me more. Gelbart’s work showed more artistic ambition, was generally more satirical, and displayed a much vaster knowledge of theatre history and theatre craft. Me team Gelbart.

Gelbart’s parents were Polish-Jewish immigrants who first settled in Chicago, and then moved to L.A., where, legend has it, Larry’s father got him his first gag writing job by virtue of the fact that he was Danny Thomas’s barber. Gelbart was only a teenager when he began writing for Thomas on radio, as well as Bob Hope, Jack Paar, and the Ed Gardner program Duffy’s Tavern. In the post-war ’40s he worked for Armed Forces Radio, then returned to break into television writing for such comedians as Caesar, Red Buttons and Art Carney throughout the 1950s.

In 1961 he broke into Broadway by writing the book to a musical based on Preston Sturges’s Hail the Conquering Hero. Next came his seminal 1962 collaboration with Burt Shevelove and Stephen Sondheim, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which ran through 1964 starring Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford, and then was made into a not-as-good 1966 film. Based on the ancient Roman farces of Plautus and Terence (and smashed together with American burlesque humor), this musical had an enormous influence on me as a teenager, sending me back to the Roman playwrights, whom I have read and drawn from all the rest of my life. Not to mention vaudeville!

Next Gelbart and Shevelove adapted Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Wrong Box for a 1966 film — a fact which floored me, because I think of that movie as a quintessential British comedy, what with its Victorian London setting, and a cast that includes John Mills, Ralph Richardson, Michael Caine, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Peters Sellers and Jeremy Lloyd.  Next came a couple of swinging sixties sex comedies starring Tony Curtis: Not With My Wife, You Don’t (1966), and On My Way to the Crusades, I Met a Girl Who…(1967) …are we getting repetitive yet?

In the late 60s and early ’70s, he did a lot of work writing for tv variety specials, and failed pilots etc, and then another breakthrough, the hit tv series M*A*S*H, which he co-created and produced with Gene Reynolds, and which ran from 1972 through 1983, although both Gelbart and Reynolds left the show about midway through the run, taking with them almost everything that made the show watchable. I am certain to write much more on this series at some point; it was a major influence on me as a teenager. I even wrote a spec episode when I was about 14, consisting mostly of jokes stolen from the show.

Not as well known or remembered is the fact that in the wake of M*A*S*H’s monster success, Gelbart & co. tried to launch some other tv series which didn’t do as well: Roll Out (1973-1974), a sit com about African American soldiers assigned to a motor pool in World War II; and Karen (1975), a vehicle for Karen Valentine. In 1976 he wrote one of the three pilots for the series that became Three’s Company, although the network chose to go in a different direction for the show’s eventual format.

In 1976, Sly Fox, Gelbart’s adaptation of Ben Jonson’s Elizabethan comedy Volpone, was a major Broadway hit, running for over a year. In 1979, the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence mounted a version starring George Martin, which I saw on a school field trip. More crucial Gelbart influence!

In 1977, Gelbart began writing movies again, and was responsible for several hits (or other notable films). These included the smash George Burns comedy Oh, God! (1977); the all-star Hollywood parody Movie Movie (1978); the John BelushiDan Aykroyd comedy Neighbors (1981, it proved to be Belushi’s last film); the Oscar winning blockbuster Tootsie (1982), which he co-wrote with Murray Schisgal; and Blame it on Rio (1984).

Then he shifted his focus back to Broadway again! There was his Reagan era political satire Mastergate (1989), which featured the classic Gelbart line “What didn’t the President know, and when didn’t he know it?” — a line so recognizably from the same pen of the guy who wrote so many hilarious M*A*S*H episodes. Then he wrote the book for the smash Broadway musical City of Angels which ran from late 1989 through early 1992.

After this he had a bit of a political stretch not worlds away from Mastergate in the form of two tv movies: Barbarians at the Gate (1992) and Weapons of Mass Distraction (1997). In 2000, with Harold Ramis, he co-wrote a forgettable remake of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s Bedazzled. His last picture was the rather sober tv bio-pic And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2003) starring Antonio Banderas.

Anyway, you can see why he’s more my cup of tea don’t you? He mixes the American joke writing tradition with appreciation of writers like Plautus, Terence, Ben Jonson, and Robert Louis Stevenson! In Tootsie, he updates Charley’s Aunt. In Mastergate he chose to take on the most topical issue of the day to satirize just as Swift or somebody might have done. He was thinking about posterity a bit more when he wrote, not just aiming to tickle tired businessmen, as certain other comic playwrights are content to do. This is why I make the grandiose claim that he was a comedy writer for the ages.