Thursday, September 24, 2009

Ray Morton: Abyssinia, Larry

We lost one of the greats when Larry Gelbart passed away on Friday, September 11, 2009. Born in 1928, Gelbart was a truly gifted writer’s writer that refused to confine himself to a single format. He began his career as a teenager penning jokes and skits for the Danny Thomas radio show. He also worked for Jack Paar and Bob Hope and then became a staff writer on the classic radio sitcom Duffy’s Tavern. In the 1950s, he made the transition to television, most notably joining the bullpen on Caesar’s Hour alongside such other future notables as Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, and Woody Allen. In the 1960s he began writing both for the screen (his debut feature script was 1962’s The Notorious Landlady. He also worked on the screenplays of The Thrill of It All, The Wrong Box, and Not With My Wife You Don’t, among others) and for the stage (most notably collaborating with Burt Shevelove on the book for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) and continued to work in television (writing and producing The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine and contributing to a number of other shows as well).

The highest profile portion of Gelbart’s career began in 1972, when producer Gene Reynolds hired him to adapt the smash hit movie M*A*S*H for television. Gelbart spent four years with the show, first as executive story consultant and then as co-executive producer, writing or rewriting most of the episodes and directing a bunch as well. After leaving the Korean War behind, Gelbart wrote more screenplays (Oh, God, Movie Movie, Tootsie), continued to work in television -- both in series (Roll Out, United States, After M*A*S*H) and in MOWs (Barbarians at the Gate, … And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself) -- and in the theater (Sly Fox, City of Angels, Mastergate). He also wrote a book (his 1997 autobiography Laughing Matters: On Writing M*A*S*H, Tootsie, Oh, God!, and a Few Other Funny Things), articles, message board postings, blog entries, and even a few songs.

Although Gelbart had a masterful sense of plot and characterization, he was best known for his biting wit. A passionate humanist that admired decency, correct behavior, and noble effort, Gelbart was moved to furious indignation by anything -- greed, hypocrisy, prejudice, chicanery, self-righteousness, willful ignorance, war-mongering, the bureaucratic and institutional mentality -- that sought to impinge on peoples’ rights, lives, or dignity. Gelbart took aim at such targets with gusto and would lacerate them with barbs that were as truthful and searing as they were funny (and they were damn funny).

Gelbart obviously has a lot of really impressive work on his CV (the screenplay for Tootsie -- which is one of the smartest, funniest scripts ever -- borders on the sublime), but for me his greatest achievement will always be those first four seasons of M*A*S*H, which as far as I’m concerned are a virtual encyclopedia of really great writing.

To begin with, the approach was groundbreaking. Gelbart stated many times that when he was first approached to adapt the film for television, he had no interest in turning Robert Altman’s anti-war black comedy into just another service sitcom in the Gomer Pyle/McHale’s Navy mode. At the time he was writing the pilot, America was still in the midst of the Vietnam War and Gelbart felt it would be immoral to trivialize combat and its horrors. So he made the primary focus of M*A*S*H war itself and the show dealt with it unflinchingly -- the (often) dark comedy came out of the obscene situation that the show’s doctors found themselves in (repairing soldiers’ wounds so that they could be sent back to the front to be shot up all over again) and their struggle to maintain their dignity and their sanity in the midst of it. The operating room scenes were played straight (although often with a welcome gallows humor to cut the tension) and one of the show’s signature moments was the war-related death of one of its beloved regulars (McLean Stevenson’s Henry Blake in the classic episode "Abyssinia, Henry"). At the time, such a combination of comedy and drama was unheard of, but by insisting on it, Gelbart (along with Norman Lear and the writers at producers at MTM) helped make television comedy more smart, mature and sophisticated than it had ever been before (and, some might argue, has ever been since).

It was also really clever. Aside from generating an unending string of brilliant one-liners, Gelbart had enormous fun playing with the storytelling -- the show had heavily plotted episodes and virtually plot-less episodes and even an episode that was totally improvised. The show had verbal gags, sight gags, non-linear narratives, and multiple plotlines that magically intertwined at the climax. It found ways to make serious subject matter funny and found the profound poignancy in even the silliest of conceits. The invention and innovation was constant and thrilling -- you can practically feel Gelbart’s enjoyment as he pushed the envelope in every possible direction -- and is something that I still marvel at after all these years.

The characters in M*A*S*H were all sharp and funny and very real, most especially Hawkeye Pierce, who Gelbart used as something of a surrogate for himself and through whom the writer channeled his passion, his intelligence, his anger and vulnerability, his silliness, his profound respect for humanity and his hatred of anything that conspired against it. Gelbart had a virtuoso dexterity with words that grew out of his passionate love for the English language and he used Hawkeye’s dialogue to playfully twist them, tease them, and send them aloft with soaring verbal arias of wit, passion, nonsense, outrage and humor.

Gelbart left the 4077th after four years, feeling he had given it his all. The show continued without him for another seven seasons and morphed into something softer, preachier, and much more conventional. It was still entertaining and often quite good, but never again equaled the brilliance of the Gelbart era. I learned, and continue to learn, so much about screenwriting from those 96 episodes. And they still make me laugh.

So now Larry Gelbart is gone. Luckily for us, he leaves behind a tremendous body of work for us to enjoy. That’s almost a consolation for having no new Larry Gelbart work to look forward to. Almost.

Ray Morton is a writer and script consultant. His books Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg's Classic Film and King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson are available in stores and online. He analyzes screenplays for production companies, producers, and individual writers. Morton is available for consultation and can be reached at

1 comment:

  1. A M*A*S*H TV show fan!! I only know the Altman movie.


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