by Kathleen O’Steen
Larry Gelbart got his first paying gig as a comedy writer when he was sixteen and still a student at Fairfax High. After school, the teenager would head over to NBC to write jokes for Danny Thomas. Today he chalks up his early start to serendipity and salesmanship. His father was a Los Angeles–area barber who clipped many famous hairs — clients included John F. Kennedy and, ironically, Jack Ruby — and, in between snips, he would extol his son’s comic abilities to his clientele.
“He was a combination of Mama Rose and Sweeney Todd,” Gelbart says. “He talked me up to Danny Thomas, so Danny said, ‘Have the kid write something.’ And I did.”
With an amazingly quick wit, an adept ear for language and an unerring aim for the absurd, Gelbart soon found himself in heady company, writing comedy for Fanny Brice, Bob Hope, Joan Davis and Red Buttons. And even though he was often the youngest guy in the writers’ room — “I think I was kind of a novelty,” he says — he still managed to hold his own.
“What can I say? He was a prodigy,” says Gene Reynolds, an industry veteran who years later would turn to Gelbart to adapt the feature film M*A*S*H into a television series.
A prodigy who has kept audiences laughing for some sixty years and is still hard at work, with a number of projects in development, including a stage musical based on the Oscar-winning film Tootsie, which he cowrote with Murray Schisgal.
While Gelbart has always distinguished himself among a field of talented comedy writers, it’s the breadth of his work — TV, feature films, stage, books — and the diverse array of topics (the Korean war, ancient Rome, corporate greed, the Mexican revolution, even God) that make him unique. “Mr. Gelbart has proved over time that he can be hilariously funny, poignantly funny, or bitingly funny — sometimes all three at once,” says David Bushman, television curator for the Paley Center for Media.
And it all began in television’s golden age. After a stint in the army, Gelbart segued into a TV writing job on The Bob Hope Show. He moved to New York to work on a new show for Red Buttons and, in 1955, was hired by Sid Caesar to write for Caesar’s Hour.
Mel Brooks, who was one of the writers on that Primetime Emmy Award–winning comedy, recalls the days when Gelbart was part of a gang of writers that included Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Mel Tolkin, Carl Reiner and himself. “We had some pretty great writers sitting there,” Brooks says, “and yet I’d say that Larry, by far, had the sharpest wit. With his quickness of mind and his ability to put words together, he created some of Sid’s most memorable characters.”
Among those characters was the super-hip jazz musician Progress Hornsby, which Caesar played to the hilt. “These were far-out musicians who were high on something, probably hemp,” Brooks says. “Larry did most of the writing, and it was incredible.”
Ted: You have a most unusual hairstyle.
Progress Hornsby: Yes, it does have a touch of the Ming Dynasty, doesn't it?
Ted: Progress, how do you get your barber to cut your hair?
Progress Hornsby: I insult him. And this is his revenge.
While Gelbart stayed on the series for only two years, it was an intense period — each season consisted of thirty-nine shows. “When I look back, I don’t know how we did it,” Gelbart says. The shows featured no laugh tracks, the pace was frantic and the boss — who stayed in the writing room trying to one-up his writers — was demanding. “We’d shout out jokes like wild puppies, trying to get a mother’s attention,” Brooks says.
Caesar says he hired Gelbart after hearing good things from other writers. “By the time he was in his early twenties he’d already had a lot of experience,” Caesar says. “He came highly recommended and he added substantially to the program.”
Gelbart, who had initially dreamed of becoming a performer — one night of doing stand-up convinced him otherwise — was having the time of his life in that writers’ room. “Sure, you were throwing jokes out there, and it was competitive,” Gelbart says, “but you were competing for quality. For me, it was just Fairfax High School all over again, but for a lot more money.”
Caesar’s Hour went off the air in 1957 and, by that time, Gelbart was discovering a new interest — the theater. Having grown up on the West Coast, he had always focused his attention on radio and film. While he continued to take TV writing jobs on shows such as The Art Carney Show and The Danny Kaye Show, he was focused on writing for the stage.
In 1966 he became the toast of Broadway, having co-written (with Burt Shevelove) the book to the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. With music by Stephen Sondheim, the bawdy musical inspired by the farces of the ancient Roman playwright Plautus, became an instant audience favorite. The production won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and ran for 964 performances in its initial Broadway run. It also spawned a feature film and dozens of revivals and touring productions. Gelbart’s ear for language and the absurd had audiences in stitches.
Philia: That’s the brute who raped my country, Thrace!
Pseudolus: He raped Thrace?
Philia: And then he came and did it again! And then again!
Pseudolus: He raped Thrace thrice?
“When you’re writing for stage, the audience will tell you immediately what’s funny and what isn’t,” Gelbart says. “It’s really the best collaboration in the world.”
When Forum opened on London’s West End, Gelbart decided to pack up his family and move to England. “I went over there thinking I would spend about a month and wound up staying nine years.” It was a harsh time in America, Gelbart says — the country was in the midst of the Vietnam War and protests were raging. The prospect of raising his children abroad was appealing. “Just the wall-to-wall language there…it turned out to be a very good thing.”
The project that would bring him back to the States was about as far from Roman farce or stage musicals as one could get. Fox Studios was developing a television series based on the feature film M*A*S*H. The network had hired Gene Reynolds as executive producer and asked him to find a comedy writer to develop it. Reynolds was soon on a plane to London. “Of course I would go to Larry, he was one of the best writers in the business,” Reynolds would later say.
On nighttime strolls through the park-like grounds of London’s Hampstead Heath — Gelbart’s day job was writing for the Marty Feldman Comedy Machine — Reynolds and Gelbart hashed out the basics of the series. While the comedy was about life in a surgical unit during the Korean War, it came at a time — 1972 — when the news was all about Vietnam. “Probably the foremost challenge was to not trivialize all the sacrifices and the seriousness of what we were seeing in our daily paper,” Gelbart says.
The series would go on to win fourteen Primetime Emmys including outstanding comedy series in 1974. “M*A*S*H was one of the three most significant shows [the others were All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show] that ushered in the ‘age of relevance’ in situation comedy in the early 1970s,” says Bushman. “It dealt with the horrors and absurdity of war and challenged blind faith and blind patriotism.”
Gelbart was credited with writing much of what was seen in the series’ initial years — including its startlingly sober episode, “The Interview,” in which newsman Clete Roberts interviews cast members about the war. While the series ran eleven seasons, Gelbart left at the end of the fourth season, citing exhaustion. “For me, at that point, four years felt like forty years of work,” he says.
He already was having success in films, having written Oh, God! and co-written Tootsie (earning Academy Award nominations for both), among others.
Throughout his life, Gelbart has proved himself to be a writer who isn’t afraid of challenges, or of tackling subjects that he knew little about initially. “I like doing things I’ve never done before…I’ve always found that comfort is not very good for the adrenalin.”
When he sat down to write Barbarians at the Gate, HBO’s blistering 1993 comedy about a corporate takeover, Gelbart says he knew zip about the subject of high finance. “I’m a complete moron when it comes to finances,” he says. “But once I started my research, I saw the dramatic potential.”
It was the same when he wrote A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: “The trick for me is to know when to stop the research. While it’s all fascinating, it does keep you from going to work.”
The reality is that Larry Gelbart has never stopped working and has never stopped making people laugh. TV curator David Bushman sums it this way: “That he produced work over a span of six decades, and in several different genres, without ever losing relevance, it effectively makes him the Matisse of television.”