'M*A*S*H' Creator Larry Gelbart Dies

Larry Gelbart, the writer and producer of the TV show M*A*S*H, has died. He was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year. Gelbert was 81. Carl Reiner, who worked with Gelbart on Sid Caesar's show, Caesar's Hour, shares his memories.

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(Soundbite of MASH theme song)

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Larry Gelbart, the comedy writer who is best known for creating the television series MASH died today at his home in Beverly Hills. He was 81. Gelbart's long career began in radio comedy, then he moved to television as a writer for Bob Hope. He wrote for Broadway, including the book for "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," and for movies, "Oh, God!" And "Tootsie," among others.

Back in 1955, Larry Gelbart joined a team of comedy writers working for Sid Caesar for his comedy variety show, "Caesar's Hour." The writing staff included Neil Simon, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, whom I spoke with earlier today.

Mr. Reiner, thanks for talking with us. I'm sorry to hear about your friend's loss.

Mr. CARL REINER (Actor): Yes, a great, great, great, great, great, great loss. I can't underline the amount of greats I can put in.

BLOCK: I imagine. Take me inside the writers' room when you all were working together on "Caesar's Hour." I can't imagine the jokes that must've been bouncing off the wall with all of you in that room.

Mr. REINER: Well, it was a - naturally a natural competition. But the competition was laughter. And so we never minded when somebody made a better (unintelligible) than whoever was talking because the fact that there was so much laughter in the room lengthened all our lives.

BLOCK: How would you describe Larry Gelbart's humor?

Mr. REINER: Larry Gelbart was a comedy prodigy, you know. When he was very, very young, he could make adults laugh. I think when he was still in high school, his father was a barber catering to a lot of comedians. Larry wrote pages of jokes that his father gave - and Danny Thomas bought(ph) jokes from, never knowing they came from a 15-year-old, 14, 15-year-old kid. And they were all sophisticated enough to make adults laugh.

BLOCK: I've read that's how Larry Gelbart got his start through his dad's barber chair and passing those scripts onto Danny Thomas.

Mr. REINER: True story.

BLOCK: That's amazing. You had a great line once. You told Time Magazine that Larry Gelbart popped jokes like popcorn. Do you think it was really that easy for him?

Mr. REINER: He didn't need the - a sentence as a straight line - one word could set him off into a joke. And never ever failed that we have an actual proof of it. We did a trip to China with a bunch of friends - Norman Lear and my wife and his wife. And Larry and I and our wives were sleeping in a Chinese train, a pullman, and we were chattering away. Larry fell asleep and somebody said something and Larry, in his sleep, made a bonmo(ph) based on what we were saying.

And we laughed hysterically. And he woke up, he says, what? What happened? He had no idea he was in half sleep and still able to come up with enough of a joke to make us roar.

BLOCK: You know, I'm thinking about the show "MASH" and that line that it always walked between being, you know, uproariously funny, but also very dark, very, you know, dealing with really, really tough things.

Mr. REINER: He did best what people did in war time. You kept saying, I'm finding the humor in the most gruesome, grotesque situations.

BLOCK: Colonel Reiner, how are you remembering Larry Gelbart today as you think about your time with him?

Mr. REINER: We had lunch often. The best time spent, we're going to lunch, eating lunch, but coming home in the car and reminiscing about our days together, we had a group called Yenumvelt(ph), which it was Larry Gelbart, Dom Deluise, Norman Lear, myself, Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft. And went away on three or four weekends together. Never laughed as much in our whole lives. I was thinking today, the Yenumvelt group is - Dom is gone and Anne is gone, and slowly we're shrinking.

BLOCK: Those must've been some times.

Mr. REINER: It was.

BLOCK: Well, Carl Reiner, thank you so much for talking with us today.

Mr. REINER: Thank you.

BLOCK: Carl Reiner remembering his friend in comedy, Larry Gelbart, who died today. He was 81.

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