Larry Gelbart, Writing For Laughs In remembrance of M*A*S*H creator Larry Gelbart, we listen back to a 1996 interview with the comedy writer. Gelbart died Sept. 11, 2009 at the age of 81.
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Larry Gelbart, Writing For Laughs

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Larry Gelbart, Writing For Laughs

Larry Gelbart, Writing For Laughs

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of, sitting in for Terry Gross.

One of TV's all-time best writer-producers died last week at age 81. Larry Gelbart was most famous as the man who took the book and movie "M*A*S*H" and adapted it into a long-running hit CBS comedy about Army medical personnel during the Korean War.

On Broadway, his credits include co-writing the deliriously funny Stephen Sondheim musical, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," and his movie screenplays include the popular Dustin Hoffman comedy "Tootsie."

But Gelbart's entire resume, especially on television, was no less eclectic. More than any other writer, his work stretched out over many decades and types of television. In the 1990s, for HBO, he wrote the magnificently funny, fact-based "Barbarians at the Gate," about the hostile corporate takeover of a tobacco company. In the '70s and '80s, he had "M*A*S*H," and in the '50s he wrote for Sid Caesar, not for "Your Show of Shows" but for Caesar's subsequent variety series and specials, where he worked alongside such other budding comedy writers as Mel Brooks and Woody Allen.

Here's a sample clip from that era, from "Caesar's Hour." Sid Caesar plays a jazz musician, and Carl Reiner plays the pompous host of an equally pompous arts anthology TV series - a jab at a show and a host on TV at the time, "Omnibus" with Alistair Cook.

(Soundbite of television program "Caesar's Hour")

Mr. CARL REINER (Actor): (As Aristotle Cookie) Good evening, ladies and gentleman. The program is "Ominous," and I am your host, Aristotle Cookie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REINER: (As Cookie) Tonight we'd like to turn our "Ominous" spotlight on music, more specifically the modern school of jazz, and to help enlighten us, we are proud to have with us this evening one of the foremost authorities in the new sounds in jazz. He has gone from the hot jazz to the cool jazz and now developed it into the frozen school of jazz. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Progress Hornsby. Mr. Hornsby.

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REINER: (As Cookie) Good evening. Yes. Well, good evening, Mr. Hornsby, and welcome to "Ominous."

Mr. SID CAESAR (Actor): (As Progress Hornsby) How are you, Cookie?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAESAR: (As Hornsby) Let's say we cut out the formalities, and maybe just use the first four bars of my name, Progress. Mmm, I think I'm floating around.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REINER: (As Cookie) Progress, I understand that you use the name Progress as being symbolic of the way you feel about everything.

Mr. CAESAR: (As Hornsby) Man, I'm for moving ahead constantly forward. If I had to back up my car, I'd sell it. Because going into the reverse is the worst, man, you know what I mean? Then you're really in danger.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REINER: (As Cookie) I must say, Progress, that your clothing is rather unusual.

Mr. CAESAR: (As Hornsby) Oh, you dig my dry goods, don't you, huh, man? It's a little thing I picked up in Rome.

Mr. REINER: (As Cookie) Italy?

Mr. CAESAR: (As Hornsby) If that's where Rome is, then that's where I picked it up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REINER: (As Cookie) I must say, Progress, like your music, it is a most unusual suit.

Mr. CAESAR: (As Hornsby) Oh man, this is not the suit, this is just the underwear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAESAR: (As Hornsby) My suit is out being fed. Would you like to move with me? I'm going somewhere.

BIANCULLI: Terry spoke with Larry Gelbart in 1996 and asked him about his days with Sid Caesar.


What was it like writing for "The Sid Caesar Show" as a group? Was it a collective process?

Mr. LARRY GELBART (Writer): It was a totally collective process. We were all locked in the same room together. Every Monday morning, from 10:00 until 6. On a Monday morning we'd say, well, what do we do this Saturday night? And we - by Wednesday we had written an hour show.

That would have been one or two or three or four sketches, perhaps a mime routine, perhaps some special musical material, and by Thursday Sid was in the rehearsal hall with the performers rehearsing the material, and it was broadcast live - that is to say in front of an audience, without laugh machines, without tape machines, without any, you know, mechanical help. By Saturday night at around 10:00 it was all over.

We had Sunday to relax and to either enjoy or regret what we had done on Saturday night, and then Monday it started all over again. But there we were, all in the same room, pitching jokes like crazy.

Neil Simon captured it amazingly accurately and affectionately in a play he did a couple years ago called "Laughter on the 23rd Floor."

GROSS: In an article in the New York Times a bunch of years ago, you described the writing room as super-charged, marvelously competitive and literally violent. I'd like to hear about the violence.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GELBART: Everybody wants to hear about the violence. A lot of the violence was directed at Mel Brooks. Mel - God bless him, I believe, is the proper cliche at this moment - Mel is a vastly unique and talented man. He could not get to work on time. He was always late, and we resented it, and he knew we resented it, but it didn't stop him from being late. And so there were times when we would burn him in effigy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Literally?

Mr. GELBART: Literally. We would have a hat, a shirt, a jacket or something of him, set fire to it in this office building in New York City on 57th Street.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GELBART: We would throw - Mel once rapped me on the bottom of my feet with a ruler. I was sitting up, with my feet up on the desk, and for some reason he just smacked me across the bottoms, and they really hurt, and so when I - first chance I could get, I threw his shoes out the window. He had taken them off because he was napping or something, and so he had to go downstairs barefoot and buy a new pair of shoes.

There was an awful lot of, you know, ambivalence in the room, and the negative side of it often, you know, resulted in that kind of violence, although not continuously, and we didn't even have time for that kind of nonsense, truly, but we took a moment or two to vent our collective spleens.

GROSS: I imagine there was a lot of ego and a lot of neurosis in the room.

Mr. GELBART: Probably more neurosis than ego because when you're in what amounts to a dugout of writers, you know, a battery of writers, you're punching away. You don't smart because one joke, you know, wasn't accepted by the others. You come up with another one.

When there's a good one, fine, then you're one joke closer to having a sketch written, say. So while we all had healthy egos - what was the other...

GROSS: Neurosis.

Mr. GELBART: Neurosis. Oh, that we were. We were all very neurotic, very neurotic. We all - I like to think we all still are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And proud of it.

Mr. GELBART: Yeah, but no one more neurotic than Sid. I mean, you know...

GROSS: Well, how did Sid Caesar's neurosis get expressed, and how did you deal with it?

Mr. GELBART: Well, Sid was really kind of, you know, walking around encased in rage for a lot of years. I mean, he's talked about his own demons, you know, his substance abuse and stuff. I don't want to elaborate on that, but Sid was a mess, and there were times he would come to the office wearing a - carrying a revolver.

GROSS: You're kidding.

Mr. GELBART: A Magnum revolver, yeah.

GROSS: Like, loaded?

Mr. GELBART: He was, and the gun was too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GELBART: No, no, Sid did not drink until after 6:00. So we all used to try to get out of there about five minutes to 6.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GELBART: But Sid had a lot of anger, a lot of anger and, you know, Sid was like a refrigerator in a sports jacket. He was a big, big man. You know, Sid - Mel Brooks used the joke in "Blazing Saddles," but once Sid was riding in Central - horseback riding in Central Park with his wife Florence, and Florence's horse threw Florence to the ground, and Sid got off his horse and punched Florence's horse right between the eyes, and the horse went down. I mean, we're talking about that kind of strength and violence that was, you know, set to go off at any second.

GROSS: So when he would bring his gun to work, would he brandish it, you know, at the writers? What would he do with it?

Mr. GELBART: Oh, no, no, no. Sid - there was a time - for a while...

GROSS: Oh, I know what he'd do. He'd hold the gun to his forehead and say - oh, he'd hold out the gun, and he'd say: Those jokes stink. If you want to kill me, use this.

(Soundbite of laughter)



(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GELBART: No, there was a time - Sid went through a paranoid stage where he thought that Otto Skorzeny, the famous Nazi provocateur, was after him.

GROSS: Oh, gosh.

Mr. GELBART: So he was really carrying it in self-defense. Now it becomes understandable, I hope.

GROSS: Right, that he was having paranoid delusions.

Mr. GELBART: Yeah, that the man was going to surface in a submarine in the East River and come over to 57th Street and get Sid. I don't - Sid felt no violence towards us. He really did then and still does have a healthy respect for what we did with and for him.

GROSS: Well, let me ask you. If he thought that someone was out to get him who clearly wasn't, did you ever worry about how he was going to perform live on television?

Mr. GELBART: No. Sid - we never worried for one second. The only thing we knew that Sid would not be sure of was being able to say good evening to the audience as Sid Caesar.

Once he got into any sketch, any prepared material, once he could do a monologue, once he could do a mime, once he could play a character, he was fine. The only person in the world he did not know how to play was Sid Caesar. He had a neurotic, persistent hack. He would cough. It would be good eve-- good eve--

(Soundbite of coughing)

Mr. GELBART: He could not say "good evening, ladies and gentlemen." That's what we worried about. We thought that would be the whole hour, Sid saying good evening.

GROSS: So would you have him say good evening in somebody else's character, just to get him through that?

Mr. GELBART: No, he had to be himself for a second.

GROSS: Right, right.

Mr. GELBART: Sid was often not himself when he was off-camera. You know, we talk about it in that session that we had. When we got together, we'd talk about the fact that for almost a year, Sid spoke with a Polish accent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GELBART: Yes, he pretended to be a Polish janitor, a maintenance man, and that's the way he said good morning. That's the way he had lunch with you, and that's the way he said good night.

BIANCULLI: Larry Gelbart, speaking to Terry Gross in 1996. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 1996 interview with Larry Gelbart, who died last week at age 81. Gelbart was on Sid Caesar's writing staff and developed "M*A*S*H" into a hit TV show. He also co-wrote the book for the Broadway musical "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

GROSS: Larry Gelbart, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" is based on the plays of the Roman writer Plautus, who was born in 254 B.C. So this guy wrote a long, long time ago. What's the connection between Plautus and "Forum"?

Mr. GELBART: Total. We read the 26 plays of his which still exist, 27 plays of his which are extant, and we selected a character here, a character there, a bit of a story line here, and another one from another play, and then started adding our own connective tissue and our own Plautean-like complications.

So it's a direct line from work that is, you know, over 2,000 years old to what they're doing on Broadway today. There is one line in the play which was done in 200 B.C., where Miles Gloriosus, the braggart warrior, says to his admirers, he says: I am a parade. And it always gets a laugh. Steve worked it into a lyric, and that line, as I said, is about 2,500 years old.

GROSS: Was Plautus the Roman father of low comedy?

Mr. GELBART: He was the Roman father of low comedy. I got in trouble writing a piece recently for the New York Times in which I said he invented it all. The truth is, he adapted a great deal of it from the Greeks, from Menander and others, but he was certainly one of the first people to introduce comic conventions.

I mean, one would think comedy was always with us, and in fact it has always been with us, but these were people who organized that comedy. They gave us stereotypes. They gave us the hen-pecked husband. They gave us the moonstruck young lover. They gave us the wily slave, the hen-pecked husband and the braggart warrior, and situations, situations, mistaken identities, all sorts of comic conventions which have not been changed or improved upon in two millennia.

GROSS: You were the principal writer for "M*A*S*H" from 1972 to 1976. You're the guy who developed it from the film. Did it seem to you when you were starting on "M*A*S*H" that a mobile surgical unit in the Korean War was the perfect subject for a TV sitcom?

Mr. GELBART: No. I think it was the perfect setting for a television half hour. I don't think that "M*A*S*H," I never have thought of it as a sitcom, truly.

GROSS: As a sitcom.

Mr. GELBART: Because - only because of what sitcom has come to mean, you know, the hello-honey-I'm-home kind of show.

GROSS: Laugh.

Mr. GELBART: Laugh - well, yeah, well, yeah, three-camera tape, studio show. You know, in a funny way, "Forum" is more of a sitcom than "M*A*S*H" is because all the laughs in that show are situational. They all derive from situation. No, I just thought that "M*A*S*H" as a weekly show could address an area of human behavior that would lend itself to comedy, and more, a comedy in a minor key, much as the theme song...

GROSS: "Suicide is Painless."

Mr. GELBART: Yeah. But yes, I did think it was going to be something I would enjoy writing.

GROSS: Do you have a favorite episode?

Mr. GELBART: I think my favorite episode is the least-written episode, and that was the one that was sort of my valedictory episode. It was the last episode of the fourth year, and it was called "The Interview," and it's in black and white, and it consists of a series of interviews with the actors, in character, talking about the war, how they feel about it, and I think it was rather a remarkable document, if I can be so immodest. I can be so immodest because a lot of it was improvised. A lot of what the actors said was not written for them. They came up with it themselves.

GROSS: You've written a lot of drag humor over the years. You co-wrote "Tootsie."


GROSS: Of course, Klinger was in drag during a lot of "M*A*S*H," and there's some drag humor in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." What's so...

Mr. GELBART: Well, you can see how far drag humor goes. You know, that was taken from, you know, the convention that began...

GROSS: In ancient Rome.

Mr. GELBART: In Plautus' day, yeah. So you mean what's the attraction for me?

GROSS: Yeah, and also, what's so funny about - I mean, we've all, you know, laughed, but analytically, which I figured you might analyze this as a writer, analytically, what's so funny about a man in a dress, particularly if it's, like, a straight man in a dress?

Mr. GELBART: I don't know. I'm sitting in front of a mirror now in a dress, and I don't think it's very funny. I think it's very attractive.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GELBART: What's funny is it just knocks the props out of any kind of, you know, ridiculous, masculine ego. It just lets us be, because it's just such a reversal of what we think we are and what we hope to come off as. I mean, that's not a very scholarly response, but I think that's going to have to do.

GROSS: Your family moved to Hollywood when you were a kid.


GROSS: And your father was a barber.

Mr. GELBART: My father has the rare distinction of having been a barber to both JFK and Harry Ruby.

GROSS: Wow. Harry Ruby, the songwriter Harry Ruby?

Mr. GELBART: No, Harry Ruby - Jack Ruby, excuse me, Jack Ruby.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GELBART: And his son has the rare distinction of having Alzheimer's before his father.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GELBART: No, Jack Ruby, who of course shot Lee Harvey Oswald.

GROSS: Wow. When the family moved to Hollywood, your father started cutting the heads of movie stars like Edward G. Robinson, Gregory Peck, George Raft. How did he become barber to the stars?

Mr. GELBART: Well, we were in - we were living in L.A., in Hollywood, and it just happened that the shop where he finally was able to practice his trade was heavily populated with name people. It was called Drucker's Barber Shop(ph) in Beverly Hills, above a very exclusive men's haberdashery called Jerry Rothschild's(ph), and all these people came in there, all of them, from, you know, from the stars to other stars, you know, to gangster stars: Bugsy Siegel, Mickey Cohen, people like that. And presidents.

GROSS: The story of your father cutting the hair of celebrities I think segues perfectly into the story of how you became a professional comedy writer. So let me let you tell the story.

Mr. GELBART: Well, one of my father's clients was Danny Thomas. We are now, of course, talking about 1940 - what, '45, '46. No, before that, '43. And he told Thomas that - Thomas was appearing on a radio show called "The Fannie Brice Maxwell House Coffee Time."

My dad, quite on his own bat, because I had never, ever, ever thought of writing as a living or even something I could do, writing comedy - I was the typical sort of high school showoff who put on plays and whether it was in the auditorium or in the, you know, geography or history class, I was always cutting up, mostly to cover up the fact that I had not done my work.

But anyway, he said to Thomas, my son is very clever. Would you like to have me - would you like to have him write something for you? Thomas said sure. I mean, what did it cost him, you know? And so I wrote some material for him, and Thomas was impressed enough to pass me along to the head writer of the show, a man named Mac Benoff, and Mac put me to work on the staff. I was 16.

GROSS: Do you remember anything you wrote for him?

Mr. GELBART: I wrote a - I remember a joke because I remember standing in the control booth again and hearing it read by an actor at a microphone and having an audience laugh, and that was the first time that that ever happened to me.

I don't know what the build-up was. Somebody was being charged with some heinous crime, and the punchline, the man at whom these charges were directed, said: I said I was sorry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GELBART: I mean, I know that doesn't sound funny now, but that was the - look at that. It's still getting a laugh. I feel like Plautus. That was the joke, and I remember, you know, all these years, that that was my first taste of this kind of reaction.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Larry Gelbart, speaking to Terry Gross in 1996. He died last week at age 81. The finale of "M*A*S*H," the series which he developed for television, drew an audience rating that has never been equaled by a regularly scheduled television program and probably never will. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR. Here's Stephen Sondheim's opening song to "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "Comedy Tonight."

(Soundbite of song, "Comedy Tonight")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) (Singing) Something familiar, something peculiar. Something for everyone, a comedy tonight. Something appealing, something appalling, something for everyone, a comedy tonight.

Nothing with kings, nothing with crowns. Bring on the lovers, liars and clowns. Old situation, new complications, nothing portentious or polite. Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight.

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