September 11th, 2009
08:02 PM ET
Larry Gelbart died this morning. If you don't know, he's the creator of the TV show, M*A*S*H, most famously. But, there is so much more I want you to know about Larry. The man was a TV legend. Ask other TV legends. Ask anyone who writes comedy for a living. Not hyperbole. He was. And I will get no argument on that. Here's a quick summary of his credits: (I've bolded some personal favorites):
Better Late (play, 2008) And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2003) Bedazzled (2000) C-Scam (2000) Weapons of Mass Distraction (1997) Barbarians at the Gate (1993) Mastergate (1992) Blame It on Rio (1984) M*A*S*H” (1972-1983) Friends and Enemies (1983) Say No More (1983) Strange Bedfellows (1983) Run for the Money (1982) The Interview (1976) Tootsie (1982) Neighbors (1981)Rough Cut (1980) United States (1980) Movie Movie (1978) Oh, God! (1977) Three’s Company (1976) Unaired Pilot #1 (1976) If I Love You, Am I Trapped Forever? (1974) The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine (1971) Eddie (1971) Comedy Playhouse” (1971) Ruba al prossimo tuo (1969) Cintura di castità, La (1968) Not with My Wife, You Don’t! (1966) A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) The Wrong Box (1966) The Danny Kaye Show” (1963) The Thrill of It All (1963) Judy and Her Guests, Phil Silvers and Robert Goulet The Notorious Landlady (1962) Hooray for Love (1960) The Best of Anything (1960) Startime” (1959) The Wonderful World of Entertainment (1959) The Art Carney Show (1959) The Dinah Shore Chevy Show (1958) Caesar’s Hour (1954-1957) Your Show of Shows (1950-1954) Four Star Revue (1952) The Red Buttons Show (1952)
Most notable career note for me: He was among the fabled writing staff for Sid Caesar's shows– a group which also included Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen, to name a few. He made TV comedy as we now know it.
Old soul me, started on a yackety yack about how they just don't make them like that anymore, and 'boy those were the days' of TV. (Honestly, even TVLand has gotten too 'new sitcom' for my liking. I miss the black-and-white TVLand. But that's a whole 'nother blog but at least you get a better sense of my cultural tastes)
This post is devoted to making sure you know that I believe what we see today on TV is there because Larry Gelbart was there first. When those Americans that had televisions in the 50's watched TV, "Your Show of Shows" was among the few things actually on. It's what we as a culture thought was funny and what happened on the show was next-day neighborhood and water cooler talk, when water coolers had those little conical paper cups. If you've never watched them, find the old "Your Show of Shows". I defy you to not think it's still LOL funny.
Perhaps, you're a fan of the old "Dick Van Dyke" show, the 'classic' 60's comedy where Carl Reiner, loosely based the storyline on his life as a writer for "Ceasar's Hour". That was the first TV program to base its characters in the workplace. All shows before then really focused on 'situations' for characters at home. Point here is the writers' room on Caesar's shows was one place that basically launched most of what we currently find funny or entertaining. One show laid the groundwork for the next, and for the next and so on.
It's this little historical lesson that leads to my personal admiration for Gelbart in particular. He TAUGHT me that history in the nicest of ways.
It was 1999. CNN was preparing its big "Turn of the Millenium" coverage. I was the given the project to create a mini-documentary, "TV of the 20th Century". Larry Gelbart would be the ideal interviewee, I thought, as he could speak of TV from its beginnings through the 70's and how M*A*S*H changed the landscape. I called his agent, who connected me with Larry directly, because, the agent said, "Larry wants to know what exactly this project is, before he agrees to an interview". After we spoke for nearly an hour, in a pre-interview, I felt like I had struck historical story-teller gold. Imagine a funny great uncle. Now make that uncle a guy Bob Hope once offered Sid Caesar, "I'll give you two oil wells for one Gelbart". The funniest of the funny cracked up in his presence. We did the interview at his home in Beverly Hills, where he welcomed the crew and the field producer with open arms. The field producer came back and said, he was one of her most memorable interviews. All I could say is "I KNOOOOOW, Right? What a nice, nice man". He provided so much information perspective and context to my piece and the research for it, that he became what I call the 'thread' of the story.
Cut to, days after the piece airs. I receive a personal hand-written note on his stationery, telling me how proud he was to be part of the piece and that it was well done. He said I could include him in anything I wanted to do anytime. "Thank you for letting me participate", it said. The man who basically CREATED television writing, in my eyes, had taken the moment to tell a young CNN producer that she had done a nice job.
That note stayed on my wall until we moved into fancy offices uptown. It's currently stored away at home. When we got word today he died, and we were trying to confirm, I got a sinking feeling in my gut. I knew I had his home number in my old rolodex. Like, yeah, the spinny old ones. I pulled it out and told my colleagues I could probably call the house, but I don't want to. I decided I could, because if I spoke with his wife Pat, perhaps I could tell her how his influence and kindness really defined my career. He was the interviewee from whom I learned SO much and realized what I could do with the information creatively. It was a career-affirming interview. Pat actually said, "How nice of you to call. Thank you". Really she said that. Here I was calling from the media to confirm her husband's passing and she says, "Thank You". In so many ways, Larry Gelbart was someone I revere. His historical significance has been written. His (and his wife's) particular kindness is what I just want others to know. His humor only surpassed by his kindness.
Were you a fan of Gelbart's writing? Let's hear what you know about tv history and Gelbart's role in it.
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