Friday, September 11, 2009

Larry Gelbart: 1928-2009

Larry Gelbart, one of the true giants of comedy writing, died today. I'm unfortunately on deadline for six other things right now, but I wanted to at least make note of his passing. The LA Times has a full obituary up, but here are some of the bullet points of Gelbart's career:

• Was one of a core of legendary writers (along with Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon and Woody Allen) discovered by Sid Caesar. (Gelbart wrote not for "Your Show of Shows," but "Caesar's Hour," the Imogene Coca-less follow-up show.)

• Co-wrote the screenplay for "Tootsie" (only one of the best movie comedies ever), and given all the names on that script at one point or another, has received the most credit from those involved for shaping the idea into the movie it became.

• Adapted "M*A*S*H" from hit movie into hit TV show, and ran it in its earliest, funniest seasons.

• Co-wrote the book for the Tony-winning musical "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," as well as other acclaimed plays and musicals like "Mastergate" and (one of my personal favorites, very underrated) "City of Angels."

• Late in his career, wrote a number of outstanding (and, of course, funny) movies for HBO, including "Barbarians at the Gate" and "Weapons of Mass Distraction."

I asked Ken Levine, who ran the "M*A*S*H" writing staff for several years with partner David Isaacs, and learned so much about comedy working for Gelbart, if he had plans to write any kind of tribute to the man. But Ken's traveling in his job as a Dodgers radio broadcaster, and 9/11 already has bad memories for him, and he understandably isn't up to writing more than the following:
I've lost a dear friend, a mentor, an inspiration, and the writing world has lost Mozart.
Rest in peace, Larry. I'm going to see if I can still find my "City of Angels" soundtrack when I get home.


Kitty Sheehan said...

Very nice. So hard to see the true originals behind such classics go.

David J. Loehr said...

I very much enjoyed "City of Angels" when it opened, played the score quite a bit, but I always thought the book was the better part of the show.

And of course, I grew up on MASH and even saw United States, as brief and late at night as it was. (I shouldn't have stayed up, but I did.)

Anonymous said...

Hopefully, PBS will rerun the "Caesar's Writers" special.

In the comedy-writer version of the Dream Team (including Caesar, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, and Mel Brooks), I thought Gelbart was the quickest and funniest guy on the show.

Ben K. said...

When I was in college, no one watched any TV, except that we all gathered in the dorm common room every evening to watch syndicated "MASH" reruns. And "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" is one of my favorite musicals ever. It's nice that someone so smart and talented was also so successful for the majority of his career.

simbo said...

Quick correction - Mastergate was a play, not a musical.

OTherwise, yep, Gelbart was a king among kings, and his life richly deserves the celebration.

Jeff K. said...

I had the pleasure of directing City of Angels back in 2000 at the Barn in Montville, and my cast gave me an autographed copy of Larry's autobiography, it remains a cherished part of my library.

Stemming from that is perhaps the highest honor I can bestow upon him -- when I started setting up servers for my company, I decided I was going to name them after playwrights, and the first server I ever owned was named GELBART in his honor.

He was active over in -- in and of itself pretty cool -- where his daughter posted a quick memorial:

"Goodbye, Farewell and Amen Elsig."

Sleep well, Larry.

Craig said...

"Barbarians at the Gate" is very funny. Especially when James Garner gets the results of the focus group to the new brand of cigarette: "Tastes like shit and smells like a fart?"

In an interview, Gelbart was asked what it was like working with Dustin Hoffman on "Tootsie." He replied, "Never work with an Oscar winner shorter than the statue."

Thanks for all the laughs, Larry. Your buoyant cynicism was a constant source of inspiration.

Ariadne said...

Larry Gelbart was a true master of timeless comedy. My 19 year old daughter has just discovered MASH in re-runs and it's now her favourite show, the one she won't miss. She's also a fan of Forum.

I wonder if he could have made it in today's TV market. The intelligence of that times seems to have been lost to cheap jokes and cheaper antics. Would they have appreciated him enough to give him a show?

Alan Sepinwall said...

Ken Levine's Gelbart tribute. Go read it. Now.

dez said...

Beautiful tribute. Didn't know he'd written BLAME IT ON RIO. I won't hold it against him, though, given all the other laughs he gave me throughout the years :-)

Jeff Cohen said...

I knew Larry a little bit (he was very kind and blurbed a couple of my books), and I can tell you that in addition to being a brilliant writer of comedy and drama, he was also a very nice man. You don't often find that combination. I blogged about him today at

Anonymous said...

Not only did Gelbart write "Blame it on Rio," but Stanley Donen directed it.

Anonymous said...

I know I am really late here. I just now (reading this post) learned of Larry's death. I am crushed. I was a long time reader/contributor to the group several years ago and we all loved the fact that Larry participated in the discussions. This is like losing a close friend. MASH was, is, and will always be my all time favorite show. RIP Larry. I know they are all getting a lot of laughs up in Heaven now. But you will be sorely missed here!
--Nancy T.

jazzfan360 said...

Gelbart also wrote the insanely funny stage play 'Sly Fox.' The man had such a sharp, masterful, inside-out understanding of comedy.