BORN: February 25, 1928 • Chicago, Illinois
American comedy writer
Larry Gelbart began his professional comedy writing career in high school. From that time on, he has enjoyed tremendous success as a writer of jokes for comedians, dialogue for radio and television programs, and scripts for Broadway plays and Hollywood films. In his long and varied career, however, Gelbart is probably best known as the creator of the innovative 1970s television series M*A*S*H. Set in a U.S. Army hospital on the front lines of the Korean War, the show was one of the first to feature the unusual combination of drama and comedy that became known as "dramedy" The M*A*S*H series finale in 1983 was the most-watched program in television history up to that time.
"After years of writing material that would conform with a performer's image, I was able to try molding one to my own."
Writing comedy in high school
Larry Simon Gelbart was born on February 25, 1928, in Chicago, Illinois. He was the oldest child of Harry Gelbart, a barber, and Freida (Sturner) Gelbart. In 1942, Harry Gelbart moved his family to Los Angeles, where he began cutting the hair of some of Hollywood's biggest stars, such as Gregory Peck (1916–2003) and Edward G. Robinson (1893–1973). One day, while he was shaving Danny Thomas (a comedian and actor who was then the host of a popular radio show), the elder Gelbart began telling Thomas about his son Larry, who had a gift for writing comedy. Up to that point, sixteen-year-old Larry Gelbart had only written for small high school productions. But Thomas gave a sample of the young man's work to the head writer for his radio show, who liked it so much that he invited Gelbart to come to his office every day after school to suggest jokes.
Pitching jokes to a big radio show enabled Gelbart to sign a contract with an agent. In 1945, when Gelbart was a seventeen-year-old high school student, the agent got him a job as a junior writer on a big radio show called Duffy's Tavern. "I wouldn't say I was writing at this point in my life," Gelbart recalled in his autobiography, Laughing Matters. "What I was doing was exercising a particular knack that some people have for making up funny lines…. On Duffy's we would create story lines, loose situations to hook the show's continuing cast of characters together for the half hour, and that was instructive."
After graduating from high school, Gelbart was drafted into the U.S. Army. When he completed his military service, he began writing for various radio comedians, such as Jack Paar (1918–2004) and Eddie Cantor (1892–1964). In 1948, he joined the writing staff of one of the greatest comedians in history, Bob Hope (1903–2003). As part of his job, Gelbart traveled with Hope as the entertainer performed for U.S. military personnel at bases all over the world. Gelbart was also with Hope when he did his first special in the still very young medium of television, on Easter Sunday in 1950.
Although Bob Hope specials were to become a staple of television for the next four decades, this first effort was not an example of the success that would follow. Gelbart blamed himself and the other writers for the show's failure to take advantage of TV. "In terms of freshness, the writing team came up empty," he admitted in Laughing Matters, "writing more of a static [motionless] radio show with cameras aimed at it rather than tapping into the potential of an exciting new medium."
Working on Caesar's Hour
With that initial television experience to learn from, Gelbart left Hope's staff and began writing for a few more television shows. In 1955, he joined the writing staff of Caesar's Hour, a variety show featuring comedian Sid Caesar (1922–). Caesar had previously served as the host of Your Show of Shows (1950–1954), which helped set the standard for comedy in the early days of television. The talented staff of his new show featured a number of young writers who would go on to become comedy legends, such as Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and Carl Reiner.
Caesar's Hour was a tremendous learning experience for Gelbart, because the show's talented and outrageous host encouraged his group of writers to try anything. "Everything, every subject, was fair game," Gelbart wrote in his autobiography. "Nothing was too hip for the [writer's] room…. We had total freedom."
After two years of working on Caesar's Hour, and another season writing for singer Pat Boone's variety series, Gelbart turned his attention to writing plays. His first play appeared on Broadway in 1961. Unfortunately, Hail the Conquering Hero closed after only seven performances. But Gelbart's next effort was much more successful. The following year, he and Bert Shevelove wrote A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The production won a coveted Tony Award as Best Musical of the Year. Gelbart and Shevelove also collected Tony Awards for their writing, while Zero Mostel claimed the honor for Best Lead Actor in a Musical. The show became a classic, and it was revived in 1979 and again in 1997.
In 1963, Gelbart followed the original production of Forum to London, and he ended up living in England for nine years. While there, he worked on a few movie scripts and television shows, but he spent most of his time watching, and learning from, British television. "The best of it is very fine indeed," he noted to Mchael Winship in Television. "I think what I learned mostly was that you could use language…. They're much more playful with words."
While he was in London, Gelbart got a call from producer Gene Reynolds, who was working with the CBS network to develop a television series based on Robert Altman's 1970 movie M*A*S*H Set during the Korean War (1950–53), the film (and the novel on which it is based) tells the story of a team of U.S. Army doctors working in a M*A*S*H (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) unit near the battle lines. At a time when the American people were deeply divided over U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War (1954–75), the movie received a great deal of attention for providing a realistic, darkly funny view of soldiers at war.
Reynolds wanted to develop a TV show that would capture the essence of the film: its bold commentary on current events, as well as its sarcastic humor. The producer asked Gelbart to write a script for the pilot (initial test) episode of the series. CBS accepted Gelbart's script, and the TV version of M*A*S*H made its debut on September 17, 1972.
During its first season, the show received a mixed response from TV critics and failed to find an audience. In fact, it ranked in forty-sixth place among all network series at the end of its first season, and Gelbart was surprised when CBS renewed it for a second season. But the network made a key decision to change the time slot for M*A*S*H so that it followed the hit situation comedy All in the Family. This change allowed many people to discover the show for the first time. As viewers got to know the characters of Hawkeye Pierce, Trapper John, Henry Blake, Radar O'Reilly, Frank Burns, and Margaret Hoolihan, the show began to attract a devoted audience.
More so than any previous sitcom (situation comedy), M*A*S*H combined comedy with serious and sad moments that often made it seem like a drama. Reviewers even coined a new term, dramedy to describe its unusually downbeat style of humor. Gelbart explained that he gave the series a dark side in order to comment on the senselessness of war. "We all felt very keenly that inasmuch as an actual war was going on [in Vietnam], we owed it to the … audience to take cognizance [show awareness] of the fact that Americans were really being killed every week," he told the New York Times.
As the principal writer for the series, Gelbart chose to focus on the character of Hawkeye Pierce (played by Alan Alda [1936–]). He modeled the character—a talented surgeon and practical joker who made frequent observations about the absurdities of war—on himself. "It was the first time that I ever tried writing a character who would speak as I do, act as I do," Gelbart noted in Classic Sitcoms. "After years of writing material that would conform with a performer's image, I was able to try molding one to my own." The character became a favorite of viewers and made Alda a huge star.
Gelbart left M*A*S*H in 1976. Although the series was one of the most popular programs on television at that time, its creator felt that he had run out of original story ideas and wanted to spend time on other projects. M*A*S*H remained on the air for six more seasons, winning fourteen Emmy Awards and enjoying steady popularity. The series finale in 1983 drew more than 125 million viewers, making the episode the most-watched single TV program up to that time.
Writing successful screenplays
Gelbart's first project after leaving M*A*S*H involved writing the script of the movie Oh, God!, which was directed by his old associate from Caesar's Hour, Carl Reiner (1922–). The film told the story of a supermarket manager (played by John Denver) who receives a visit from God (George Burns). The comedy was a hit upon its release in 1977, and Gelbart earned an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay.
Gelbart followed that success with two lesser comedies, Movie, Movie in 1978 and Neighbors in 1981. In 1982, however, he scored another Academy Award nomination for best screenplay for Tootsie. This film starred Dustin Hoffman as an out-of-work actor who dresses as a woman to get a part on a television show. Tootsie was one of the most successful films of 1982, and it received additional Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Hoffman), Best Supporting Actress (Jessica Lange and Teri Garr), and Best Director (Sidney Pollack).
Despite the box-office success of Tootsie, Gelbart did not enjoy working on the movie, because his script was constantly being rewritten by others. Afterward, he returned to the theater and had two plays produced on Broadway in 1989: Mastergate, a political comedy; and City of Angels, a musical-comedy set in Los Angeles in the 1940s. City of Angels went on to win six Tony Awards, including one for Gelbart's script.
Gelbart attempted to return to television writing in the 1980s with the situation comedy series United States, which provided a realistic view of married life. The show received critical acclaim (some TV critics called it one of the best comedies ever produced) but failed to find an audience, and it was canceled after only eight episodes due to low ratings. Since the rise of cable TV, Gelbart has written the screenplays for several critically acclaimed movies that aired on HBO, including Barbarians at the Gate in 1993, Weapons of Mass Distraction in 1997, and And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself in 2003. Gelbart also wrote a memoir about his life as a comedy writer, called Laughing Matters: On Writing M*A*S*H, Tootsie, Oh, God!, and a Few Other Things.
For More Information
Gelbart, Larry. Laughing Matters: On Writing M*A*S*H, Tootsie, Oh, God!, and a Few Other Funny Things. New York: Random House, 1998.
Waldron, Vince. Classic Sitcoms: A Celebration of the Best in Prime-Time Comedy. Los Angeles: Silman James Press, 1997.
Winship, Michael. Television. New York: Random House, 1988.
Daly, Steve. "Laughing Matters." Entertainment Weekly, March 6, 1998.
Isenberg, Barbara. "Nonstop Laughs: At 75, Larry Gelbart Could Rest Easy. Instead He's Still Churning Out Screenplays and Lots of Yuks." New York Times, December 12, 1989.
Kaufman, Joanne. "Larry Gelbart: For the Man Who Wrote M*A*S*H, Comedy Comes with an Edge." People Weekly, April 13, 1998.
Rich, Frank. "40s Hollywood Doubly Mocked in Gelbart's City of Angels." Time, June 30, 2003.
"Gelbart, Larry." Museum of Broadcast Communications. http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/G/htmlG/gelbartlarr/gelbartlarr.htm (accessed on May 22, 2006).