Larry Gelbart, who died on Friday at age 81, was a master comedy writer whose career spanned generations of humor. Starting out as a joke writer for Bob Hope and Danny Thomas, he was also part of the golden age of television, writing for the great sketch comic Sid Caesar, and ushered in the modern era of the sitcom with his adaptation of M*A*S*H for television. His work in the theater (A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum) and in film (Tootsie) will be duly noted, but it was in television that he made his greatest impact.
Gelbart thought funny — his casual conversation emerged with wordplay and puns. This brief clip from an interview gives you some idea of his sharpness and bracing lack of sentimentality:
Gelbart was also a stubborn cuss who fought for his material. In the recent, first-rate book And Here’s The Kicker, Mike Sacks’ excellent collection of interviews with comedy greats, Gelbart talked about how he battled with CBS to excise the laugh-track from M*A*S*H because he felt it marred both the humor and the mood he was trying to create. “We did not mean for people to be cackling throughout the show,” he said. “It becomes so much more cynical and heartbreaking without all that cheap, mechanical laughter.”
He concluded: “Some people in Hollywood treat me like I’m a monument… But I’d much rather have less of that type of respect and more of the other kind: the kind where they leave your work alone.”
Gelbart’s work will stand alone, incomparable, for a very long time.