Laughing Matters

They had must-see TV on their hands and they blew it. When NBC executives got their first gander at writer-producer Larry Gelbart’s inspired, laugh-track-free half-hour marital dramedy United States back in 1980, their response was to make it TV of the can’t-find kind. Starring Beau Bridges and Helen Shaver as a bickering married couple, it became one of the few 30-minute shows ever to air at 10:30 p.m. and switched nights three times in less than two months. The story of the show’s painful demise after eight broadcast episodes, with NBC as ”a corporate Ahab, lashed to a great, thrashing white whale of a show,” marks one of the surprise highlights of Laughing Matters: On Writing M*A*S*H, Tootsie, Oh, God!, and a Few Other Funny Things, Gelbart’s grab-bag memoir about his still-healthy five-decade career in radio, TV, movies, and theater (he’s working on a script for the movie version of the musical Chicago right now, among other things). It’s not that Gelbart doesn’t also have amusing remarks to make about his better-known work, which, besides the smattering jammed into the title, included stints writing for Bob Hope and Sid Caesar and the book for the recently revived Broadway hit A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It’s just that as he looks back from a septuagenarian’s rueful vantage, Gelbart often remembers more about the babies that made it only a few steps out of the crib than the ones that thrived.

Consider his indignant recollections of the day John Belushi first read through his script for Neighbors, a 1981 bomb that might have been better had Belushi been able to see a bit farther past the end of his coke-spoon-crammed nose: ”Every time he returned from the men’s room, he had a few more thoughts for improving the screenplay. I was beginning to think that, instead of a dealer in the toilet, he had a writer in there.”

Gelbart also remembers 1982’s Tootsie as an execrable experience, a professional nightmare on which he labored an entire year as screenwriter No. 4 out of an eventual dozen or so. He got caught in a revolving-door war for control of the picture between star Dustin Hoffman and director Sydney Pollack, and though the movie wound up a smash, it wasn’t Gelbart‘s smash. Pollack assured him at one point that yet another script doctor was ”just stitching some scenes together.” Replied Gelbart: ”Can you refer to him as a seamstress, then? All this coming and going of human word processors is definitely tarnishing the writing credit on this picture.”

Things were far happier for Gelbart when he developed CBS’ TV spin-off of the film M*A*S*H (written by Ring Lardner Jr.) along with veteran producer Gene Reynolds. Both did their best to assemble a team of highly compatible wordsmiths, and some of Laughing Matters‘ best passages revisit the glories of that happy-accident mix of the right casting, the right mood in a Vietnam-weary TV audience, and the right network execs willing to go along with taboo-busting material.

But even in success, Gelbart prefers finding the dark lining. ”I used to think I would be very happy if I got a nickel for every million dollars that Twentieth Century Fox made out of M*A*S*H,” he writes. ”And that’s roughly about the way it worked out.” Is that why Gelbart is still grinding out work at 70? Perhaps. It may not be much consolation to him, but at least we’re all the richer for his never-ending itch to have the last laugh. B+

Laughing Matters
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