The 30-year struggle to achieve a perfect vacuum in the television tube will soon take a great leap forward. M*A*S*H, after 11 seasons, leaves the air in February. Everyone who cares about wit, sensibility, intelligence, humanity, irony, charm, madness, puns and general horsing around will miss M*A*S*H. It was television’s first black comedy, one of the funniest series ever and in some ways the most thoughtful.
Many strands were woven into M*A*S*H’s extravagant texture. Some of them were drawn from the 1968 book of the same title by Richard Hooker (Dr. Richard Hornberger), who had spent two years in Korea as a military surgeon. Many more were carried over from director Robert Altman’s abrasively hilarious 1970 movie. And the TV tapestry was marvelously enriched with an ensemble of captivating performances—by Alan Alda as Hawkeye, Loretta Swit as Hot Lips, Gary Burghoff as Radar, Harry Morgan as Colonel Potter, Larry Linville as Major Burns, Jamie Farr as Corporal Klinger, and so on. But the master weaver of the series, the man whose creative frenzies warped and woofed it week after week, was 54-year-old scriptwriter Larry Gelbart.
Larry Gelbart? To the public his name is almost unknown, but in the comedy trade he is known, in the words of Mel Brooks, as “the fastest of the fast, the wittiest man in the business,” and ranked with Neil Simon and Woody Allen as a supreme master of the craft. From his early work with Sid Caesar in the 1950s through the just-released film comedy Tootsie, Gelbart has brought to humor an intense concern with social and personal values. His influence on American popular culture (M*A*S*H could be rerunning into the 21st century) may well prove greater over the long haul than that of his more celebrated counterparts.
The Chicago-born son of a barber who moved to Beverly Hills and became fashionable, Gelbart was a boy wonder who was hired as a gag writer for Danny Thomas when he was only 16. By 18, his zany brain had been picked by Jack Carson, Jack Paar and Bob Hope, who offered Sid Caesar “two oil wells for one Gelbart.” But Caesar had made an offer the boy couldn’t refuse: $1,000 a week (the price of half a Cadillac in 1953) and a chance to be the junior lunatic in what was then known in TV as “The Violent Ward,” whose comedy-writing inmates included Mel Brooks, Neil Simon and Carl Reiner. Their typist was Woody Allen.
Gelbart escaped from this loony bin and in 1962 co-authored the Broadway smash A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which made him rich and restless. To recuperate from 10 years of skitsophrenia, he moved to London (“I went to escape religious freedom in America,” he deadpans) and lived there for almost a decade, soaking up history. By 1971 he was a complex citizen of the world with sophisticated ethical and political convictions, determined to build something more durable than a monument of froth.
M*A*S*H gave Gelbart that chance. Playing humor against horror, he painted a transparent surface of flip irreverence (RADAR: How can I ever thank you? HAWKEYE: Well, you can give us your firstborn. B.J.: And an order of fries) and good-natured irony (MAJOR BURNS: Unless we each conform…unless we follow our leaders blindly—there is no possible way we can remain free) that never quite concealed the abyss of terror just beneath the levity.
“Totally worn out,” Gelbart left M*A*S*H after four years and 97 scripts, but the show has maintained to the end the shape and spirit he gave it. In the years since M*A*S*H, he has written films (Movie Movie, Oh, God!), had a major success in the theater (1976’s Sly Fox) and a glorious failure in television. That was his 1980 NBC series United States, a distillation of his 27-year marriage to former actress-singer Pat Gelbart, which mingled wit with wisdom in a blend that proved too subtle for the mass audience. “When most of us aren’t funny, we’re dead,” says comedy writer Hal Dresner. “When Larry isn’t funny, he’s profound.”
Now comes Tootsie, in which Dustin Hoffman pretends to be an actress in order to get work—and then has to live with the hilariously horrible untruth and consequences. The Los Angeles critics already have given Gelbart an award (shared with Murray Schisgal, who wrote an earlier version) for the best screenplay of 1982. An Oscar may well be in the offing. Gelbart will no doubt accept it in the same gracious way he accepted $850,000 for his script. As he says, “I’m not above pragmatism.”