By Joanne Kaufman
Updated April 13, 1998 12:00 PM

EVEN AT THE AGE OF 70, LARRY GELBART IS NOT ABOUT TO lie and say he can stop any time he wants. Although he detests story conferences (“You keep intuiting what someone’s going to say”) and disdains most of what passes for humor these days (most ’90s sitcoms “just seem more manufactured,” he says), comedy writing is Gelbart’s life. His waking hours are his working hours, and when he is not creating new HBO scripts, movie scripts, books or stage plays, then he is punching up the stuff he did yesterday. (“The fastest of the fast, the wittiest man in the business,” good friend Mel Brooks calls him.) How workaholic is Gelbart? The interview he scheduled to discuss this lifelong compulsion was postponed three times—so he could write. “Larry’s working this morning,” his wife, Pat, says firmly over the telephone. “Don’t come right now.”

Finally, when he drags himself from one of the two fully equipped workrooms he maintains in his Beverly Hills home (the redundancy is in case one of his computers is damaged by an earthquake), Gelbart is apologetic, charming and frank. “Recently, as a concession to my wife, because she was really becoming a word processor widow, I’ve stopped working on weekends,” he says. “But I’ll make a note or two when she isn’t looking. While I’m sitting there, I’m having an adulterous affair with words.”

Gelbart has been carrying on like this for more than a half century. He started at 16 as a gag writer on Danny Thomas’s radio show and was already a polished pro when he helped establish the first Golden Age of Television, in the early ’50s, as one of the all-star team of writers on Caesar’s Hour, Sid Caesar’s next stop after Your Show of Shows. Over the next two decades, Gelbart became a co-creator of the TV show M*A*S*H, cowrote the Oscar-nominated scripts for 1977’s Oh, God! and 1982’s Tootsie and wrote the knockout libretto for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical. Through it all, Gelbart has disdained the easy laugh for the kind of comedy that makes audiences laugh and think simultaneously. His best jokes have more than a punch line; they have a point, often about the moral and intellectual failings of prominent people. “The power of Larry’s writing comes from what’s happening in the world, the way he can grab you and shake you up,” says Stanley Donen, who directed Gelbart’s 1978 send-up of ’30s films, Movie Movie.

Old crony Carl Reiner, referring to works such as Gelbart’s 1989 play Mastergate, a coruscating parody of the Iran-Contra hearings, calls his friend “the preeminent satirist of our day, a modern-day Jonathan Swift.” But perhaps what’s most amazing about Gelbart is that unlike Reiner, Brooks, Neil Simon and most of the other better-known comedy kings who shaped the early days of television and hit their creative peaks 20 years ago, he still seems to be gathering momentum.

Since turning 60, Gelbart has written another Tony-winning Broadway play, City of Angels, and jaundiced takes on political scandals and Wall Street excesses in HBO’s Weapons of Mass Distraction and Barbarians at the Gate. He’s currently working on a comedy series for HBO that centers on Beverly Hills plastic surgeons, the book for a musical stage version of A Star Is Born, a reworking of the 1967 movie Bedazzled and the movie version of the Broadway, hit Chicago.

“M*A*S*H taught me to do a lot of things at the same time because we were working on half a dozen scripts simultaneously,” says Gelbart. After that show’s success, “I remember my mother saying, ‘Enough is never going to be enough for you anymore.’ ”

She was right. Last month, Random House published Gelbart’s first book, Laughing Matters. Part railing at the dirt done to writers (don’t get him started on the people who required him to share author’s credit with Murray Schisgal for the Tootsie screenplay), part memoir, part remembrance of zings past (speaking of perfectionist Tootsie star Dustin Hoffman, Gelbart said, “Never work with an Oscar winner who is shorter than the statue” ), Laughing Matters is a hilarious read but a book that only hints at the range and depth of Gelbart’s gifts.

“Words make me tick,” says Gelbart. “In my case, words are, in fact, a tic.” In his book, Gelbart characterizes Dr. Sidney Freedman, the psychiatrist on M*A*S*H, as “a Sigmund of my imagination.” In City of Angels, a parody of ’40s private-eye movies, he describes a femme fatale as having “a body that makes the Venus de Milo look all thumbs.”

Laughs were plentiful when Gelbart was growing up in Chicago, the older child of Latvian immigrant parents. His father, Harry, was a barber, his mother, Frieda, a seamstress, and he spoke only Yiddish until the age of 4. “There were no English subtitles, so I didn’t know what the hell I was saying,” he says. “My mother was extremely witty and caustic, and my father knew more jokes than anyone I’ve ever known. There were two books in our house: the Haggadah for Passover seders and Superman comics. And I never confused the two. Superman always flew from left to right.”

Gelbart was 15 when the family moved to Los Angeles and his father became barber of choice for studio head David Selznick, Edward G. Robinson and Gregory Peck. Danny Thomas listened to the elder Gelbart going on about his son, the funny guy, and asked for some jokes.

Thomas liked what he heard and offered the kid a job on his radio show Maxwell House Coffee Time in 1944. Gelbart quickly percolated up to the more popular Duffy’s Tavern, then began supplying quips to Eddie Cantor, Jack Paar and Bob Hope. When Sid Caesar lured the young writer to his Caesar’s Hour in 1955, Hope futilely bid “two oil wells for one Gelbart.”

Gelbart quickly proved himself a full-service writer. “I was very fastidious and didn’t like to sit on leather chairs; I’d stick to them,” recalls Caesar. “One day I walked in and Larry had bought me a fabric-upholstered gold couch. He’s a wonderful man and a genius. When you sit down with him, you’re not with a schlep.”

Indeed, Gelbart seems to suffer from attention surplus disorder. He can’t help thinking in puns, anagrams or punch lines. “As we’re talking, I’m rewriting what I’m saying,” he says. “I’m so in the business of changing words, of shaping words or getting the best possible arrangement of words that as I speak I’m thinking ahead and backward at the same time—you don’t want to be in my head.”

Gelbart finds some peace with Pat, 74, a former Broadway actress and singer he met at a party in New York City and married 41 years ago. “It was the stuff of pulp magazines—he looked at me, I looked at him, and that was it,” says Pat, who was married at the time and the mother of three. (She and Larry have two children together: Adam, 38, a movie special-effects technician, and Becky, 32, manager of a Beverly Hills boutique.)

“The funny lines come out,” Pat says. “Larry can’t help himself. I’m pleased to be his audience. But writers are not easy people. No matter how successful Larry is, he’s always got that anger about the fact that writers are not viewed as they should be.”

Not that Gelbart is exactly suffering from neglect. He and Pat divide their time between homes in Beverly Hills, Palm Springs and London. Their social schedule includes, when they’re in town, a weekly poker game at Frank Sinatra’s place, around the corner from their Beverly Hills place. There’s a rotating group of players, among them Barbara Sinatra (but not Frank, who has never been a poker player), Angie Dickinson, the Gregory Pecks and the Jack Lemmons. “It’s very friendly,” says Gelbart. “If you’re not asked over one week, you just send your money.”

Gelbart also attends periodic gatherings of Yenem Velt (Yiddish for “other world”), a group of old friends established more than 20 years ago by producer Norman Lear. “A couple of times a year, we, the Lears, Dom DeLuise and his wife, Carol, Mel Brooks and his wife, Anne Bancroft, would sometimes meet at La Costa or Palm Springs and just have a weekend of crazy laughter,” says Gelbart. “We sat down to breakfast at 8 a.m. and didn’t finish until noon. We played charades, we sang songs and put on shows.”

“I’ve spent my life laughing,” says Lear. “Larry’s easily the wittiest man I’ve laughed at. If you checked with everyone in Yenem Velt, they’d say the same thing. We laughed more at him than he would at any of us. Mel Brooks will take great exception to that.”

Aside from CNN, TV is no diversion for Gelbart. “After working hard all day to create my own humor, to sit down and listen to somebody else’s is not the escape I’m looking for,” he says. Gelbart has said that he doesn’t like Seinfeld, yet he expresses admiration for The Larry Sanders Show and for X-Files’ David Duchovny, whom he calls a very sly comic actor.

As time goes on, there is less laughter in Gelbart’s own work. “One gets gloomier,” he says, “as that thing at the end of the tunnel is not a light, it’s a light switch. More and more people say there’s a lot of anger in the work, and I guess there is.” Yes and no. The rage in Mastergate and Weapons, in certain episodes of M*A*S*H, is palpable, but it comes from a sweet soul, not the last angry man. “I really do love people, and I’m very trusting,” Gelbart says. “I don’t know. I think the best laughter comes from unexpected places: war, Wall Street. I’m not a big fan of shows that set out to make you laugh. I’d rather be surprised.”

Most of all, though, Gelbart would prefer to be off in one of his offices, adding to his oeuvre. “I wouldn’t have dared to dream this,” he says, gesturing at his surroundings. “I used to play the clarinet rather well as a kid. Maybe. I’d be in a trio somewhere, a relief band in a bowling alley.”

He pauses to reflect, then continues. “My father worked for tips from the time he was 12 in Latvia. He used to say if you can’t say anything nice about’ people don’t say anything. I finally realized I didn’t have to go by the same rules. It’s been a great relief to not worry about what I wrote, about alienating people because they wouldn’t tip me properly.”

Gelbart senses he’s maybe getting too serious, not performing as billed. “You thought I was going to do stand-up for four hours?” he says. “Just misquote me and it will be funny enough. If you want to send me your transcript, I’ll punch it up, and if you don’t like it, I’ll give it to Murray Schisgal, and he’ll punch it up. But I want solo credit.”