Friday, September 18, 2009

Another Comedy Hero is Gone

As I write this, it is the 37th anniversary of the premiere of “M*A*S*H”, one of the more progressive comedies to come from American television in the history of American television.

I wrote a script for “M*A*S*H” when I was about 16 or 17 that dealt with the acceptance of a prostitute who lived and worked just outside the 4077th. Frank wanted her removed and Hawkeye championed her not for his own sexual gratification, but for her humanity.

“M*A*S*H” was one of my favorite comedy TV series of all time. I especially loved the first four years from 1972 to 1976. The man who created that exceptional bit of TV comedy, Larry Gelbart, died last Friday.

For those not in the know, Gelbart was a giant in comedy. He began at the age of 16 writing for Danny Thomas. He wrote for Bob Hope and Jack Paar. He was one of the writers for Sid Caesar 50 years ago when Caesar had arguably the most genius writing staff of anyone which included, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Gelbart and Carl Reiner.

He wrote the award-winning Broadway hit, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”. He wrote the screenplays for “Tootsie” and “Oh, God”. He wrote many other things, but perhaps he is best remembered for “M*A*S*H”.

Military-based comedies on American TV before “M*A*S*H” were “McHale’s Navy”, “Gomer Pyle”, “Sgt. Bilko” and “Hogan’s Heroes” among others.

“M*A*S*H” was the first military comedy to rail against war in a serious way, although utilizing comedy. Granted “MA*S*H” the TV show had “MA*S*H” the movie to set the tone for its anti-war sentiments. Had the film not succeeded it is doubtful Gelbart and Reynolds would have been able to make “M*A*S*H” the success it was. But what Gelbart did with “M*A*S*H” could not have been duplicated by a lesser talent no matter what the success Altman’s film had.

Throughout the history of comedy, those who did social commentary first worked in straight comedy, with the exception of Mort Sahl and perhaps a few others later on, although Lenny Bruce seemed to be bent early on.

But even Lenny started on the Arthur Godfrey talent show doing impersonations and working in the Catskills and early New York television. George Carlin did straight comedy before becoming the counter culture icon he became. Early Richard Pryor did Bill Cosby-type comedy, before the classic, groundbreaking “That Nigger’s Crazy” followed by his follow-up albums.

Obviously there is a big difference between Larry Gelbart and Richard Pryor, but the same was true with Gelbert. He honed his comic craft in the straight comedy of the day before he began utilizing everything he learned to satirize war and warmakers.

“M*A*S*H” was set against the backdrop of America’s “military action” in Korea a little more than 20 years earlier, but at the time America was still in Vietnam. Therefore, the anti-war sentiments in “M*A*S*H” fit nicely with the anti-war sentiment in America and Gelbart exploited that nexus as no one had before. No other sitcom had been so anti-war with the obvious exception of “All in the Family”.

Gelbart’s genius was to entertain while educating. Of course, Gelbart alone was not responsible for the genius that was “M*A*S*H”. He could not have found a better partner to produce such a subversive show than Gene Reynolds who, like Gelbart, had quite an extensive resume in mainstream Hollywood product.

Alan Alda’s “Hawkeye” became iconic and “M*A*S*H” owed much to Alda’s comic acting talent. Larry Linville brought us a Frank Burns that seemed more like a real person rather than the creation of an actor.

The anti-authoritarian banter between Hawkeye and Trapper was very Marxian—Groucho, that is. The well-defined characters helped present a show that lampooned military authority and their desire for and organization of war, juxtaposed with the very human aspect of war, i.e., saving lives and dying, therefore becoming nearly as subversively counter culture as John and Yoko introducing America to the Yippies and the Black Panthers on the Mike Douglas show back in 1972.

Gelbart created the character of cross-dressing Corporal Max Klinger after Lenny Bruce’s own stories of dressing up in WAVE’s uniforms to get out of the Navy in which he served during WWII.

After Gelbart’s departure, “M*A*S*H” would continue and become one of the highest-rated TV series of all time. In fact, the finale of “M*A*S*H” would become the most watched TV show in history.

In his career, Gelbart won an Emmy for ““M*A*S*H” and two Tony’s for the books for “Forum” and “City of Angels” and was nominated for an Oscar for “Oh, God” and “Tootsie”.

I watched a couple of first season Gelbart-scripted “M*A*S*H” episodes tonight and the humor is as funny today as it was 37 years ago. That is a testament to the comic genius of Gelbart as a writer, script consultant and series creator.

Most comedy writers are intelligent and articulate people. Gelbart was one of the most intelligent and most articulate. There is an eight-part interview series from the Archive of American Television on You Tube. This video is part four where Gelbart talks about the creation of “M*A*S*H”.

For those not familiar with Gelbart, I suggest you watch the video. Larry Gelbart is American comedy history.