Larry Gelbart 1923–
American scriptwriter for radio, films, and television, playwright, producer, and director.
Gelbart is perhaps best known to a young adult audience as the creative force behind the television comedy series M∗A∗S∗H, a program recognized as a classic of the medium. He is also well known for his plays, adaptations of period pieces restyled for contemporary audiences. These works are often considered more successful than the originals due to their relevance, humor, and twists of plot. Gelbart has also written scripts for such popular films as The Wrong Box and Oh, God!
Gelbart began his career at the age of sixteen as a gag writer for radio's The Fanny Brice Show. Turning to television, he wrote for such comedians as Bob Hope, Sid Caesar, and Art Carney; Gelbart won Emmy and Sylvania awards in 1960 for his writing on the Carney specials. His first theatrical comedy, The Conquering Hero, concerns a young man who is mistaken for a Marine celebrity. A slightly sarcastic look at Marine spirit, sentimentalized motherhood, and misguided war efforts, it was not critically well received. Gelbart's next play was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which he coscripted with Burt Shrevelove. Critics hailed it as one of the most memorable musical comedies of recent years. The plot of this work is loosely based on the bawdy comedies of the ancient Roman, Plautus. Forum has been highly acclaimed for its entertaining combination of stock Roman characters and situations and the broad humor of American vaudeville; in 1963, Gelbart received an Antoinette Perry Award for the play. His play Sly Fox is adapted from Ben Jonson's Elizabethan classic Volpone, or the Fox. Gelbart's version is set in nineteenth-century San Francisco and deals, as Jonson's did, with the efforts of a confidence man to bilk the rich by appealing to their greed, but Gelbart emphasizes the farcical rather than the moral aspects of the situation. Although Gelbart has been attacked for dealing too lightly with the theme of the effects of lust for money, most critics feel the play's lively spirit is undeniable.
In 1971 Gelbart was asked to be chief writer for M∗A∗S∗H (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital), a new television comedy about a group of surgeons behind the lines during the Korean War. Although the show got off to a slow start, it has established itself as one of television's most intelligent, humane, and innovative programs. The series attempts to show the destruction and futility of war through the responses of the members of M∗A∗S∗H unit, many of whom try to alleviate their situation through irreverence. Popular with a wide range of viewers, M∗A∗S∗H combines the assurance of strong values with dissatisfaction with outmoded American traditions, and is the first program to openly condemn war. Gelbart has been praised for the excellence of his scripts, which are felt to be both funny and affecting, and for the creativity of his technical work and direction. After five years, however, Gelbart left M∗A∗S∗H; without his politically-oriented, strongly satirical scripts the show is felt to have lost some of its original edge. Gelbart was also responsible for United States, an experimental series which examined the subject of contemporary marriage. The program, characterized by sharp, witty dialogue and sexual frankness, was cancelled after less than one season. Despite an occasional failure, Gelbart is considered an influential figure in the entertainment industry, especially in television; his achievements here are felt to have provided enjoyable, thoughtful viewing that has brought the medium closer to reflecting real life. Gelbart received an Emmy Award in 1973 and the George Foster Peabody Award in 1975, both for M∗A∗S∗H. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)
["The Conquering Hero" is an] utterly charming, fast-moving and unpretentious musical—happily in the old tradition, and offering the rarity of a good, workable little book….
Larry Gelbart has done a creditable job of adapting the story from a Preston Sturges movie. I believe it should persevere….
"The Conquering Hero" is not a big one or a great one, but it gets a modest laurel wreath from this department.
John McClain, "Poston Stars in Hit Musical," in New York Journal-American (copyright 1961, Hearst Consolidated Publications, Inc.), January 17, 1961 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXII, No. 2, January 23, 1961, p. 390).
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The Preston Sturges movie, "Hail the Conquering Hero," may have been fun, but the new musical based on it is a dud.
"The Conquering Hero" … has the usual components of a routine assembly job. There are songs, dances, a few jokes and a lot of plot….
Whatever the virtues of the Preston Sturges film script may have been, Larry Gelbart's book is weighed down with incident. It is handled conventionally….
It is possible that an appealing musical could have been hammered out of the tale of the young fellow who comes home masquerading as a hero of Guadalcanal. It is even possible that something fresh and ingratiating could have been done with the business of his running for Mayor and his final public confession of fraud. But "The Conquering Hero" chose a heavy-handed approach most of the way—including the saccharine nobility at the end.
Howard Taubman, "The Theatre: 'The Conquering Hero'," in The New York Times (© 1961 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 17, 1961 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXII, No. 2, January 23, 1961, p. 388).
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Know what they found on the way to the forum? Burlesque, vaudeville and a cornucopia of mad, comic hokum.
The phrase for the title of the new musical comedy … might be, caveat emptor. "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" indeed! No one gets to the forum; no one even starts for it. And nothing really happens that isn't older than the forum, more ancient than the agora in Athens. But somehow you keep laughing as if the old sight and sound gags were as good as new.
Heed the Roman warning. Let the buyer beware if he knew burlesque and vaudeville and the old comic hokum and found nothing funny in it. For him the knockabout routines … will be noisy and dreary….
For the rest of us who were young and risible in the days when comedians were hearty and comedy was rough and tumble and for the new generations who knew not the untamed gusto of this ancient and honorable style of fooling, it will be thumbs up for this uninhibited romp….
[Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart's book] resorts to outrageous puns and to lines that ought to make you cringe. Like having a slave of slaves remark, "I live to grovel."…
Say all the unkind and truthful things you wish about "A Funny Thing." It's noisy, coarse, blue and obvious like the putty nose on a burlesque comedian. Resist these slickly paced old comic routines, if you can.
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[The Wrong Box is a] slice of Victorian gingerbread…. Some of the gags crumble on impact, others are stretched out like taffy, but there is enough fun left over to leave most moviegoers happily wallowing in greed, sex, homicide, body snatching and other nefarious diversions….
Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove … dress hip gags in a graceful English manner, and their wayward humor brightens train wrecks, horse-and-buggy chase scenes and a hearse-to-hearse search for missing bodies…. The vogue for sick screen comedy has obviously fallen into capable hands. Softened by the ruddy glow of the gaslight era, Wrong Box makes graveside humor a gas.
"Cinema: Grave Fun," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc. 1966), Vol. 88, No. 7, August 12, 1966, p. 59.
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There's a lot wrong with The Wrong Box, and a lot that's right, too….
The script by Larry Gelbart and Bert Shevelove (would that the former had labored alone) is much too smarty-pants. It begins with a wholesale bumping off, one by one, of British eccentrics, a la Kind Hearts and Coronets, but sans that fine film's wit….
The film's climax is a chase involving horse-drawn hearses which ends with horseplay in a cemetery, which is not my idea of fun, a variety of sight gags, old and new, notwithstanding. Farce that wasn't always funny and never witty is the [film's] commodity….
[Whether] the good acting in The Wrong Box will compensate for its unfunny farce or not depends on how magnanimous you're feeling when you see it.
Ivor Howard, "Film Reviews: 'The Wrong Box'," in Films in Review (copyright © 1966 by the National Board of Review in Motion Pictures, Inc.), Vol. XVII, No. 7, August-September, 1966, p. 450.
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The angle in [Not With My Wife, You Don't!], as it happens, is pretty obtuse: the Air Farce, according to the script [by Gelbart, Norman Panama, and Peter Barnes], is a gland-based gang of joy-stick jockeys who do almost nothing but make low-level attacks on garters of opportunity. As a result, the triangle in this picture is anything but acute. But it's cute, real cute. (p. 107)
[The film is an] airy nothing whooshing along so briskly that audiences may fail to notice how much of the ho ho is really just ho hum. (p. 108)
"Squaring the Triangle," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc. 1966), Vol. 88, No. 20, November 11, 1966, pp. 107-08.
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The ancient and hoary myth that the American Serviceman is somehow more virile than his Old-World counterparts: a myth which sustained Hollywood successfully during and immediately after the war years, when the implication was firmly rooted in the minds of the mass audiences that fighting with lethal weapons was rather a lark anyway, and that in any case it was only engaged in if there weren't any girls around to chase at that particular moment—this myth served to enhance the spurious glamour with which war subjects were treated. Nowadays, of course, this glamour has been replaced by cynical detachment. War is still a game, albeit a somewhat wry one….
Not With My Wife You Don't … harks back to the 'glamour' school. (p. 31)
A reasonably good script helps the old chestnut along, and the double crosses and double-double crosses are diverting…. If present-day audiences tend to look for rather more cake in the cinema than of yore, bread and butter is still a staple diet. This story has been the cinema's bread and butter since Lumiere. (p. 32)
Richard Davis, "Reviews of New Films: 'Not with My Wife You Don't'" (© copyright Richard Davis 1967; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 13, No. 5, February, 1967, pp. 31-2.
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Everyone ought to have a favorite Broadway musical. Personally my favorite for 10 years has been "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."…
Plautus was a disgusting old Roman playwright who specialized in writing dirty plays with an expertise that did his morals no possible credit….
What the authors of "A Funny Thing" have done is to take a sampling of Plautus's kind of humor and link it with our contemporary sense of fun. The results are not merely hilarious, they are also immeasurably endearing.
Here in "A Funny Thing" the authors have caught so many of the classic comedy situations and yet given them a new freshness by making the prototype characters into song and dance men from American vaudeville. The blending works like a love potion.
Clive Barnes, "Stage: 'Funny Thing' Happens Again," in The New York Times (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 31, 1972, p. 13.
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John J. O'Connor
From any angle, "M∗A∗S∗H" is this season's most interesting new entry. Set in "Korea 1950, a hundred years ago," the series has been "developed for TV" by Larry Gelbart from the novel and the Robert Altman film of the same name….
The series is likely to be no less controversial. On one side, some are going to note resemblances between Korea and Vietnam, and the charge will be made that the TV comedy trivializes a serious situation. On the other side, some are going to perceive that the military is portrayed as moronic, and the charge will be made that the series is subversive.
Using the premise, however, that black or absurd humor performs a legitimate function, in this case pushing personal existence to the limits of absurdity to cope with the absurdity of war, the real issue centers on the artistic persuasiveness and integrity of the TV series.
The first episode, written by Mr. Gelbart …, met the demands of this issue with surprising effectiveness. Brightly paced, it introduced its stable of wacky combat surgeons in a plot to raise money to send a Korean houseboy-martini mixer to medical school ("American has sent thousands of boys to Korea; the least we can do is send one Korean boy to America").
For television, the editing was refreshingly brisk and the humor unusually adult. Tomorrow evening, however, in the second episode …, the pacing and the comedy show distinct...
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[M∗A∗S∗H], which began as one of the most promising series of the new season, is now one of its biggest disappointments…. M∗A∗S∗H started out as television's first black comedy. It is now as bleached out as Hogan's Heroes.
The creeping blandness was probably foreordained. Commercial television is simply not prepared to accept the savage satire of the movie original. Beyond that, no series could hope to recreate the film's peculiar tension between comedy and horror. The writers seem to have given up their initial efforts and now stand on their clichés.
Gerald Clarke, "Viewpoints: 'M∗A∗S∗H'," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc. 1972), Vol. 100, No. 16, October 16, 1972, p. 95.
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"M∗A∗S∗H" has become as necessary to my Sundays as strong coffee, strong drink and strong women…. [It] is a crutch for the hobbled human spirit.
There were those who predicted last fall after "M∗A∗S∗H"'s television debut that the show couldn't last. How funny, after all, is wartime surgery? A onetime joke, isn't it? Perhaps in poor taste even the first time around: Korea with canned blood. And the endless hanky-panky with the nurses: now that sexism has become one of our critical categories, sex itself is suspect. Hotlips Hoolihan … was perceived by some of our gloomier ideologues to be an oppressed object.
Rubbish. Actually, Hotlips is one of the most sympathetic characters on the show, considerably more human, more multidimensional, than she was in the movie version of "M∗A∗S∗H." She has a past and a present, and she seems to have enjoyed them both, and the writers have provided her with a fair share of one-liners, and if sex isn't healthy, let's hear it for disease. The joke—which wasn't a joke to begin with, anyway, but a manifest irony: doctors sent to a war to save lives, subversives in fatigues—has steadily gone deeper. Without ever moralizing, "M∗A∗S∗H" is the most moral entertainment on commercial television. It proposes craft against butchery, humor against despair, wit as a defense mechanism against the senseless enormity of the situation….
Hawkeye is to...
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[One socially conscious comedy] has created a format and an attitude of its own, which moves farther along the direction pointed by the Bunkers [in "All in the Family"]…. [There is a family structure in "M∗A∗S∗H," but] it is not a biological family. Rather, we have a set of characters forced into deep human relationships because they are serving in a field hospital, isolated from other groups. The central characters make their lives bearable by circumventing U.S. Army regulations. This, in itself, sets the tone of critical commentary. One of the characters portrays a pseudo-transvestite, hoping for a psychological discharge. Other characters openly engage in extramarital sex. Beneath the raucous humor lies the war in which they are directly involved, and some of the grimmest jokes take place in the operating room….
[The] characters are often in anguish over their inability to heal the maimed soldiers who come into the hospital. But the war continues indefinitely. The cast of characters, then, has modified its values into an upside-down world, reminiscent of the novel Catch-22 [by Joseph Heller]. Their humor is a means of retaining sanity in an insane world of war. The audience is caught between its laughter and its realization—gently prodded when things get too lighthearted—that the war provides the theater for the humor. Even so, the choice has been made to emphasize the comedy and to reduce the specific social...
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They killed off Henry … the other Tuesday night on "M∗A∗S∗H."… Henry was to have returned from Korea to the United States, to his wife and children. His plane crashed. There were no survivors….
[The] end of Henry hurt. I can't recall another sit-com's solving a personnel problem in such a drastic fashion, especially when the character is dear in our affections. On the day-time detergents, to be sure, characters are always disappearing, plunging out of mind as though, stage-left, there were a revolving trapdoor; we will hear later that their subscriptions were cancelled by a car crash or encephalitis or terminal apathy, that they emigrated to Australia and were eaten by wombats.
But these are dramatized actuarial tables, not comedy programs. Nobody dies on a comedy program. And Henry was lovable. The gods with a karate chop dispatched him. Where is the soft rain, the bloody footprint on the snow, the dog on the grave, the many gull, June Allyson, "Little Brown Jug"? "M∗A∗S∗H" resisted the sentimentalizing of Henry's demise. The sad fact was followed by snapshots of him in happier times, a koala bear in a fisherman's cap, his lures like charms on a bracelet or a halo. He was back the following week in the first of the reruns, but for a moment he was really gone. It is a war, we were reminded; not only strangers die in wars. And the premise of the program is reaffirmed—the mad cackling in the...
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Be warned. A man might die laughing at "Sly Fox." What Larry Gelbart once helped do for Plautus in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," he has now done for Ben Jonson in "Sly Fox."… Mr. Gelbart has resuscitated the great Elizabethan, modernized him, given him a new set of clothes and married him off to the old traditions of American vaudeville.
There is little point in comparing Mr. Jonson with Mr. Gelbart; the original play, "Volpone," is immeasurably the finer. But Broadway audiences will immeasurably prefer Mr. Gelbart. Also, in modern terms, Mr. Gelbart is the funnier. He is very funny, in a manner, interestingly, that is both cheap and subtle. The details of his humor are sometimes cheap and easy, but the craftsmanship of the play is subtle.
The present farce has been quite closely based on Jonson. The structure has been simplified and the ending changed and the characters have been broadened. But the theme of a confidence trickster feigning imminent death and persuading rich dupes who wish to inherit his wealth to give him opulent presents in the hope of being named his heir remains intact. So, more or less, do many of the characters. What a scheming, crafty, despicable, yet amusing crew they are!…
The writing has a certain ornate, deliberately distanced air, for the play is set, not all that seriously, in the San Francisco of the late 19th century. Mr. Gelbart specializes in...
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["Sly Fox"] is billed as an adaptation of Ben Jonson's "Volpone," but it is welcomely much more than that. The adapter, Larry Gelbart, is temperamentally closer to the Marx Brothers than he is to Jonson; his dialogue has the nervous quickness of early Groucho, with Groucho's unpredictable free-associational asides and his bent for the reasonable-outrageous…. Gelbart has caused the classical shapeliness of Jonson's plot to explode into harum-scarum twentieth-century show biz; anything goes. The stage becomes a minefield of gags, visual and oral, which detonate continuously and without warning. One is helpless not to laugh in the presence of so much sheer energy of tomfoolery….
Brendan Gill, "The Triumph of Avarice," in The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LII, No. 45, December 27, 1976, p. 52.∗
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Some of Gelbart's dialogue [in Sly Fox] is good trapeze work, some of it is only moderately clever….
[Most] of the time I just watched the patterns being made, pretty decently, and didn't laugh. Partly this is because Jonson's comic morality play has been thinned into farce. It just isn't a farce plot, it's the scaffolding for a savage indictment. More, farce has to be believable in its own landscape in order to be funny, and I just couldn't believe that these were the shenanigans of 19th-century San Franciscans. The whole thing smells of wrench and discomfort.
Stanley Kauffmann, "Version Territory" (reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.; copyright © 1977 by Stanley Kauffmann), in The New Republic, Vol. 176, No. 3, January 15, 1977, p. 24.∗
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[The] overall ambience of [Oh, God!] conveys a respect for God that hasn't been found in popular culture since Bill Cosby first began reporting on the construction of Noah's ark in his driveway ("Me and you, God, right?")…. [It is a film] that actually takes God seriously.
The film's premise is established early when Burns appears to an assistant supermarket manager, played by John Denver. The film's point of view is provided by Denver. The audience, which probably doesn't find much belief in God anywhere else—certainly not in a movie theater—is gradually invited to share with Denver his realization that God does exist….
Gradually the audience is invited to consider God's basic message: love one another, and use what you already have to save the world.
The film is simplistic in the extreme, reminiscent of those movies of the 1930s that sent Mr. Deeds to town and Mr. Smith to Washington. And it concludes with a courtroom scene that could have been lifted from the trial of Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street. But in the context of a film comedy, simplicity is appropriate. The viewing experience leaves audiences with a positive feeling toward life, suggesting ("Of course it couldn't be true, but what if God did exist?") that there is a way to live above greed, avarice and cynicism.
Oh, God! is good. In fact, within its context, it's great…. Moviegoers...
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[The] dialogue in Oh, God! is already so low-sodium (its strongest obscenity is "crap") that it's just about the only current non-Disney film that could be shown, as is, on TV. Today's question: Why is it heading toward a $30-million domestic gross? Possible answer: Because, in some cases at least, people go to the movies to see exactly what they can get on TV—only more so….
[The character of Jerry Landers suggests] nothing so much as the common-man hero of such Frank Capra social comedies as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and It's a Wonderful Life…. Oh, God! is the very model of some modern minor Capracorn: from the seemingly random selection by fate (or, here, God) of an average Joe (here Jerry), to the hero's growing anger at his fellow Americans' apathy, to the ultimate, uplifting conversion of the infidels and the recognition that in each of us, no matter how laid-back or played-out, there is a capacity for Good.
Just describing this, I feel the way Dorothy Parker did about Shirley Temple: "She makes me want to fwow up." And it depresses me to think that Oh, God! is the work of men who were responsible for two of the funniest, and most influential, TV sit-coms: director Carl Reiner (The Dick Van Dyke Show) and screenwriter Larry Gelbart (MASH)…. The problem with an inspirational comedy like Oh, God! is one inherent in any forthrightly ideological...
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Roger L. Hofeldt
"M∗A∗S∗H" provides excellent material for the study of television as a cultural force…. [No] other show has emerged to successfully imitate the "M∗A∗S∗H" style. The formula combines the camaraderie of the acting company with an extremely talented team of writers, blending social comment with an inexhaustible supply of one-liners…. [The] formula has proven both flexible and durable. (p. 96)
[The] surface level antiwar theme may fuel the fire of those who claim that an antiestablishment tone is sweeping the airwaves. For example, inferences run through some scripts that the United States, not North Korea, is the real enemy in the war. Real, old-fashioned patriots are often portrayed as idiots. What's more, infidelity seems to run unchecked throughout the "M∗A∗S∗H" unit. It would, indeed, appear that some basic principles of American citizenship are being ridiculed.
But there is a second level of conflict and commentary actively running through "M∗A∗S∗H". The key to understanding this program lies in apprehending the significance of the characters. Their individual essences and interplay create the "M∗A∗S∗H" message. Not surprisingly, the message comforts rather than threatens the audience.
Unquestionably, Colonel Sherman Potter is the elder statesman of the "M∗A∗S∗H" unit. Surrounded by the artifacts of his long military career and prone to recollection, he is...
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Movie Movie is a dum-dum title for a pair of skillful parodies that were written by Larry Gelbart and Sheldon Keller under the provisional title Double Feature. The idea is to stir up our happy memories of early talkies—especially the Warners fight pictures and musicals, with their tenement-born heroes and heroines who conquered the big city…. The lines are stylized, cryptic: the dialogue of the thirties has been compacted into its essential clichés, which the characters innocently mismatch, so that the feelings they express go askew. And the way the characters say each other's names, as if to remind the person they're talking to of who he is, has a ritual quality…. (p. 501)
Movie Movie is almost terrific, but it's also a little flat. Some of the timing is off, and the second feature sags, but the problem goes deeper than these lapses. Watching the two linked features, we know that all our guesses about what's coming are going to be right—the authors aren't going to take the potentialities in the archetypal stories and throw a curve with them. They're going to stick to little jokes—and do exactly the same thing in both features…. The humor is almost all verbal, and though the fouled-up clichés are entertaining, you begin to wish that there had been a few additional gag writers brought in, to break the pattern of facetiousness and jump off from it. Movie Movie doesn't have the Dadaist mania that...
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It struck me, watching Movie, Movie, that a parody is rewarding roughly in proportion to the pleasure originally conveyed by the model. This film, as everyone must know by now, is a double feature such as you might have seen at any neighborhood house some forty-five years ago. The first movie, "Dynamite Hands," is a sentimental prize-fight melodrama; the second, "Baxter's Beauties of 1933," is a sentimental backstage musical romance. Both are only slight exaggerations of the type, the humor deriving, in part from naivete revisited, but more from a persistent resort to infelicities of dialogue that wear none too well….
Larry Gelbart and Sheldon Keller wrote the screenplays. I'm sure they also laughed themselves silly as they roasted the chestnuts. I chuckled some, I confess, but it was a long two hours. Parody needs a substantial target—as, for example, Franklin Roosevelt was a sitting duck, but no one could draw a bead on Eisenhower. (p. 27)
Robert Hatch, "Films," in The Nation (copyright 1979 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 228, No. 1, January 6, 1979, pp. 27-8.∗
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Harry F. Waters
Attempting to categorize NBC's "United States" is like trying to imagine Ingmar Bergman's "Scenes From a Marriage" rewritten by Neil Simon and staged as a prime-time soap opera. Suffice it to say that this half-hour series … is unlike anything ever presented on TV…. "United States" sets out to examine contemporary wedlock—the state of being united—without resort to standard sitcom conventions. No audience attended the tapings, no laugh track was inserted to punch home the lines. The small screen becomes, in effect, a microscope slide on which Gelbart smears the psyches of his subjects. Their problems range from the dyslexia of a young son to a dinner party guest list, and not a single one of them gets solved in 23 minutes.
The Chapins of suburban Los Angeles are anything but a fun couple. Richard … is prone to windy soliloquies and, in moments of stress, a kind of paralysis by self-analysis. Libby … is a neurasthenic beauty with a talent for scathing [Edward] Albee-esque bitchery. Their twelve-year marriage seems like one long war of attrition. With time out for passionate sexual truces, they lacerate each other with an intensity approaching the sadistic. "United States" might best be described as a situation talkathon. Action is confined to her making the onion dip or his loading the dishwasher. The repartee, while uncommonly literate, drips with cloying aphorisms. (pp. 85-6)
And yet … Not since "All in...
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[With] the premiere of [United States] …, it should be clear that a TV breakthrough has occurred worthy of heavy study…. Yet no one seems to be noticing.
On paper, it's a simple proposition. United States is about marriage…. Familiar as it may sound, though, Larry Gelbart has given us a show that violates all the rules of sitcom, a game as rigid as pinochle.
By American TV standards, Gelbart is a radical, a madman, a bomb-thrower. Instead of the usual frantic half-hour punch-punch of jokes, the scripts of United States, by Gelbart and Gary Markowitz, have an altogether different rhythm. The show is a comedy of observations and insights; it looks for involvement, identification and a laugh. There is a lot of dry material leavened by something that used to be called "wit." Genuine wit coming off the screen today is like a foreign language. My ear needed tuning. United States is high octane stuff, very rich.
This is all the more surprising because the Gelbart name is associated with the frantic laughter of M∗A∗S∗H. Yet in his new series Gelbart the agent provocateur has dared to turn off the laugh track…. Television trusts you to laugh at Laurel and Hardy, Marx Brothers or Burt Reynolds movies. But sitcoms in prime time are not allowed to go on without a running signal to inform the audience that something funny has been said. Even...
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M∗A∗S∗H was TV's first black sitcom. No, not like Amos 'n' Andy and The Jeffersons were black sitcoms. It was a sitcom about war. No, not like Sergeant Bilko and Hogan's Heroes. M∗A∗S∗H was more than lovable lunks running around doing nutty things. This was comedy that showed war. Not like a John Wayne epic, but one of small-scale, more human dimensions. M∗A∗S∗H showed the blood and violence of war without ever actually showing the blood and violence. It showed the inside and underside of battle. The loneliness, the fear, the emotional as well as physical casualties. It showed death.
And yet M∗A∗S∗H was a lot of laughs.
Actually, M∗A∗S∗H—maybe the most sophisticated sitcom of them all—was not a sitcom at all, but a minimovie with a laugh-track. (p. 297)
It was unusual in many ways. It took place in the early 1950s, during the Korean War—and it lasted four times as long as the Korean War. It had a daring sense of humor that took itself very seriously; and when it was serious, it always had a sense of humor about it. And, like Silly-Putty, it could change its form. One week it was a strictly-for-laughs sitcom. The next week there was hardly any comedy at all, just the horror of trying to put back together the young men of war—and lamenting those who didn't make it to the operating room. Often, there'd...
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