Larry Gelbart Essay - Critical Essays

Gelbart, Larry

Introduction

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.)

JOHN McCLAIN

["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).

Howard Taubman

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).

Howard Taubman

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.

Howard Taubman, "Theatre: 'A Funny Thing Happened …'," in The New York Times (© 1962 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 9, 1962 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXIII, No. 12, May 14-21, 1962, p. 293).

Time

[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.

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Ivor Howard

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...

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Time

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),...

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Richard Davis

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...

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Clive Barnes

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...

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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...

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Gerald Clarke

[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...

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Cyclops

"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...

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Horace Newcomb

[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...

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Cyclops

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.

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Clive Barnes

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...

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Brendan Gill

["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….

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Stanley Kauffmann

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...

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Ronald Goetz

[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...

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Richard Corliss

[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)...

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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...

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Pauline Kael

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)

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Robert Hatch

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...

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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...

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Marvin Kitman

[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...

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Rick Mitz

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....

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