Larry Gelbart Critical Essays

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.)