Larry Gelbart Richard Corliss - Essay

Richard Corliss

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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 narrative: for the sake of making points, the story scores points off one-dimensional knaves and fools, instead of creating a comedy world like the Van Dyke household or the MASH army base in which (in Jean Renoir's famous phrase) everyone has his reasons. Granted, the ideological approach can work if the comedy is infused with the livid tinge of satire, in which case the villains often are more memorable than the passive, put-upon hero. But Reiner's and Gelbart's strength is the strength of the best liberal sit-coms: to describe, in comic terms, the passing triumphs and trials of your everyday, middle-class mensch. (p. 94)

Richard Corliss, "Sit-Com: The Joke's on You" (copyright © 1978 by New Times Publishing Company; reprinted by permission of the author), in New Times, Vol. 10, No. 1, January 9, 1978, pp. 94-5.∗