“Trust me — like it says on the money” — line written by Larry Gelbart for George Burns in “Oh, God”

September 12, 2009



While we were distracted by other matters, Larry Gelbart slipped away. I didn’t know Gelbart; I wish I had.

He had an ear for language, for how real people talk, and he combined that with a unique wit to produce some of the most memorable dialogue ever heard on the stage or screen. There is no better example than “M*A*S*H.” That show may have gotten bit too aware of itself but the writing when Gelbart was still working it was some of the best television has ever offered. Fortunately, that show is still being rerun, and when I watch it I marvel at how it never ages, never loses its edge.

Alan Alda and Larry Gelbart were a perfect match, and I think that’s because Alda has a classic sense of comedy – not the what-can-I-get-away-with drivel that passes too often for comedy today but the literate, witty kind of comedy one associates with S.J. Perelman and George S. Kaufman.



Alda — particularly in the role of “Hawkeye” Pierce — has often been compared to Groucho Marx; in fact, he has been accused of aping Groucho Marx. But Marx was never the comic actor Alda is and, in that sense, any similarity in their delivery is more a compliment to Groucho than it is to Alda. I think that perception had to do with Gelbart, who brought that wise-ass attitude we saw in Groucho Marx to a much higher plain in Alan Alda.

The loss of someone as singularly talented as Gelbart is bad enough in itself, but it also is a reminder of how the quality of writing for television in particular has declined over the decades. Gelbart wrote for the “Duffy’s Tavern” radio series, for Bob Hope, and for Red Buttons, and he was a member of the legendary stable of writers on Sid Caesar’s television show. Most writers today don’t have that kind of background, but that’s what Gelbart brought to “M*A*S*H” and “Tootsie” and “Oh, God,” and “Sly Fox” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”



Back when I was still considered employable, I wrote a column taking note of the death of Gretchen Wyler, whom I did know and admired very much both as an actress and as a human being. We had seen Gretchen in “Sly Fox” when the cast included Vincent Gardenia and Jack Gilford, and I mentioned that in the column. I don’t know how Larry Gelbart found out about it, but he sent me two e-mail messages thanking me for remembering Gretchen and expressing his own respect and affection for her. The fact that Gelbart, when there was nothing in it for him, took the trouble to respond to a relatively obscure writer spoke to his loyalty as a friend and colleague.

Larry Gelbart was 81. A detailed obituary is at this link:



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