Written By April/May 2009 : Page 31

AMan for little of people. There’s always a little less to be thought.” The place is San Francisco during the 1800s, the play Y Sly Fox, and that particular line’s mixture of acerbic insight, lit with an upbeat smile, is the distilled essence of its au- thor, Larry Gelbart—that there is “always a little less to be thought” of people bespeaks a buoyant inverse optimism. We’re used to crediting Gelbart as the co-screenwriter of such hit films as Oh, God! and Tootsie, or celebrat- ing him as the prime mover of the landmark TV series M*A*S*H. Less directly celebrated and certainly less studied are Gelbart’s deeper, more daring, more political, and often more deeply funny solo works for the stage— Sly Fox (1976), City of Angels (1989), Mastergate (1989), Power Failure (1991), Lysistrata: Sex and the City-State (2002)—and his television features, And Starring Pan- cho Villa As Himself (2003) and Barbarians at the Gate (1993). We have the privilege of presenting an excerpt of the pilot for what might be his boldest and darkest work ever, a TV series called Pinnacle, set among filmmakers who are suffering and, to their conscious horror, at times cooperating in the rise of a lethal, tyrannical social order. jokeS of deStiny “You put your trust in luck,” the Sly Fox warns his pupil, Able: “I’m not a great believer in either.” A subtle set of distinctions inform this little line. Gelbart denies neither the virtue of trust nor the ex- istence of luck. Good fortune has certainly played an enormous role in his life and career, from the moment he began writing professionally at age 16—yet he is ou’re going to learn the underbelly of human na- ture, today,” grins the great conman Foxwell J. Sly to his indentured apprentice: “Never think too ll Seasons chronicling the conscience of larry Gelbart Written by f.X. feeney careful never to depend on luck, or the kindness of moguls. If anything, his loving parents schooled him early that you should make the most of your opportu- nities, forge your own trustworthiness. “I was an amused, rather than abused, child,” Gelbart has written. His first language was Yiddish; he didn’t speak English until he was five. Words and phrases have the bright character of hard-earned coins when he uses them—often playfully, never wastefully. His mother, Frieda, had a natural facility for making people laugh. His father, Harry, a skilled barber, set a forceful example of “making” luck, first by moving the family from Chicago to Los Angeles when Gelbart was a teenager, then by talk- ing up his son’s talents to his showbiz clients, among them comedian Danny Thomas. “If he’s that funny,” Thomas offered politely, “tell him to send over some jokes.” When he read the results, Thomas hired the boy immediately at $50 per week, an astronomical sum for a 16-year-old in 1944. “[Danny was] a fabulous tipper,” Gelbart quipped in his 1998 memoir, Laughing Matters. Television became Gelbart’s university, the stage his doctoral dissertation. At 22, he flew to Korea as a writer for Bob Hope, just as war broke out—a formative experience that fed the melancholy-comedic balance he later struck when depicting Korea in M*A*S*H. Group effort was the norm for his first 10 years at the trade: Gelbart didn’t even consider himself a “writer,” strictly speaking—he happily remained a contented performer in a nomadic brain trust of gagmen, all bouncing ideas off one another as they cre- ated material for Thomas, Hope, Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, or… ? Name your favorite pioneer of TV comedy. The talent in the room when he worked for Caesar’s Hour was particularly stellar: Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Mel april/ma y 2009 WGAW Written By • 31

Man for All Seasons

F. X. Feeney

Chronicling the Conscience of Larry Gelbart<br /> <br /> You’re going to learn the underbelly of human nature, today,” grins the great conman Foxwell J. Sly to his indentured apprentice: “Never think too little of people. There’s always a little less to be thought.” <br /> <br /> The place is San Francisco during the 1800s, the play Sly Fox, and that particular line’s mixture of acerbic insight, lit with an upbeat smile, is the distilled essence of its author, Larry Gelbart—that there is “always a little less to be thought” of people bespeaks a buoyant inverse optimism.<br /> <br /> We’re used to crediting Gelbart as the co-screenwriter of such hit films as Oh, God! And Tootsie, or celebrating him as the prime mover of the landmark TV series M*A*S*H. Less directly celebrated and certainly less studied are Gelbart’s deeper, more daring, more political, and often more deeply funny solo works for the stage— Sly Fox (1976), City of Angels (1989), Mastergate (1989), Power Failure (1991), Lysistrata: Sex and the City-State (2002)—and his television features, And Starring Pancho Villa As Himself (2003) and Barbarians at the Gate (1993). We have the privilege of presenting an excerpt of the pilot for what might be his boldest and darkest work ever, a TV series called Pinnacle, set among filmmakers who are suffering and, to their conscious horror, at times cooperating in the rise of a lethal, tyrannical social order.<br /> <br /> Jokes of Destiny <br /> <br /> “You put your trust in luck,” the Sly Fox warns his pupil, Able: “I’m not a great believer in either.”<br /> <br /> A subtle set of distinctions inform this little line.Gelbart denies neither the virtue of trust nor the existence of luck. Good fortune has certainly played an enormous role in his life and career, from the moment he began writing professionally at age 16—yet he is careful never to depend on luck, or the kindness of moguls. If anything, his loving parents schooled him early that you should make the most of your opportunities, forge your own trustworthiness.<br /> <br /> “I was an amused, rather than abused, child,” Gelbart has written. His first language was Yiddish; he didn’t speak English until he was five. Words and phrases have the bright character of hard-earned coins when he uses them—often playfully, never wastefully. His mother, Frieda, had a natural facility for making people laugh. His father, Harry, a skilled barber, set a forceful example of “making” luck, first by moving the family from Chicago to Los Angeles when Gelbart was a teenager, then by talking up his son’s talents to his showbiz clients, among them comedian Danny Thomas. “If he’s that funny,” Thomas offered politely, “tell him to send over some jokes.” When he read the results, Thomas hired the boy immediately at $50 per week, an astronomical sum for a 16-year-old in 1944. “[Danny was] a fabulous tipper,” Gelbart quipped in his 1998 memoir, Laughing Matters.<br /> <br /> Television became Gelbart’s university, the stage his doctoral dissertation. At 22, he flew to Korea as a writer for Bob Hope, just as war broke out—a formative experience that fed the melancholy-comedic balance he later struck when depicting Korea in M*A*S*H. Group effort was the norm for his first 10 years at the trade: Gelbart didn’t even consider himself a “writer,” strictly speaking—he happily remained a contented performer in a nomadic brain trust of gagmen, all bouncing ideas off one another as they created material for Thomas, Hope, Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, or… ? Name your favorite pioneer of TV comedy.<br /> <br /> The talent in the room when he worked for Caesar’s Hour was particularly stellar: Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Meltolkin, Neil Simon, Woody Allen, and two trailblazing women, Selma Diamond and Lucille Kallen. “We were like the Duke Ellington band,” he wrote. “We had this great sound together. Everybody is valuable when you’re writing that way. The worst line makes somebody think of something instead of that.”<br /> <br /> He honed his craft and wit in such heady company. Privately, he deepened his education with voracious reading, eventually finding his way back to the plays of Plautus, that comic genius of ancient Rome.<br /> <br /> A Funny Thing Happened <br /> <br /> It was Plautus—and a pair of more contemporary collaborators, cowriter Burt Shevelove and composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim—who launched Gelbart into his greater career with a hit musical, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum. It took five years to write; the plot was a freewheeling conflation of classical outlines, centering on a trio of households in Imperial Rome and holding up a funhouse mirror to Imperial America, then at its space-age zenith. As he put it in Laughing Matters: “When a slave in Forum slips into a diaphanous gown, plops a blond wig on his head, and pretends he is a nubile young thing in order to deceive an unwitting male, modern audiences [got] to witness a piece of theatrical schtick in well over its two thousandth hit year.” <br /> <br /> The result ran for more than 900 performances on Broadway between 1962 and ’65 and took Gelbart to England for nine years (1963-72), where, owing to the strength of the dollar, he and his wife, Pat, were able to raise their five kids to comfortable advantage while he enlarged his own sense of the possible, courtesy of a near-decade of sophisticated TV writing on the BBC. “Of late, adult has come to mean suggestive, or, worse, adult movies, adult language,” he later reflected: “The words no longer imply maturity… In England I had the luxury of watching hours and hours of grown-up themes and grownup talk, ingesting entertainment and information without titillation—programming devoid of censorship.” <br /> <br /> When producer Gene Reynolds approached Gelbart with the challenge of developing the hit feature film M*A*S*H into a TV series, such “adult” examples became indispensable. The mixture of poignancy with farce that we take for granted in contemporary sitcoms were considered radical in the early ’70s. What’s more, Gelbart brought off a feat most onlookers judged impossible— he took a hit film of a singularly bawdy, anarchic character and made of it a series that was true to those qualities yet amplified them into a multilayered format.Adultery, impotence, crossdressing, warfare, and its bitterest ironies: In the proud, Plautusian tradition, nothing was off limits. Even Ring Lardner Jr., who’d written the film’s trailblazing (and undercelebrated) screenplay, saw no series in the material, and to his later, laughing chagrin passed up an opportunity to take part as a co-creator—though he subsequently wrote a number of episodes. Gelbart stresses he was “a developer” not “a creator” and freely acknowledges the integrity won for the show before his involvement—not only by Lardner’s script, Robert Altman’s film direction, or Richard Hooker’s novel, but by “Suicide is Painless”—Johnny Mandel’s haunting theme song from the film.<br /> <br /> M*A*S*H has been described as a monument to the men and women who served in Korea between 1950 and ’53, and it is certainly that too, yet—hindsight being 50/50—its deep resonating hold over the American public comes more powerfully out of its thought provoking double-duty as a mirror held to our nation’s longer and historically more costly entrenchment in Vietnam, from 1957 to 1975.<br /> <br /> A case in point: “Abyssinia, Henry,” the controversial episode in which the popular character of Henry Blake was killed as he flies home to the U. S., after receiving his discharge. Actor McLean Stevenson was leaving the show in any case, but Gelbart (who both wrote and directed) decided, in league with producer Reynolds, to make a point about war’s cost in the process. Audiences who’d grown to love Henry were outraged when the episode first aired on March 18, 1975—less than a month before the last U.S. helicopter fled the embassy rooftop in Saigon as our efforts there collapsed. More than 100,000 letters of complaint flooded in, but Gelbart and Reynolds stood their ground as they replied to all of them. The week the episode aired, a planeload of Vietnamese children were killed as they were being airlifted to safety. “I remarked in my letters, without irony, that I hoped as many people wrote protesting the deaths of these innocents as took the time to write protesting the death of Henry Blake.”<br /> <br /> Wolves, Preyed Upon by Greedy Sheep<br /> <br /> “Is he dead?” So asks a pious hypocrite of Foxwell J. Sly, as he lies—apparently unconscious— on what has been advertised to be his deathbed.The gag is that half the pious hypocrites in San Francisco have been high-mindedly lending Sly money as he “dies,” in hopes of being named sole heirs to what they’ve been gulled into believing is his enormous fortune. This elaborate scam will make Sly wealthier than ever, should he bring it off.<br /> <br /> “I’ve waited long enough!” protests Truckle, the most pious of the hypocrites. “He’s been sick for months, and he’s still not dead. I don’t think he’s trying.” Informed that Able has been trying to find the right doctor, Truckle turns blistering: “For God’s sake, no doctors! Sometimes they actually help. If a man’s going to die, let him die. This long, drawnout torture. The pain. The agony. How much more can I take?”<br /> <br /> Crooks-robbing-crooks is one of comedy’s most surefire formulas, and Gelbart milks it to a fresh fare-thee-well in Sly Fox (1976). Again, he’s working from a classical model. He updates Ben Jonson’s 1606 satire Volpone, moving the action from 17th-century Venice to 19th-century California during the Gold Rush, streamlining the King Jamesean plot and simplifying the once overwrought climax into soaring farce.<br /> <br /> He had many sources of help, which he readily admits: It was director Arthur Penn who first suggested an updating of Volpone; it was Czech author Stefan Zweig who had earlier simplified Jonson’s Text, in 1924. (Crazily enough, the doddering executor of Zweig’s estate accepted a cash payment but refused to let his late client’s name be dragged through the mud of due credit on the new play’s title page, when such was offered.) It was actor George C. Scott, playing Sly, who suggested the bright snapper that ends the play.<br /> <br /> Honoring such contributions in no way diminishes what Gelbart brings off. He used his models and fellow talents freely, like a jazz artist—now a one-man Duke Ellington band. The push and pull between Sly Fox and apprentice Simon Able dramatizes the tugs of war in Gelbart’s own nature, between the unsentimental realist and the soft-hearted dreamer. He gives the best lines to Sly, but bestows his own middle name (Simon) upon Able. Sly, in his glittering refusals to be fooled, even by his own lust for beauty, is the mysterious but inflexible incarnation of the play’s moral principle, the still point of its rapidly turning world—the brute fact that we each have our price.<br /> <br /> Sly, to whom Able owes a fortune, is to his divine credit a candid devil, savoring Able’s gullibility even as he does him the favor of chewing him out: “Able, Able. You don’t free gold. You covet, you coddle, you cuddle it. Fondle a coin long enough, it begins to feel like skin.” A moment later, tenderly patting the top layer of coins in his treasure chest, he adds: “You never disturb them, you let them rest quietly, side by side, and watch the show they buy.” The key phrase in this anthem: watch the show they buy.<br /> <br /> The Key phrase in this anthem:whach the show they buy.Gelbart isn’t interested in passing judgment on his characters, though his moral sense is ticking like a Geiger Counter under every word. What he adores—and he makes this adoration contagious—are the shows we buy. That he buys, that his characters buy, that we all do: Human nature in all its mutually avaricious, mutually lusty attractions and interactions. That is the core temperature of Sly Fox, and every Gelbart work that has come after.<br /> <br /> Chaos Ex Machina<br /> <br /> As transmigrating spirits, Sly and Simon Able live on many times over in the Gelbart cosmos.<br /> <br /> They constitute a twin-star system in his ingenious musical City of Angels, in which a meek novelist named Stine and his alterego, a hard-nosed detective named Stone, both find themselves at the mercy of a bullying, 1940s era studio chief. They are seamlessly well-disguised as Pancho Villa and Frank Thayer—the (comparatively) innocent 1915 filmmaker who is summoned to Mexico where he will film the demonic charmer Villa in the act of playing himself. (Villa has recognized early the power of movies and wants to use them to his advantage.) This dreamer and this charlatan are elsewhere reborn not only as the sweet-spirited clerk and his salty almighty in Oh, God!, but as the warring male and female hemispheres in the protagonist of Tootsie, and the high-living, and even higher-flying investor Ross Johnson and his nemesis junk-bond profiteer Henry Kravis—the two most colorful opposites amongst the many Barbarians at the Gate.<br /> <br /> “I knew absolutely nothing about junk bonds, leveraged buyouts, Wall Street dealspeak,” he wrote of Barbarians. “My biggest task was to make it all comprehensible.Especially to me.” This was also his task in Mastergate, a satiric response to the brain-numbing tedium of the Iran-Contra hearings of the mid-1980s.<br /> <br /> Post-Watergate, the truth in honest, direct language had become a Holy Grail in American life. Saying what you mean and meaning what you say—as King James admonished his Parliament to do—had become a lost art in public life. Gelbart, subtitling Mastergate “a play on words,” does his level best to detonate the deadwood clogging the nation’s discourse.<br /> <br /> The Mastergate plot hinges on the CIA takeover of a Hollywood Studio— done to launder money for clandestine wars against the left-leaning Central American nation of Ambigua and its drug-dealing neighbor, Oblivia.The clueless lambs who crowd the hearing-chamber are the latest avatars for the naiveties of Able, Frank, and Ross. The lawlessness that Sly, Pancho, and Kravis embody instead descends upon these proceedings in the hilariously disembodied form of a dead CIA chief, Wylie Slaughter, who swoops in, Banquo-like, to impose a climactic order of chaos ex machina upon what has become a Senate Hearing From Hell.<br /> <br /> In Power Failure (1991), the ethical tug of war is more intimate—at first, a moral pokermatch between a condemned murderer and an ambitious writer seeking to tell his story. She pretends to be sympathetic, and he senses her deceitful agenda without being able to unmask it. Gelbart is likely thinking here of Truman Capote’s entanglement with the killer Perry Smith when he wrote In Cold Blood, as well as Joan Didion’s aphorism that “a writer is always selling someone out.”<br /> <br /> The play launches into worldly orbit, tracing these themes through a series of two-person dialogues (the writer with her husband, the husband with a corporate honcho, the honcho with a Joint Chief), until we circle the globe back to death row. Everybody we meet is selling somebody out—even the priest hearing the condemned man’s confession—a madly exalted variation on the theme that each of us has his price. The fallen priest at least has the courage to see, and name, his condition: “Each living thing adds to the misery of another,” he confesses to the killer. “Each unkind act creates a circuitry of its own, a grid based on the evil we call desire, against which we are all helpless.” <br /> <br /> What unites and distinguishes these scripts are Gelbart’s lucid attention to themes of power, corruption, massgreed, our shared downfalls, and our (narrowly) possible redemptions. There is in each case a life-affirming spirit at work, however dark things get—truthful humor, as an angelic force.<br /> <br /> Caesar Salad <br /> <br /> Gelbart has defined laughter as “the outward expression of a nerve, well-struck.” <br /> <br /> His talent is, at its heart, adaptive.He began as one talent riffing in a roomful of other talents, then set himself free to do his own work by making use of those structures left behind by the greats of centuries past. This is every writer’s path, but it is explicit and dramatic in Gelbart’s case.<br /> <br /> As his work has come more deeply into its own, Gelbart traditionally locates a sympathetic, improviser-adaptor in his key characters, then pits them against the Comedic Giant by whom they’re employed. Is Pancho Villa standing in for Sid Caesar? Not in across-the-board moral terms— when Villa performs, he leaves actual blood on the floor. Sid Caesar merely left behind bodies convulsed in helpless laughter.<br /> <br /> Yet Gelbart enjoys men who are riddles and once made an observation of his old boss that fully applies to the prodigious mountebanks and historically question-marked men who compel his fiction: “The young Caesar, already a premature legend, was a man of mythic Skills and almost mythic craziness. Imagine, if you can, how intimidating it was—how ‘interesting’—to work for a man who once punched a horse in the face, knocking it to the ground because the animal had the audacity to throw his wife off its back … [who once] yanked an offending washbasin out of a wall with his bare hands.” As Gelbart also saw, this fiery madness concealed not a coherent “self” but a vast absence: “Without a character to hide behind, Sid was lost. Without prepared dialogue, without a progressive storyline, Sid simply did not know how to play Sid.”<br /> <br /> Such men cannot exist without a witness, their audience.In times of war (an abiding subject for Gelbart), that sometimes lethal incompleteness in a person—especially a leader— becomes a moral problem, implying this question: Can we exist without them? Is such a world possible?<br /> <br /> These questions are tackled head-on in the bawdiest of Gelbart’s political plays: Lysistrata, or: Sex & the City State, an Iraq-era updating of Aristophanes comedy in which the women of Athens and Sparta block the endless wars between their fabled city-states by withholding sex from their husbands.Advised by the Chief Magistrate that she is meddling in matters beyond a woman’s competence, Lysistrata—the bereft mother and widow who has nursed this scheme— replies:<br /> <br /> LYSISTRATA: The law’s eyes being totally based on the male refraction, I would have to say not …Is it the natural order of things that husbands should prefer death among strangers to the loving embrace of those he is ordered to leave behind?<br /> <br /> For a variety of absurd reasons—differences of taste regarding sexy obscenities, since the men (in the tradition of Aristophanes) parade about, sporting giant wood phalluses; or because the language is rife with double, multiple and single entendres— Gelbart’s high-energy take on this play has gone unproduced, when the only actual obscenity at issue is that of war.<br /> <br /> Men so love their bloody pursuits, alas, that—true to Aristophanes and the author of A Funny Thing and Tootsie— Lysistrata and her legion of women must dress up as men to make a climactic assault on the Athenian treasury. Again, from Laughing Matters: “To me the challenge of Tootsie would be in developing how a man might view the plight of women after spending a period of time ‘being’ one of them.One of the first new lines I was to put into the rewrite [is now heard] midway through the picture: ‘You know, you’re a different man since you’ve become a woman.’”<br /> <br /> The outward expression of a nerve, well-struck: Gelbart argues with his life’s work that such struck nerves are only to be found in one another. Not laughing at, but with, seeing how the other half lives and recognizing our own follies in the process.

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