"It is very necessary to retain your identity as an artist and your identity as a human being... Just keep fighting for what you're about and what your work is about. You are what you do, you know."
About This Interview
On his reputation as a writer with deep social conscience, Gelbart says "I was very lucky. It is not everybody that gets a vehicle like M*A*S*H, in which for four straight years you can be on a soap box and hopefully not abuse that position." Larry Gelbart (1928-2009) was an Emmy-award winning writer, producer, and director, whose career began with the Golden Age of radio, but is perhaps best-known for being the mastermind behind the television series M*A*S*H. His father's barbershop was a gathering place for many comics including Danny Thomas, who agreed to give the young Gelbart a huge break in his career while he was still in high-school, writing for Thomas on the radio. On hearing his words performed in front of an audience for the first time, Gelbart recalls "I remember that rush of hearing a couple of hundred people laugh" and was hooked. He talks about the structure of how the writers would put together Bob Hope's monologues, and touring with the comedian during his USO tours. Gelbart was there for the transition from radio to television in the early '50s, leaving the "Bob Hope Radio Show" to work for Red Buttons and says of the change in his writing style, "It was working with Red that I really found out that a sketch had to have some progression, that it really had a structure. And that was invaluable."
Also in his three-and-a-half-hour Archive interview, he talks about the Caesar's Hour writers' room, working with such comedy greats as Mel Tolkin, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and Sid Caesar. He talks briefly about his time in London, his successful play "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum", the Marty Feldman Comedy Machine and the difference between television in the UK and the US. Gelbart talks at length about his successful years co-producing and writing for M*A*S*H and specifically working with producer Gene Reynolds and series star Alan Alda. He talks about some of the battles with Network Standards & Practices, and how they managed to win some (like finally getting the word "virgin" on air) but lose others (like the use of a laugh track, which CBS wanted). He chronicles the filming of the episode "Abyssinia, Henry" in which a main character dies and his decision to keep the ending a secret from the cast and crew. He also discusses his work in feature films and Broadway plays, including Mastergate and his return to television with United States, a comedy series about marriage and divorce. He acknowledges that while he is very proud of his AfterMash series, the formula did not work as a comedy. He talks briefly about the Writer's Guild Strike in 1985, during which time he was the writer of the Academy Awards and his feelings about the union. He credits HBO with giving him much support over his TV movie projects Barbarians at the Gate and Weapons of Mass Distraction. He talks about his memoir, Laughing Matters, and his advice to young writers. Regarding what represents to him, the "best" of television, Gelbart says "When it unites us, as it has in the past, I think it serves a tremendous function-- turning the country into a family." Dan Harrison conducted the interview in Los Angeles, CA on May 26, 1998.