Laughing Matters (Larry Gelbart)

Laughing Matters:: On Writing M*A*S*H, Tootsie, Oh, God!, and a Few Other Funny Things - Larry Gelbart

Gelbart is a word-lover's joy to read, just as his scripts for MASH were a joy to hear. He can twist a phrase to expose double and triple entendres in ways that make your head spin (or, more likely, provoke a laugh of delight).

 

Call it a memoir if you like - this book is actually a smorgasbord of past writing - excerpts from scripts, articles, you name it - mixed in with reflections on the writing process and three roughly chronological surveys by Gelbart of his life/work in three arenas: TV, film, and stage. His editor, Sam Vaughan, is present throughout (in bold type), linking together the book in places where the subject matter jumps abruptly. Here, as in all his other ventures, Gelbart is a collaborationist (I stole that insight from the editor's introduction).

 

Gelbart's an out-and-out writer (as opposed to writer-actors, writer-directors, writer-producers, etc.) and he returns many times, but always wittily, to the classic writer's lament about how everyone else always interferes and 'improves' his work. He details his failed projects with as much relish as his famous successes (MASH, Tootsie, Oh God). He's capable of being blunt about people he found difficult to work with (Dustin Hoffman springs to mind) but I never got the sense of a really mean streak. It's as if he's aware that his verbal weapons are so superior that he doesn't wield them at full force. But see his deliberately wordy, deliberately circuitous, deliberately diction-impaired satire on the American political system, Mastergate, for a real sense of the anger that could lie underneath the words. Apparently, he couldn't get a production mounted in Washington. "Too political." But really - well let me quote him, since no-one could say it better. "Subtitled A Play on Words, its aim was not to point out political corruption - tantamount to trying to get a patent on the wetness in water - but rather to dramatize, not through satire but through ridicule, the breakdown in communications in public life. Speeches have become speech. The more we're told, the less we know."

 

Look at him speaking about his movement from film to theatre:


My taste in entertainment - more like an insatiable hunger - had been developed over an endless string of Saturday afternoons, mesmerized by one silver screen after another. After I had seen Holliday and Douglas performing as the leads in Kanin's play, and later watched countless other movies, the movies suddenly felt like so many trailers for the real thing, for the living thing - the theater. One picture may indeed be worth a thousand words but, by my emotional arithmetic, one play can be worth a thousand pictures.

I picked that paragraph more or less at random. If you love writing, or love the history of American comedy, read this book