Mike Sacks for Vanity Fair Shares Last Interview with Legendary Writer Larry Gelbart
Last week, the Broadway community mourned the loss of multiple Tony Award-winning librettist, screenwriter and author Larry Gelbart, who died at his home in Beverly Hills on September 11 at the age of 81. This week, Mike Sacks of Vanity Fair released an except from one of the last interviews ever conducted with the legend for Sacks' book: "And Here's the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Humor Writers on Their Craft" (Writers Digest Books).
Excerpts from Sacks' interview below:
The writing on Your Show of Shows and on Caesar's Hour was renowned. Was there a sense at the time that what you were experiencing was special?
We didn't tell ourselves, "Let's be a comedy classic." We just thought, Let's write for ourselves. I didn't hear the word "demographic" until I was fifty. We were the decision-makers. Our sponsors didn't interfere. Affiliates didn't interfere. The network might have interfered, but on a level that we were not conscious of, because Sid was the show's owner/producer. Sid handled all of those affairs at that level. We just had fun. The writers didn't have to worry about anything except doing the best that we could do. We knew it was special, and we knew it with the kind of brashness that New York inspires and encourages. We knew we were different from anything else on television at that time. We had this powerhouse writing lineup. All kinds of strengths. You put half a dozen funny people in a room, and it's amazing what they'll come up with. We did the show on a Saturday, and we took Sunday off. Monday morning we said, "Okay, what do we do this week?" We had to have it finished Wednesday because the actors started putting the show on its feet, and sets had to be built. Costumes had to be sewn. Orchestrations had to be orchestrated. I am older now than the combined experience that was in that room. We were all so young, eager, and fresh. But we pulled it off, week after week after week, for three years.
Let's switch gears and talk about M*A*S*H. You said that you considered the show your favorite piece of work. Is that true?
No, it's not. I don't know. I must have felt that way when I said it, perhaps because that show just keeps reverberating. M*A*S*H just hangs on and on. It just won't lie down.
You know what's so interesting about M*A*S*H? When Twentieth Century Fox decided to issue it on DVD, they included the option of watching it without the laugh track. If you've ever watched it without a laugh track, well, that's the show as we intended it to be watched. We did not mean for people to be cackling throughout the show; it becomes so much more cynical and heartbreaking without all that cheap, mechanical laughter.
Why did you decide to leave the show?
After four years I felt that I had done my best, I had done my worst, and I had done everything in between. I just wanted to tackle something I knew absolutely nothing about-with subjects and characters I didn't know like the back of my hand. You start out vowing that you're not going to be cliched, and then you find out that you've invented a few cliché's of your own. The pressure to produce that show was tremendous, almost killing at times. It was time to go. Before I did.
The love of the writing, is that still something that you have?
More than ever. I now think of writing as a privilege-as a gift that's been given to me. Any day that I don't get to write something-anything-is a day I have to spend being someone other than who I am.
Any advice you'd care to give to those writers out there just beginning their careers?
When you're writing and come to a rough spot and the ideas just aren't flowing, put down dummy text and keep on moving-especially if it's at the end of the day and you're going to stop. Your brain will never stop for the day, even if you have stopped working, and there's a very good chance you'll come up with something better. Also, at the very least, you'll have something to come back to the next day, instead of a blank page. That's important.
But in general terms, just sit your ass down in a chair and hope your head gets the message. Isaac Bashevis Singer's advice for the struggling young writer was to stop struggling and write. As for me, I don't have any other advice. If I did, I would have had a far more trouble-free life and a much, much better career.
To access the full interview, click here.
Mr. Gelbart was known as a genius of comedy writing and a mater of the one-liner. Along with Burt Shevelove, Mr Gelbart won the 1963 Tony Award for Best Author of a Musical for the 1963 Best Musical Tony Winner, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (produced by Harold Prince, directed by George Abbott, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and starring Zero Mostel). In 1990, he won the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical for City of Angels.
Mr. Gelbart developed the landmark TV series "M*A*S*H" and co-wrote the classic Hollywood comedy "Tootsie." He wrote the Broadway plays Sly Fox (based on Ben Jonson's Volpone) and Mastergate. He was recently working with lyricist David Zippel on new musicals.
He is survived by his wife of 53 years, Pat Gelbart.