Comedy Giant Larry Gelbart Dead at 81

There’s something funny about the fact that Larry Gelbart died on Sept. 11. His best work spoke to all that was right and wrong about America, no punches pulled.
Gelbart, who died Friday at 81 after a brief battle with cancer, was part of that golden circle of writers who worked on Sid Caesar’s TV shows in the ’50s (Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Mel Tolkin, Carl Reiner and Woody Allen all contributed to Caesar’s Hour).
It was Gelbart’s colleague Tolkin who once observed that a shetetl past, which many of those writers shared, uniquely qualified them for their jobs. “I’m not happy to say this,” observed Tolkin, who had survived pogroms in the Ukraine. “It created the condition where humour becomes anger made acceptable with a joke.” Gelbart must have tapped into the same well.
Gelbart’s credits extending all the way back to Bob Hope, Red Buttons and Danny Thomas and radio in the ’40s and into HBO dramas over the past decade. A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Forum, packing them in at Stratford this year, was Gelbart, as were the first four seasons of M*A*S*H, the chunk of that series that holds up today.
I did a phoner with Gelbart when he was helping to promote And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself, an HBO drama starring Antonio Banderas that came and went quietly in 2003. It seemed an odd assignment for the veteran writer, except that it was really a satire on Hollywood, so it was a perfect assignment for Gelbart.
I found him delightfully caustic and cynical on the phone, still full of whatever sass and vinegar fueled his writing. I remember that he had plenty to say about the Bush administration and U.S. politics at the time.
The interview sticks in my mind, besides the fact that I got to talk to Larry Gelbart, because the story never ran. I was working at The Toronto Sun at the time, and for some reason, space or time the usual culprits, it was neither scheduled or written. I always felt bad about wasting Gelbart’s time. I’ll keep looking for the tape, and if it still exists, post the interview here.
Several TV writers have told me over the years (including, just last week, Ron James Show scribe Gary Pearson) that they got into the business because of The Dick Van Dyke Show, a series created by Gelbart’s Caesar colleague, Reiner. They grew up wanting to work with Buddy and Sally and sit in a room with a typewriter, dart board and a piano. That gig always appealed to me, too.
The Allan Brady Show writing staff of The Dick Van Dyke Show was a reflection of Reiner’s experience working with guys like Gelbart (far right, above Brooks and next to Tolkin in the above photo). They elevated each other, smart folks in a smart room. It is still every TV comedy writer’s Dream Team.

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