12 September 2009

Larry Gelbart

The writer Larry Gelbart has died, at the age of 81. Though he was a close friend of my beloved Gilfords, I never met him — something I’ll always regret, because I admired his work tremendously. He’s best known for the TV series M*A*S*H, in which his delirious wordplay and unabashed liberal politics were given something extraordinarily like free rein in the confines of a weekly network sitcom. His many other successes include A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the first of his Gilford spectaculars: Jack was a notable guest star on M*A*S*H and a co-star of Gelbart’s Sly Fox (an adaptation of Jonson’s Volpone), and one of Madeline’s last films was Starring Pancho Villa as Himself.

This morning’s newspapers will remind you of some of his other hits, including the film Tootsie, Sid Caesar’s TV show, and the Broadway musical City of Angels. Yet the piece that represents him best, I think, is a lesser-known comedy, written in response to the Iran–Contra scandal and subsequent Congressional hearings: Mastergate. It’s here that one sees most clearly the element that’s always present (yet more usually soft-pedaled) in his work: rage.

Like many left-wing Americans, Gelbart had watched his television in astonishment as the Congressional circus bumbled through its investigation of one of the lowest points of the Reagan Administration: the exchange of arms for hostages in Iran (contrary to the President’s oft-stated refusal to bargain with terrorists) and the funding of Nicaraguan rebels (in contravention of the Boland Amendment). What may have dismayed Gelbart most was the abuse of the English language, twisting reality and perception to the point that a hotheaded lieutenant colonel could not merely defend his patently illegal actions — but successfully construe himself as an American hero. (And lest we forget, Oliver North was at one point touted as a presidential contender himself.)

Gelbart responded with Mastergate, a stage play that ran briefly on Broadway in 1989. Rather than limiting himself to a direct satire of Iran–Contra, Gelbart cut loose, inventing a scandal that resembles many others, under many administrations; hearings populated by characters who resemble simultaneously the denizens of Washington and Wonderland; and a dizzying array of logic-defying rhetorical tricks specific to those characters. The clip above gives you a taste; some clever soul has posted the entirety of the film adaptation on YouTube, so you can enjoy the whole thing, if you’re so inclined. (You may also want to consider paying for the privilege of enjoying the script of the play.)

Though Mastergate did nothing to change the political landscape of America (or even a tiny corner of Broadway), it’s exhilarating, perhaps even therapeutic to hear, and liberals must regret that Gelbart was no longer at the top of his game in this century, when the Bush Administration heaped so many abuses on the Constitution, on the world at large, and on the English language. And in an age when American preachers are publicly praying for the death of President Obama, we may recall Gelbart’s tart observation, four decades ago, that he was moving to London in order “to escape the freedom of religion in America.”

The raw anger that underlies that remark and that fuels Mastergate sets Gelbart apart from most other comedy writers in popular culture, and it’s present elsewhere in his work: we catch glimpses of it in the darker moods of Hawkeye Pierce, in his furious opposition to the waste of war, and in his recourse to wordplay and gags as his only weapons against the prevailing unreason of his time. We think of Alan Alda when we think of Hawkeye — but the character was first a vehicle for the voice of Larry Gelbart.

Alda was, however, the cuter one.

1 comment:

John Yohalem said...

Much as I love (and agree with) Larry Gelbart's politics, his most memorable series of moments, by me, was the screenplay of Movie Movie, a film that seems to have vanished (but I have a tape of it and will show it to select audiences if bribed or seduced), George C. Scott's "double bill" in the manner of the Thirties (boxing picture in B&W, musical in color), a marvel of manic wordplay with subtly manic performances by a cast united by their diversified manicity.

I also loved his (Larry's) line in a NYTimes piece that appeared at the time: "Movies have had a tremendous effect on all of us. It was upon first seeing Cary Grant that I decided to become handsome."