Larry Gelbart made funny things happen

Scott Simon offers a few words for the creator of the TV series M*A*S*H and the genius behind other classic comedies. He died this week at age 81.

Larry Gelbart was a great wit, who wrote with great heart. I don't want to dampen laughs by saying that he wrote classics. He wrote gags, one-liners, plays, sitcoms and films.

He co-wrote the 1982 film, Tootsie, a classic comedy, and said of its star, Dustin Hoffman, with whom he reportedly had "creative differences," "Never work with an Oscar winner who is shorter than the statue."

Larry Gelbart's father was a Chicago barber, who once cut Danny Thomas' hair, and handed Thomas an envelope with some jokes written by Larry. They made Danny Thomas laugh, and he hired Larry Gelbart — who was all of 16 — to write jokes for his radio show. In the 1950s, Larry Gelbart found a seat in what was probably the most famous hothouse in which comedy has ever grown: the Writer's Room of the Sid Caesar show, alongside Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Carl Reiner, who would go on to create their own classics.

TV "was a pristine medium" then, Larry Gelbart told the Sunday Times of London. "There were no footprints in the snow. You weren't worried about doing something that somebody else had done the night before, because there was no night before."

He co-wrote the Broadway musical, Conquering Hero, which closed after just seven performances. But he managed to immortalize his flop by saying, as they struggled through tryouts of the musical in Philadelphia, "If Hitler's alive, I hope he's out of town with a musical."

A classic line; one constantly quoted by his friend, Mel Brooks, who went on to write The Producers, which famously features a lunatic musical built around Adolph Hitler.

Larry Gelbart had much more success when he wrote the book for Stephen Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum in 1962, which brought Borscht Belt humor to ancient Rome, and it was a great fit. He moved to London then, "to escape religious freedom in America," he joked, but got called back in the '70s to help create M*A*S*H, the classic TV series that ran longer than the war in which it was set.

After all those successes, the barber's son didn't need to work, at least for money. "I need to write to find out what I'm thinking," Larry Gelbart said. "I've been doing it professionally almost 60 years, so if I don't like it I've wasted a lifetime... . I work on several things at once, then I'm never finished."

Larry Gelbart got cancer last year. But in December, when spurious reports winged around the Web that he had died of a massive stroke, he once again wrote his way out of pain with a one-liner.

Larry Gelbart sent an e-mail to friends that asked: "Does that mean I can stop exercising?"

View this story at NPR.org

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