The first hint I ever had that the funny things people said on TV were actually written by someone besides the actors was from watching M*A*S*H. This was a big deal for a 11-year-old.
Hawkeye: Looks like a pregnant bagpipe.
Trapper: Do bagpipes get pregnant?
Hawkeye: Sure they do, right after they make those funny sounds.
(I learned a lot of things from M*A*S*H, actually. I taught myself how to juggle after watching Hawkeye do it. I still know the closing stanzas of “Gunga Din” by heart. I’m pretty sure I could perform an emergency tracheotomy if I had to, and had a ballpoint handy. And I learned that good guys could make fun of religion — or, rather, religious people — and still be good guys.)
Frank: What are you doing there?!
Hawkeye: I just wanted to borrow your Bible, Frank.
Frank: Since when are you interested in the Bible?
Trapper: I peeked at the end, Frank. The Devil did it.
I even recorded the shows, although in those pre-DVR, pre-VCR days that meant me holding a 4-lb tape recorder and a microphone the size of a zucchini up to the TV speaker and hoping for the best. I had boxes of tapes, all duly labeled with episode names and season, and I listened to them over and over in the hopes of capturing that amazing rhythm of puns and snakebite-fast comebacks and just hilarious lines that served as my inspiration for what I wanted to be when I grew up.
Also a writer, although I didn’t know that yet. It took a few years of steadily watching, and memorizing entire scenes to perform for my friends at school the next day, before I made the connection to the names in the opening credits. More specifically, I noticed that all my favorite episodes had “Larry Gelbart” on them. In the first four years, Gelbart wrote 97 episodes and had his hand in all the rest, sometimes up to his shoulder. Were Hawkeye and Trapper funnier when this guy was behind them, whispering into their ears? Was I not necessarily a M*A*S*H fan as much as a Larry Gelbart fan? OK, it wasn’t exactly a Helen Keller “water!” moment, but it was a big thing for pre-pubescent me.
Frank: Colonel, you are not listening to me!
Henry: Uh, you’ll have to speak a little louder, Frank. I’m not listening to you.
Of course most of the rest of the series was also brilliant and funny and groundbreaking, but never again quite in the same way for me. Gelbart and fellow producer Gene Reynolds and the other writers and directors and the cast had clearly been out to shake up television, push the boundaries, see what they could get away with. Language. Humor mixed with the horror of inhumanity. Characters with strengths and weaknesses and real changes that were still there the next episode. Episodes from the POV of a patient, episodes in letter form. Ending an episode of a comedy sitcom with the devastatingly emotional blow of the death of a beloved main character, with no closing punch line to soften the blow. I was spoiled for quality television at a very early age and it’s stayed with me.
So did the habit of obsessing over a show beyond what normal people would consider, well, normal. Even in high school when the show was slowing down I went for M*A*S*H bowling afternoons every week with my friends Eric Marle and David Story and Dan Schwieg, all of us in olive drab shirts and dog tags, swigging Sprite in martini glasses and keeping a poker game going in between our turns. But even then we still tended to gravitate toward the earlier shows when we quoted lines (I was always Trapper).
It cheered me up no end when I bought the DVD sets and got both my sons completely hooked on the show. Finally they starting getting my references! Unfortunately that also meant they started realizing their funny dad didn’t write all his own material, either…
BJ: Minding my own business is a full-time job. In my spare time, it’s my hobby. I can’t divide myself emotionally. I couldn’t break my word to Peg, and not because God will send me to Hell without an electric fan or because it’s not the right thing to do. I simply don’t want to.
Hawkeye: You’ve got a lot to learn about messing up your life.
Larry Gelbart had a gift for humor and emotion that I envy still. Yes, yes, he worked for Sid Caesar and co-wrote Tootsie and Oh God! and co-wrote the book for A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum and many other notable accomplishments, but mostly he showed me (and the world) how to laugh, and he showed me what television was capable of. I am very glad tonight that I got the chance to tell him what his work meant to me; I wrote him a year back, as much of a gushing fanboy letter as I’ve ever seen, and while I’m sure his response was what he sent to everyone I still hope that my praise, added to the rest, cheered him up.
Gelbart died of cancer this morning at his home. He was 81.