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Exit Laughing

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I joined the Writers Guild in 1991, after getting a job on a short-lived HBO series. At about that time, the WGA instituted a mentor program, pairing new members with more established writers who could help them navigate the rough waters of show business. I signed up and, through luck of the draw, my mentor was Larry Gelbart.

I couldn't believe my good fortune. He was, of course, a god to me, a true king of American comedy who had written for everybody. Famous for his wit, Larry Gelbart's name was on shows and movies that will stand the test of time. He was also, I was thrilled to discover at our first meeting, a total mensch.

Larry was a terrific and generous teacher. He took the time to read my scripts and gave me brilliant notes; he kibitzed about the indignities visited upon all writers as if we were equals; he even threw some work my way on occasion. When a play of mine flopped, he sent a note to lift my spirits. And when a book of my plays was published years later (including that same flop), Larry wrote an effusive blurb that I will never live up to. I didn't know him well, but he made a tremendous difference in my life. He knew how to do that because he understood writers. And he loved them.

His e-mails were hilarious, of course, and our phone conversations were always a treat -- that deep voice of his, the way he tossed off jokes the rest of us slave over! We talked about our work, his beloved guild, and politics. He was passionate (and sometimes cantankerous) about them all. His nasty, unprintable nickname for the Republican party still makes me laugh.

Whenever he made a joke in my presence, I tucked it away as a Gelbart original composed just for me. I'll share two.

In 1996, I ran into him at a performance by Ricky Jay. We were talking when Helen Hunt entered the lobby. Twister had opened that very weekend. Larry noticed her and said without the slightest hesitation, "Look what the wind blew in."

A few years ago, my husband and I sat at the same table with Larry and his wife Pat at a dinner honoring a mutual friend. It was a big charity affair and one of the leaders of the organization addressed the crowd with a truly awful, painfully unfunny speech he had clearly written himself. I turned to Larry and joked, "Did you write this?"

Larry answered with the cry of writers everywhere, "He did it wrong."

In our recent conversations, we talked about fatherhood. When I told him we had adopted a little girl, Larry said, "Mazel Tov. You'll understand why you're here." He was devoted to his own family and felt a tremendous responsibility to produce work that made the world better, a task that grew more and more difficult given the realities of the corporate entertainment machine.

"It's so frustrating," he told me on the phone. "You get older and you keep getting better but these schmucks don't want what you've got to give." I was in the peculiar (though not unfamiliar) role of reassuring a legend, reminding him that he had written classics, the kind most of us (myself certainly included) can only dream about. There was a slight pause and then Larry said softly, "I guess that's true." I don't think he was simply fishing for compliments. Any writer worth his salt feels like he hasn't done enough, there's so much more to say. I'm just glad I had that opportunity to remind him of his achievement.

Larry was Jewish, of course, but I don't know how deep his religious convictions ran. He certainly had disdain for the overly pious. I don't know what he believed about the hereafter. But I do know that wherever Larry Gelbart went just got a whole lot funnier.