The brilliant TV and film writer Larry Gelbart was a friend. Not one of those friends who you hung out with or lived nearby but one of those people who made you feel important even if you didn't think so yourself.
Without Larry Gelbart I never would have become an author.
About ten years ago I found myself in a television writer's most precarious position -- over 40 years of age. As a recent age discrimination settlement in the industry proved, over 40 is akin to dead in the TV biz. I call it youthenasia.
I wrote a satirical piece for the Writers Guild magazine Written By called "I'm Not A Young Television Writer But I Play One On TV." It was set up to look like a chapter of a book titled, "You'll Never Get Old In This Town Again." It was a farcical guide on how to fool network executives into think you were younger. Tips included, "Make sure you always pitch ideas lying on the floor so that the loose skin from the front of your face falls to the back of your head."
Another one recommended that you not place any pre-1995 writing credits on your resume "even if you won an Emmy writing on the hit show M*A*S*H*, unless you're Larry Gelbart." I didn't know Larry personally but I placed his name in there as a homage to his genius. I also thought that he might read it and it would give him a smile.
He did read it and gave me a call, commending me on the piece and wanting to know when the book was coming out. I explained how it was only meant as a farce and there was no book. He told me it should be. I said I wasn't an author and hadn't the faintest on how to become one. Without any more than this one conversation, Larry contacted a publisher friend -- Leonard Stern of Tallfellow Press - and set up a meeting for me. It resulted in a deal for my first book -- Great Failures of the Extremely Successful... Mistakes, Adversity, Failure and Other Steppingstones to Success. It detailed my interviews with highly successful, high-profile personalities on how they turned their greatest setbacks into some of their greatest triumphs. Larry Gelbart became the first person I interviewed for the book.
After that, any time I needed advice, Larry was available. When he had a new play opening, he called me for suggestions on how to promote it. I treasure our fun conversations and his input into making me a better writer.
Mostly a writer behind the scenes, Larry had the timing and performance of a great stand-up. When the WGA honored Sid Caesar, much of his writing staff from his 50's hit show, Your Show of Shows appeared. Not too shabby, it included Mel Brooks, Neal Simon, Mel Tolkin, Carl Reiner (Woody Allen was on staff but didn't make the event). The hysterical highlights were the back and force between Brooks and Gelbart. Double over laughter without a four letter word or topical reference. Just pure funny.
I will miss his writing, but most of all I will miss him. A good guy with a brilliant sense of humor and great human compassion.
Below is Larry's chapter from my book...
"What matters is how I behave in any given situation, not the result of that behavior." Tootsie, Oh, God, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, TV's M*A*S*H*, Barbarians At The Gate, Laughter On The 23rd Floor, they all came from the fertile mind of Larry Gelbart. Called by Mel Brooks, "the fastest of the fast, the wittiest man in the business," the Emmy and Tony award winner wrote for Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Danny Thomas before he join the legendary writing staff of Sid Caesar's Caesar's Hour. It was Larry Gelbart's lack of academic prowess that helped produce his classic wit and a fertile future in the world of comedy.
I remember the first joke I told. I was five. Right away I saw that people liked to laugh.
My mother gave me that sense of taking a bad situation and finding a way to turn it into a funny observation; the ability to be biting and sweet, and simple at the same time. She's say things like, "Your next mother won't be so good to you." If I asked to go out on Saturday, she would say, "Wait, you don't know if you'll live to Saturday." And this was Friday. I was about six years old and I had done something that really displeased my mother, and she hit me...hard. I said, "Ma, I'm not made out of rubber." And she said, "I wish your father had used one." She could decompress a very pressured moment and take the sting and fear out of it. M*A*S*H* was filled with those types of moments. That is the business of comedy and writing. We try to make life more palatable.
I didn't do well in school so instead I would show off. I didn't have a school teacher who inspired me. I don't think I ever had a school teacher who I didn't try to con with comedy because I hadn't done my work. Since I had two left feet, two left hands, two left everything, there were no sports coaches to encourage me. Since I didn't perform favorably I was always trying to figure out how I could cover myself. I did it with humor. Comedy became my sword.
My father, who was my real influence, was a barber who stood on his feet from the age of twelve until he turned eighty-nine. So I was used to watching somebody doing their job, sometimes two jobs. That's the attitude I took into my work.
My father was always showing my off. On Sundays he would cut hair in our bathroom home. He would have me sit on the toilet and play my clarinet for the customers. When I was sixteen and had yet to ever think of becoming a writer, my dad, who just happened to cut Danny Thomas' hair, talked Thomas into hiring me to write jokes for his radio show. Sixteen years old and I was a professional writer.
Some weeks you had good shows, some weeks you had bad. No matter what, you always came back and did the next show. You don't kill yourself over a failure and you don't pop a cork over a success, became part of my professional DNA. In television, you would do thirty-nine shows a year and, believe me, they weren't all gems. But you always had the next show. It's different in film because you don't write a new show every week, unless you're Neil Simon.
Film has probably been the my least successful medium for me to write in. It's a mine field. There are so many ways to get your heart broken. You really have to hand it over to someone else. I've had some major public embarrassments. You get a lot of those in film. You not only lose control but you also lose contact with the work that has your name on it. For example, the film Bedazzled was terrible. I was hired to write it but there was a point where I realized I wouldn't be able to deliver what the director had in mind. He realized it too. He got someone else to work on it but my name is still on it and it embarrasses me. A few things in it I find offensive and in terrible taste. That's an example of work taken away from you for which you will forever bare some responsibility. There's a line in my play City Of Angels in which the screenwriter says, "Am I supposed to run up and down every theater aisle in America and say I didn't write that?" You just can't. If I do films now I try to do it with HBO.
It may not feel great all the time but you do need people to question you, to keep you honest, say, "Hey, that's not very good." I love the story of King Phillip VI of Spain who was burned to death. He fell asleep in front of a great roaring fire and, because you were not allowed to touch the King unless he told you to, no one pulled him away.
Theater is less excruciating, although it's still risky. My play Mastergate was previewed in Cambridge, Massachusetts . Frank Rich, theater critic of the New York Times, came up to Cambridge to review it. He gave it a rave review. It motivated us to bring it to New York. Rich encouraged us to first take the show to Washington, D.C., because he said it would be the best civic lesson that town could ever have. We submitted it to The Kennedy Center in Washington and they turned it down because it was "too political." So we brought it to New York and this time Rich gave it a rather tepid review. The show played sixty-nine performances. No business. It was an odd piece and you can't wait around for people to acquire a taste. So we closed. I felt very attached to that show. I had put up a great deal of money. That was first for me. While I had other shows close, Conquering Hero and My L.A., both in four days, they were with someone else's money. Even though it was my money I still had no control of the results. Once the public says, "We don't care," you can't get 'em in.
At the same time Mastergate was closing, my City Of Angels was previewing in New York. The first line of Frank Rich's review in the New York Times was, "When was the last time you heard a joke stop a show?" Extravagant praise. I certainly couldn't moan about another show closing when this production was obviously going to be so successful. I had worked on City Of Angels for eight years. It's a lot easier to deal with something that didn't work when you've got other projects already in the works.
I think I can take failure as easily as I take success because neither really matters to me. What matters is how I behave in any given situation, not the result of that behavior. Was I honest? Did I get my point across?
You have to live every day as if it's your first. You get up, if you're lucky, and you retain some sense of naivete', a sense of wonder, curiosity, optimism. You don't want to go around with an attitude of, "Just my luck, there'll be life after death." In writing, especially speculatively, you have to forget the hurts, the broken promises, the betrayals. You have to dream. That's your job, committing your dreams to paper, to the screen. You have to say it's a new ball game every day of your life. I don't have a post-it that says that, but I wake up with the notion that I'm starting all over again today. It may be foolish in some way but I don't believe time flies. I believe time doesn't exist, that each day is Monday, that nothing went before, that even if we do remember the past, we still seem doomed to relive it. It's okay to remember your mistakes, but don't remember everybody else's. It doesn't pay to have a chest fill with mistakes done upon you, because if you had the time or interest you would see how you actually collaborated in your own undoing. I think you'd find that it doesn't take two to tango, but by the time you die it probably about two thousand and you also played some part in the process to screw it up. If you can isolate that, you can make a different choice. You can have a failure that you don't consider a failure. If I am able to write successfully for me, whether it's commercially successful or not, I'm happy. When I do fail it usually has to do with something I did wrong very early in the process. Even so, if I have a real passion for something and believe in it, I'll have an easier time if it does happen to fail. If I really believe in what I do, the chances are, I'll do a better job.
Steve Young blogs at steveyoungonpolitics.com and gets more profound at www.greatfailure.com
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