Writer-producer-director Larry Gelbart died of cancer yesterday morning at the age of 81, as many of you are probably aware by now. There have been a great many fine tributes to the individual who was responsible for some of the truly seminal moments in television (Your Show of Shows, The Red Buttons Show, Caesar's Hour, M*A*S*H, etc.) and movies (The Wrong Box, Movie Movie, Tootsie). (He also, in tandem with Burt Shevelove, wrote “the book” for one of my favorite stage musicals, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum—which was later brought to the big screen in 1966.) The usual suspects—Tony Figueroa, Mark Evanier, etc.—have chosen their words wisely, and I’m certainly not going to crowd in with anything superfluous.
I did want to expand on a point mentioned briefly by Tony in his tribute, and that is that although television brought Gelbart his well-deserved fame, it was the medium of radio where he made his first important splash. Gelbart, at 16, was one of the youngest writers (maybe the youngest, according to fellow radio scribe Charlie Isaacs) employed in the business at that time; he got his start in 1944 contributing gags to Danny Thomas (who was a regular at Gelbart’s father’s barbershop) and Thomas hired to write material for his appearances on Fanny Brice’s Maxwell House Coffee Time show. From that auspicious debut, Gelbart joined the staff of one of radio’s most prestigious comedies, Duffy’s Tavern…and though the show’s creator, Abe Burrows, “left the show the day I came on” he would later get the opportunity to work alongside the legendary Burrows on Joan Davis’ program.
Among the other comedy-variety programs Gelbart toiled on were AFRS’ Command Performance (which Gelbart was assigned to after being drafted at age 18), The Eddie Cantor Show, The Jack Paar Show, The Jack Carson Show and The Sealtest Village Store (which co-starred Carson and Eve Arden at that point in its run). His biggest plum was joining Bob Hope’s heralded staff of writers at the beginning of Hope’s 1948-49 season; Gelbart quit Hope in 1952 just as Bob was transitioning to television (and was writing off radio as a lost cause)…but he wasn’t unemployed long, getting the opportunity to write for Red Buttons and Sid Caesar.
To one of the funniest writers to ever work in the comedy business I say without equivocation: you will be missed, Larry.