Last week, I came up with the "Why in the world didn't I think of that before??!" idea of posting some of the "Email Interviews" I originally wrote for the Writers Guild of America website. You can read more about what those were here, but the short version is that it was an easy way for me to get content for the website -- I came up with a set of generic questions about the process of writing that I'd sent to screenwriters and TV writers, and they'd do the heavy lifting. Occasionally, I'd throw in a few new, specific questions, but usually not.
Last week, I started at a high standard, difficult to top, with Anthony Minghella, who gave easily the best, most thoughtful, generous of his time, and detailed Email Interview. This week, we go from the sublime to the sublime. This is Larry Gelbart. And to writers, that's pretty much all you have to say. Larry Gelbart was just a gem of a guy. Here's my favorite Larry Gelbart story, which I think encapsulates him well.
In the early days of the Internet, the Writers Guild had a BBS, which was like a precursor of today's chat rooms. One day, I was having a private chat with Larry (a sentence that even today as I write it, I am in awe of). To make clear, we'd never met in person, just through Internet exchanges. Offhandedly, I mentioned that I'd seen the revival of his musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, when it played in Chicago with Phil Silvers before going to Broadway. And there was a new song added to it that was so wonderful, "The Echo Song" -- but they didn't make a new cast album from this Broadway production, the song was never included in later revivals, and I'd spent a couple decades trying to track the song down. I asked if he knew whether or not there was a recording of it. He answered that he wasn't sure, but he'd check with Steve the next time they talked.
That's nice, I thought, though I didn't know who "Steve" was. Maybe his assistant. Then it hit me -- he meant Stephen Sondheim. Well...yeah, that really was nice. Mind you, I didn't have a clue when they'd next talk, and I didn't suspect he'd even remember the question whenever that was, but still, what a nice thing to say.
And then a week later I got a note back from Larry. "I spoke with Steve today. He said that he has a recording of it being done in a little revue, and he'll send me a copy. What's your address?"
So, today, I have a copy of this little-known song via Larry Gelbart through Stephen Sondheim.
That's the kind of person Larry Gelbart was. Eventually we met, became friendly, and it only got better. Pretty much anyone who met Larry Gelbart likely says the same thing. (Unless you really pissed him off...)
And so, here is the piece I did with the good fellow.
E-mail Interview with Larry Gelbart
Edited by Robert J. Elisberg
Larry Gelbart is part of the legendary writing staff for the classic television variety series, "Your Show of Shows," which was followed by its cousin, "Caesar's Hour," a combined group which included Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Carl Reiner and Sid Caesar, for starters.
Gelbart soon became well-known in a different venue for writing with Burt Shevelove the book for the Broadway musical, "A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum." The show was successfully revived on Broadway in the mid-1970s, and it recently returned to the New York stage in April, 1996, where 34 years after its original opening it is once again a hit -- for the third time. Gelbart also wrote the book for the Tony Award-winning best musical, "City of Angels," and the play, "Sly Fox."
However, it is for his work in television that Gelbart is probably best known, developing the series "M*A*S*H." He also created the acclaimed, though short-lived series, "United States." Additionally, Gelbart wrote the award-winning HBO movie, "Barbarians at Gate."
Gelbart received an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay of "Oh, God!" He has also written such feature films as "Tootsie" and "Blame It On Rio," among many others.
In his spare time...well, Larry Gelbart doesn't tend to have a whole lot of spare time...
RJE: Were there any movies, TV shows or books that first got you interested in writing?
LG: When I was a very young kid growing up in Chicago, my second greatest pleasure - my greatest joy was coming from seeing a movie - was to reenact the ones I had seen for my friends. I was captivated by the stories, the stars, the handsome people, the funny people. I don't think I wanted to write for movies - I think I wanted to be a movie. I just wanted to live in all those glamorous or even terrible places and fight duels and kiss women and be surrounded by excitement and laughter and music and escape. I haven't changed. I still enact movies for friends (and employers) only they are ones that don't exist yet.
Not a lot of books in my house when I was a kid. Didn't care all that much about them in school. Except for history books. But I lived inside my radio, populated as it was by people just as exciting as the ones I would visit at the movies.
RJE: When you write, how do you generally work?
LG: Incessantly. Slowly, at first, fiddling with outlines, piling up research when necessary. When I finally attack the work, I will be at my desk early - sometimes 4 a.m. and go until dinner. I don't go out to lunch, take as few calls as possible, and try to stay away from playing Solitaire.
RJE: Do you have any specific kind of music playing or prefer silence?
LG: No music. Silence preferred. Although for the four that I wrote for "M*A*S*H" my office was right next to the Fox Sound Editing Department, and I wrote daily against a background of car chases, screeching brakes, sirens and gun shots. Ah, well, war shows are hell.
RJE: Are you a good procrastinator?
LG: One of the best. Fifty-two years of experience.
RJE: What sort of characters interest you?
LG: Any kind, really. Preferably people I've never written before, so I can get to know them - and find parts of me that they might house.
RJE: What sort of stories?
LG: Any kind that lets me deal my anger, my helplessness, my vulnerabilities.
RJE: How do you work through parts of the script where you hit a roadblock in the story?
LG: Write another part of the story. Come back to where you were stuck with the benefit of unblocking process that went on without you ever knowing it.
RJE: Do you have any specific tricks to help, or just tough it out?
LG: Tough it out. Stop working. Pull out some crabgrass. As I said, some part of you keeps right on working.
RJE: What is your best or most memorable experience as a writer?
LG: Working on my latest screenplay, "Weapons of Mass Distraction." A complex piece, several story tiers, very novelistic. And using no outline whatsoever. The first time I've ever let a story reveal itself to me in the writing.
RJE: How did you get involved with M*A*S*H?
LG: Gene Reynolds, an old friend, was a staff producer at Fox. When the TV head, William Self, sold CBS on paying for the writing of a TV pilot script based on the feature, it was Gene's idea to hire me for the project.
RJE: "Barbarians at the Gate" is an incredibly detailed, complex story that takes place in what is generally considered the dry world of finance. Moreover, it was not only based on a book, but on real people, as well. What were the particular challenges in solving the problems of adapting it?
LG: "Barbarians at the Gate" offered many challenges. The first one was just reading it. So many characters, so many tiers to the story. My second job was to read it again. This time, with a pen in hand to eliminate, to weed, to lose people and events, to get to the essentials. Actually, I think I dropped almost all of the first 200 pages of the
book, except for material that gave me some specific insights into F. Ross Johnson, the central figure in the story. Then, I cut out a whole layer of characters by removing the banking community, so vital to the sale of RJR Nabisco, but so complicated and so thick with additional characters.
I have had some experience with dealing with dense storylines, populated by a great many players. What was very different about BAG was that for the first time ever I was dealing with nonfictional characters - real, and still live, people. There was great concern at Columbia Studios (which commissioned the script) and at HBO (which finally produced it) that I did not expose them to any legal problems in the way anyone was depicted. (I had been able to negotiate my own personal immunity.) By using actual dialogue and situations from the book (which had prompted no litigation from the principals) and by using extensive research prepared for me - a wonderful job done by a woman named Bobette Buster - I managed to keep out of any legal problems by making any new material consistent with the published and public record of the Johnsons, the Kravitzes, et al.
It all seems so easy to relate right now. The actual job took almost three years. A publication asked recently for a look at my drafts - from the first to the sixth or seventh or maybe even the seventeenth, I don't remember. When stacked one atop the other they measured a foot and half high. From now on, I'm going to try to keep my scripts under twelve inches.
RJE: Was there any particular writer who acted as a sort of mentor to you?
LG: His name was Bill Manhoff and he was the head writer of "Duffy's Tavern," a radio show, where I apprenticed as a teenager. He had the skill, the patience and the generosity to teach me lessons that have served me a lifetime.
When I worked under Bill Manhoff's tutelage on "Duffy's Tavern," I had just turned 17. Other than having the knack of being able to be funny on demand - on being able to provide jokes that fit a specified situation - I was not familiar with the vocabulary of the trade, the articulation to describe what kind of punchlines those situations might require. If that sounds vague, perhaps it still is to me after all these years. I guess what I learned most from Bill was just punching away until what seemed the right line finally dawned on me or anyone else in the room. That deadlines weren't frightening - that writing comedy for a living you couldn't afford to think it terms of writing blocks or not completing the work on schedule. There was no question but that the work would get done. Simply because it had to be.
RJE: Why do you write?
LG: To find out what I think. To discover what I really feel.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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