It was my privilege at the beginning of my career to work with some of the great comedy writers of the World War II generation. My father first and foremost, of course --- his ghost would never forgive me for not putting him at the head of the list --- but also names like Mort Lachman, Norman Lear, Milt Josefsberg, Mel Tolkin and Larry Rhine, Bob Carroll and Madeleine Pugh, Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf. These were legendary figures to me, present at the creation of radio and television comedy, but they were also generous mentors, patient, supportive (if also occasionally Oedipally competitive), and most of all, wonderfully, effortlessly funny. I learned a lot from all of them. Still, despite the respect I felt for their craft and their experience and their irreverence and their shared lore, I can't say I felt daunted or intimidated by them. This may have been nothing more than callow cockiness on my part, but they impressed me without really scaring me.
Things were different with Larry Gelbart. Whenever I met with him, for MASH and the grossly underrated United States and a wide variety of other projects over the years, it took genuine courage for me simply to open my mouth. He was the gentlest and most encouraging and collegial of men, and there was certainly nothing in his manner to excite this sort of stammering fear. But he was also a genius, the most brilliant comedy writer I've ever met. In company with Mel Brooks and Woody Allen --- all three graduates of the Sid Caesar Show, not coincidentally --- he possessed the most inventive, incisive comedy mind of his generation. One example from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum will have to suffice: The toga-clad Pseudolus, examining the label on a bottle of wine, asks, "Was 1 a good year?"
The speed with which he processed information, unearthed the absurdity in it, and then found the perfect language to express that absurdity, was awe-inspiring; there was no apparent gap for thought, just the instantaneous delivery of a perfectly crafted, verbally elegant, intellectually sophisticated jewel of a comic idea. Larry's private conversation, at the studio and in social settings, was the comic equivalent of chamber music: A dazzling display of unexpected insights, economical, elevated, lightning fast, with not a syllable wasted or out of place (and often gloriously obscene and politically incorrect as well, which is why I've reluctantly decided not to quote any of it here). To those who think the opposite of the word "comic" is the word "serious," Larry was a living rebuke. The opposite of "comic" isn't "serious," it's "humorless." Larry was an entirely serious comic artist.
He was also a man with whom one quickly learned not to gush. Hero-worship --- and he encountered his share of it --- made him visibly uncomfortable. From early on, I tried to behave in his presence as if we were peers, an absurd notion on its face (his step-son, Gary Markowitz, once told me that he had decided on a similar strategy). But none of the other comedy writers I've known really regarded him as a peer. In fact, even when he was alive and some of the more arrogant or ambitious among us might have been expected to feel competitive or envious, we often shared admiring Larry Gelbart stories with one another instead. We all understood how impossible it is to do what Larry did, despite how easy he made it look, despite how casually and modestly he tossed off his best lines.
When he was alive, I was always careful not to tell Larry of my unreserved admiration, bordering on reverence, for him. (If it was "this side idolatry," it wasn't very far this side.) I even tried not to laugh too hard when he said something irresistibly hilarious. But I loved him as both man and writer, and now, alas, I can freely say so.
My friend and colleague Ken Levine, who worked with Larry for years, has published a moving tribute on his own site: http://kenlevine.blogspot.com/
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