Larry Gelbart

Writer/Producer/Director


The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation Presents

02:26

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About
About this interview

On his reputation as a writer with deep social conscience, Gelbart says "I was very lucky.  It is not everybody that gets a vehicle like M*A*S*H, in which for four straight years you can be on a soap box and hopefully not abuse that position." Larry Gelbart (1928-2009) was an Emmy-award winning writer, producer, and director, whose career began with the Golden Age of radio, but is perhaps best-known for being the mastermind behind the television series M*A*S*H. His father's barbershop was a gathering place for many comics including Danny Thomas, who agreed to give the young Gelbart a huge break in his career while he was still in high-school, writing for Thomas on the radio. On hearing his words performed in front of an audience for the first time, Gelbart recalls "I remember that rush of hearing a couple of hundred people laugh" and was hooked. He talks about the structure of how the writers would put together Bob Hope's monologues, and touring with the comedian during his USO tours. Gelbart was there for the transition from radio to television in the early '50s, leaving the "Bob Hope Radio Show" to work for Red Buttons and says of the change in his writing style, "It was working with Red that I really found out that a sketch had to have some progression, that it really had a structure. And that was invaluable."

Also in his three-and-a-half-hour Archive interview, he talks about the Caesar's Hour writers' room, working with such comedy greats as Mel Tolkin, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and Sid Caesar. He talks briefly about his time in London, his successful play "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum", the Marty Feldman Comedy Machine and the difference between television in the UK and the US. Gelbart talks at length about his successful years co-producing and writing for M*A*S*H and specifically working with producer Gene Reynolds and series star Alan Alda. He talks about some of the battles with Network Standards & Practices, and how they managed to win some (like finally getting the word "virgin" on air) but lose others (like the use of a laugh track, which CBS wanted). He chronicles the filming of the episode "Abyssinia, Henry" in which a main character dies and his decision to keep the ending a secret from the cast and crew. He also discusses his work in feature films and Broadway plays, including Mastergate and his return to television with United States, a comedy series about marriage and divorce. He acknowledges that while he is very proud of his AfterMash series, the formula did not work as a comedy. He talks briefly about the Writer's Guild Strike in 1985, during which time he was the writer of the Academy Awards and his feelings about the union. He credits HBO with giving him much support over his TV movie projects Barbarians at the Gate and Weapons of Mass Distraction. He talks about his memoir, Laughing Matters, and his advice to young writers. Regarding what represents to him, the "best" of television, Gelbart says "When it unites us, as it has in the past, I think it serves a tremendous function-- turning the country into a family." Dan Harrison conducted the interview in Los Angeles, CA on May 26, 1998.

"It is very necessary to retain your identity as an artist and your identity as a human being... Just keep fighting for what you're about and what your work is about. You are what you do, you know."

Highlights
Larry Gelbart on what to him represented the best of television; those moments when it brought the country together as a family, as in the Kennedy funeral, or the Challenger launch, and how we're in danger of losing that ability in favor of 'the bottom line'
03:18
Larry Gelbart on his advice to writers: "maintain your identity as an artist"
02:06
Larry Gelbart on how he feels lucky to have had the opportunity to have a soap box on national television with  M*A*S*H where he could speak his mind
01:08
Larry Gelbart on learning the value of "having fun with language" as a writer on Duffy's Tavern
01:45
Larry Gelbart on the filming of the episode "The Interview" of M*A*S*H and why they kept the ending a secret from the cast
08:14
Larry Gelbart on what he feels was the most poignant line on M*A*S*H; taken from a real doctor in a MASH unit
00:49
Full Interview

Chapter 1

On his childhood, listening to the old radio shows and watching comedians like Milton Berle at the Chicago theaters as well as on television; on his parents and their sense of humor
On getting his first break writing for Danny Thomas while still in high school
On getting signed to the William Morris Agency; working on Duffy's Tavern, the Joan Davis Show, and honing his writing chops
On getting drafted to the Army and being stationed in Hollywood with the Armed Forces Radio Service; continuing to write, then going to work for Bob Hope when his service term was over
07:18

Chapter 2

On writing for Bob Hope, the process and structure of putting together a Hope monologue; touring the world with the comedian
On the transition from radio to television, and the way he changed his writing style working for Red Buttons
On working on the reknown comedy series Caesar's Hour, for Sid Caesar
On a host of famous writers to come out of the Caesar's Hour writing room: Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Selma Diamond, and later, Woody Allen
07:06

Chapter 3

On Caesar's Hour; the writers and cast of the show
On working on other projects; on the Hollywood Blacklist; The Art Carney Special;
On his play "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum"; The Danny Kaye Special
On moving to London; working on the Marty Feldman Comedy Machine

Chapter 4

On the film M*A*S*H , its influence on the series, and the real 8055th MASH unit
On writing the pilot for M*A*S*H , casting the show
On dealing with CBS and censorship issues, scheduling issues the first season of M*A*S*H
On putting an acutal epsiode of M*A*S*H together; the process, technical considerations the writers, directors and crew 
On Alan Alda and his contribution to M*A*S*H;   on Wayne Rogers

Chapter 5

On the cast of M*A*S*H ; McLean Stevenson, Harry Morgan, Mike Farrell, Loretta Swit, Larry Linville, William Christopher, Jamie Farr
On writing a second pilot for the second season of M*A*S*H to reintroduce the characters
On a second series he worked on with Gene Reynolds concurrently with M*A*S*H: Roll Out about WWII; On the success of the second season of MASH ; despite fights with the network over the timeslot
On the memorable  M*A*S*H episode "Abyssinia, Henry" of where one of the main characters dies which they kept a secret from cast and crew; and the response to the episode from the cast and fans
On the filming of the episode "The Interview" of M*A*S*H and why they kept the ending a secret from the cast
03:18

Chapter 6

On leaving M*A*S*H to seek out new challenges
On working on the movie "Oh, God!"; originally written for Woody Allen and Mel Brooks in mind
On the series United States
On the unsuccessful series AfterMash
On the Writer's Strike in 1985, during which time Gelbart was supposed to write the Academy Awards show
On his Broadway musical "City of Angels"
On his HBO adaptation of "Barbarians at the Gate"; about a Wall Street takeover of a company
On his HBO original movie Weapons of Mass Distraction, whick poked fun at the nation's preoccupation with tabloids; credits Bob Cooper for giving him free reign over the project
On his off-Broadway satire "Mastergate" based on the idea of Washington taking over a studio
On his screen adaptation of the musical "Chicago"; set to star Goldie Hawn and Madonna; on "Fast Track" about stock car racing
On "Laughing Matters"- an autobiographical memoir 
On his advice to young writers; on how he feels lucky to have been given the opportunity to have a soapbox on national television for four years with M*A*S*H
03:14

Chapter 7

On the past and future of television; the best and worst it can offer
On people he's known and worked with: Danny Kaye, Bill Manhoff, Hy Averback, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Jack Paar, and others
On people he's known and worked with: Danny Kaye, Silvia Fine, Red Buttons, Art Carney, Sid Caesar, others
On people he's known and worked with:Alan Alda, William Self, William Paley, Gene Reynolds, Burt Metcalfe, others
On his father, mother
01:28

Chapter 8

On his grandson, Sasha; on being grateful to have been interviewed
02:07
Shows

Academy Awards, The

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Larry Gelbart on the 1985 Academy Awards show, which he was asked to write, but during which there was a Writer's Guild strike; his comittment to the WGA during this time
03:14

AfterMASH

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Larry Gelbart on this unsuccessful followup to M*A*S*H which he says took the "wrong take" on what should never have been a comedy
01:19

Art Carney Specials

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Larry Gelbart on how producer David Susskind brought him onto the Art Carney Special;  the many talents of actor Art Carney
01:56

Barbarians at the Gate

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Larry Gelbart on the TV movie Barbarians at the Gate, which Ray Stark helped him bring to HBO
01:37

Caesar's Hour

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Larry Gelbart on the pressures of working for Caesar's Hour, which carried the pedigree of the famous Your Show of Shows as its predecessor
00:55
Larry Gelbart talks about the famous writers to come out of Caesar's Hour: Mel Tolkin, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks and Neil Simon
04:42
Larry Gelbart talks about the writer's room of Caesar's Hour as orderly disorder
01:22
Larry Gelbart on the rigorous schedule and work ethic of the writers on Caesar's Hour , and the subsequent celebrations; his relationship with Sid Caesar
03:09
Larry Gelbart on the various writers of Caesar's Hour and their contributions
00:40
Larry Gelbart on his favorite Caesar's Hour sketches, and how Sid "allowed us to be hip"
02:32

Danny Kaye Show, The

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Larry Gelbart on writing for the Danny Kaye Show as a one-off for Perry Lafferty
02:41

Duffy's Tavern

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Larry Gelbart on working with Ed Garnder on Duffy's Tavern on the radio as a young writer; learning to have fun with language, the biggest lesson he took from Ed
03:32

M*A*S*H

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Larry Gelbart on first being approached by Gene Reynolds to adapt the movie M*A*S*H into a television series; on his agreement with Reynolds that it remain true to the film version
04:32
Larry Gelbart on doing research for writing M*A*S*H; learning from real doctors, nurses, pilots in Korea and using real dialogue and stories in the series
01:52
Larry Gelbart on writing the pilot for M*A*S*H in just two days, the initial reception from the network CBS
01:47
Larry Gelbart on casting Alan Alda on M*A*S*H 
01:11
Larry Gelbart on keeping CBS happy with the budget for M*A*S*H  in return for little interference from the network on the major themes
01:59
Larry Gelbart on balancing CBS's concerns and censorship issues on M*A*S*H ; specifically with the "virgin" episode 
01:54
Larry Gelbart on an infamous script written by Stanley Ralph Ross that was the only one to get rejected by CBS in the entire run of M*A*S*H
00:44
Larry Gelbart on the challenges of putting together an episode of M*A*S*H and how he and Gene Reynolds worked together
03:45
Larry Gelbart on the choice to shoot M*A*S*H as single-camera to give it a film quality and more naturalistic performances
00:28
Larry Gelbart on his fight to keep the laugh track off of M*A*S*H, which he bascially lost
02:09
Larry Gelbart on Alan Alda's committment to his role on M*A*S*H and how he would show what he wanted rather than argue a point
03:54
Larry Gelbart on the talented cast of M*A*S*H
06:24
Larry Gelbart on the casting of Jamie Farr as "Klinger" on M*A*S*H
02:25
Larry Gelbart on the episode "Abyssinia, Henry" of where one of the main characters dies which they kept a secret from cast and crew; and the response to the episode; Gelbart explains  "M*A*S*H was not all happy endings"
09:58
Larry Gelbart on how "The Interview" was conceived, written, and created, on M*A*S*H
03:18
Larry Gelbart on how it was difficult for him to leave the show after being so involved with it for many years
02:13
Larry Gelbart on how he feels lucky to have had the opportunity to have a soap box on national television with  M*A*S*H where he could speak his mind
01:08

M*A*S*H: "The Interview"

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Writer Larry Gelbart on how classic M*A*S*H episode "The Interview" was conceived, written, and created
03:18

Marty Feldman Comedy Machine, The

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Larry Gelbart on the "extremely innovative" show which he wrote for, in London
00:58

Red Buttons Show, The

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Larry Gelbart on making the transition from radio to television with the Red Buttons Show
02:57

Roll Out!

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Larry Gelbart on the unsuccessful WWII series Roll Out! that he worked on concurrently with the second season of M*A*S*H
02:15

United States

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Larry Gelbart on United States which was a comedy about marriage and divorce; its scheduling conflicts and his feelings about the series
04:08

Your Show of Shows

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Larry Gelbart on the influence Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows had on him, then later writing for Caesar's Hour
00:38
Topics

Censorship / Standards & Practices

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Larry Gelbart on the differences between television in the UK versus the US in the '60s
01:45
Larry Gelbart on balancing CBS's concerns and censorship issues on M*A*S*H ; specifically with the "virgin" episode 
01:54
Larry Gelbart on an infamous script written by Stanley Ralph Ross that was the only one to get rejected by CBS in the entire run of M*A*S*H
00:44

Characters & Catchphrases

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Larry Gelbart on how Jamie Farr was cast as the cross-dressing "Klinger" on M*A*S*H
02:25

Classic TV series episodes

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Larry Gelbart on making the transition from radio to television with the Red Buttons Show
02:57

Comedy

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Larry Gelbart on making the transition from radio to television with the Red Buttons Show
02:57
Larry Gelbart on the episode "Abyssinia, Henry" of where one of the main characters dies which they kept a secret from cast and crew; and the response to the episode; Gelbart explains  "M*A*S*H was not all happy endings"
09:58

Comedy-Variety

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Larry Gelbart on the rigorous work ethic and camraderie of the writers of Caesar's Hour
02:04

Creative Influences and Inspiration

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Larry Gelbart on working with Ed Garnder on Duffy's Tavern on the radio as a young writer; learning to have fun with language, the biggest lesson he took from Ed
03:32

Criticism of TV

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Larry Gelbart on what to him represented the best of television; those moments when it brought the country together as a family, as in the Kennedy funeral, or the Challenger launch, and how we're in danger of losing that ability in favor of 'the bottom line'
03:18

Fame and Celebrity

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Larry Gelbart on how he feels lucky to have had the opportunity to have a soap box on national television with M*A*S*H where he could speak his mind
01:08

Historic Events and Social Change

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Larry Gelbart on touring with Bob Hope during the war, and how Hope was almost a victim of a bombing attack while in Vietnam
01:32

Hollywood Blacklist

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Larry Gelbart on his memories of the Hollywood Blacklist; the seriousness of it
00:55

Industry Strikes

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Larry Gelbart on the effect the Writer's Guild Strike in 1973 had on the production of M*A*S*H
00:33
Larry Gelbart on the 1985 Academy Awards show, which he was asked to write, but during which there was a Writer's Guild strike; his comittment to the WGA during this time
03:14

Korean War

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Larry Gelbart on how the Korean conflict was the real backdrop for the fictional M*A*S*H television series
04:27
Larry Gelbart on this unsuccessful followup to M*A*S*H which he says took the "wrong take" on what should never have been a comedy, about veterans of foreign wars
01:19

Memorable Moments on Television

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Larry Gelbart on what to him represented the best of television; those moments when it brought the country together as a family, as in the Kennedy funeral, or the Challenger launch
02:10

Pop Culture

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Larry Gelbart on making the transition from radio to television with the Red Buttons Show
02:57

TV's Golden Age (1940s & '50s)

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Larry Gelbart on the changes in the profession since TV's "Golden Age"
01:19
Larry Gelbart on the rigorous work ethic and camraderie of the writers of Caesar's Hour
02:04

Technological Innovation

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Larry Gelbart on his fight to keep a laugh track off of M*A*S*H
02:09

Television Industry

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Larry Gelbart on the new challenges of television, and how the shows were shot in "legitimate" houses
01:48
Larry Gelbart on the differences between television in the UK versus the US in the '60s
01:45

Vietnam War

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Larry Gelbart on touring with Bob Hope during the war, and how Hope was almost a victim of a bombing attack while in Vietnam
01:32

War

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Larry Gelbart on touring with Bob Hope during the war, and how Hope was almost a victim of a bombing attack while in Vietnam
01:32
Professions

Actor

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Larry Gelbart on the acting skills of Gary Burghoff during the taping of the M*A*S*H episode "Abyssinia, Henry" in which the character "Henry Blake" is killed
02:33

Directors

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Larry Gelbart on directing the episode "Abyssinia, Henry" of where one of the main characters dies which he kept a secret from cast and crew
08:14

Show Creators

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Larry Gelbart on putting an acutal epsiode of M*A*S*H together; the process, technical considerations; the writers, directors and crew 
03:45

Writers

View Profession
Larry Gelbart on getting his first break while still in high school writing for Danny Thomas on the "Fanny Bryce Maxwell House Coffee Time" radio show, because his father convinced Thomas, who was a customer at his barbershop, that the teenager could write
02:21
Larry Gelbart on lessons he learned about when to ask for a raise, and the value of having fun with language
03:32
Larry Gelbart on the process and structure of writing Bob Hope's monologues
04:01
Larry Gelbart on the valuable lesson of writing with a beginning, middle, and end in mind for a sketch while working on the Red Buttons Show
01:22
Larry Gelbart on the rigorous schedule the writers had on Caesar's Hour
02:04
Larry Gelbart on the differences between writing for Broadway versus television; and the changes in the profession since TV's "Golden Age"
02:53
Larry Gelbart on the differences between television in the UK versus the US in the '60s
01:45
Larry Gelbart on his advice to writers: "maintain your identity as an artist"
03:14
Genres

Comedy Series

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Larry Gelbart on making the transition from radio to television with the Red Buttons Show
02:57
People

Alan Alda

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Larry Gelbart on meeting with Alan Alda who wanted to make sure M*A*S*H wasn't going to be another wacky Army show, and his comittment to the series
01:11
Larry Gelbart on Alan Alda's committment to his role on M*A*S*H and how he would show what he wanted rather than argue a point
03:54
Larry Gelbart on Alan Alda as the perfect extension to his own writing sensibilities
00:35

Woody Allen

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Larry Gelbart on the talents of Woody Allen, who he worked with on a Sid Caesar special
00:45

Hy Averback

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Larry Gelbart on Hy Averback's directing some of the finest episodes of M*A*S*H 
00:20
Larry Gelbart on how Hy Averback was respectful of writers' material
00:28

Mel Brooks

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Larry Gelbart on the talent of Mel Brooks on Caesar's Hour
00:36

Gary Burghoff

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Larry Gelbart on Gary Burghoff's role on M*A*S*H
00:34
Larry Gelbart on the acting skills of Gary Burghoff during the taping of the M*A*S*H episode "Abyssinia, Henry" in which the character "Henry Blake" is killed
02:33

Abe Burrows

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Larry Gelbart on working with writer Abe Burrows while on the Joan Davis Show and how funny he was
04:53

Red Buttons

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Larry Gelbart on the valuable lesson of writing with a beginning, middle, and end in mind for a sketch while working on the Red Buttons Show
03:15
Larry Gelbart on the comedic talents of Red Buttons, so funny he "shakes the rafters"
01:05

Sid Caesar

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Larry Gelbart on the rigorous work ethic and camraderie of the writers of Caesar's Hour
03:09
Larry Gelbart on how Sid Caesar "allowed us to be hip" when writing for Caesar's Hour
01:33
Larry Gelbart on Sid Caesar's talents; and how he wishes he could have continued to entertain generations
00:49

Art Carney

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Larry Gelbart on the many talents of actor Art Carney
01:56
Larry Gelbart on the comedic and dramatic talents of Art Carney
00:32

William Christopher

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Larry Gelbart on William Christopher's role on M*A*S*H
00:27

Bob Cooper

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Larry Gelbart on how Bob Cooper helped to bring his TV movie Weapons of Mass Distraction to HBO, and his "brave" support of the project
01:46

Jackie Cooper

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Larry Gelbart on Jackie Cooper's directing M*A*S*H
00:22

Selma Diamond

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Larry Gelbart on the talents of Selma Diamond, who he worked with  on Caesar's Hour
00:47

Nanette Fabray

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Larry Gelbart on the difference between Nanette Fabray and Janet Blair who played Sid's wife on Caesar's Hour
01:02
Larry Gelbart on the Nanette Fabray's talents as a comedienne
00:24

Jamie Farr

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Larry Gelbart on how Jamie Farr was cast as the cross-dressing "Klinger" on M*A*S*H
02:25

Mike Farrell

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Larry Gelbart on Mike Farrell's role on M*A*S*H
00:22

Everett Greenbaum

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Larry Gelbart on the writing talents of Everett Greenbaum, who worked with him on  M*A*S*H
02:05

Bob Hope

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Larry Gelbart on the process and structure of writing Bob Hope's monologues; how the jokes would literally be cut up with scissors and taped together
04:01
Larry Gelbart on Bob Hope's treatment of writers, and how he always gave them credit
00:55
Larry Gelbart on Bob Hope, "last left in a pantheon of oversize talent"
00:55

Danny Kaye

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Larry Gelbart on the rare talents of Danny Kaye
01:12

Perry Lafferty

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Larry Gelbart on working with Perry Lafferty on the Danny Kaye Show
02:41
Larry Gelbart on the multi-talented Perry Lafferty, "a born executive"
00:41

Ring Lardner, Jr.

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Larry Gelbart on how the Korean conflict was the real backdrop for the fictional M*A*S*H television series, and its impact on the writer Ring Lardner, who penned the screenplay of "M*A*S*H" the film
01:57

Larry Linville

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Larry Gelbart on Larry Linville's role on M*A*S*H
00:42

Burt Metcalfe

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Larry Gelbart on the integrity of Burt Metcalfe, who he worked with on M*A*S*H
00:31

Harry Morgan

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Larry Gelbart on Harry Morgan's role on M*A*S*H
01:44

Howard Morris

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Larry Gelbart on the talents of writer Howard Morris who he worked with on Caesar's Hou r
00:40

Edward R. Murrow

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Larry Gelbart on how Edward R. Murrow's news piece about Korea was the inspiration for the M*A*S*H episode "The Interview"
03:18

Jack Paar

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Larry Gelbart on the eccentric talents of Jack Paar, the "inventor" of the talk show and being hugely important to comedy
01:09

William S. Paley

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Larry Gelbart on the executive William S. Paley and his "great flair"
00:41

Carl Reiner

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Larry Gelbart on Carl Reiner's talents on Caesar's Hour -- how he "lives without a net"
00:51
Larry Gelbart on the talents of Neil Simon, who had Carl Reiner voice his ideas in the writer's room of Caesar's Hour
01:44

Gene Reynolds

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Larry Gelbart on first being approached by Gene Reynolds to adapt the movie M*A*S*H into a television series; on his agreement with Reynolds that it remain true to the film version
04:32
Larry Gelbart on how Gene Reynolds stayed out of his way when he wrote the pilot for M*A*S*H
01:47
Larry Gelbart on Gene Reynold's prudent producing skills which kept M*A*S*H under budget and the network at bay
03:04
Larry Gelbart on how he and Gene Reynolds worked together on M*A*S*H
03:45
Larry Gelbart on how Gene Reynolds did the lion's share of producing M*A*S*H
00:47
Larry Gelbart on the huge influence Gene Reynolds had on him in a short four years while they worked on M*A*S*H
01:45

Wayne Rogers

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Larry Gelbart on how Wayne Roger's role on was originally as Alda's co-equal, and how he was diplomatic about changes
00:57

Stanley Ralph Ross

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Larry Gelbart on an infamous script written by Stanley Ralph Ross that was the only one to get rejected by CBS in the entire run of M*A*S*H
00:44

Fred Silverman

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Larry Gelbart on working with then-NBC executive Fred Silverman, who commissioned the comedy series United States
03:03

Phil Silvers

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Larry Gelbart on Phil Silvers "a New York wiseguy"
01:12

Neil Simon

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Larry Gelbart on the talents of Neil Simon, who had Carl Reiner voice his ideas in the writer's room of Caesar's Hour
01:44

Ray Stark

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Larry Gelbart on how Ray Stark helped bring his TV movie "Barbarians at the Gate" to HBO
01:37

McLean Stevenson

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Larry Gelbart on McLean Stevenson's role on M*A*S*H
01:36
Larry Gelbart on the reaction of actor McLean Stevenson during the taping of the M*A*S*H episode "Abyssinia, Henry" in which his character, "Henry Blake" dies
02:58

David Susskind

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Larry Gelbart on how producer David Susskind brought him onto the Art Carney Special
01:56

Loretta Swit

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Larry Gelbart on Loretta Swit's role on M*A*S*H
00:59

Danny Thomas

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Larry Gelbart on getting his first break writing for Danny Thomas on the "Fanny Bryce Maxwell House Coffee Time" radio show, when his father convinced Thomas, a customer at his barbershop, that the teenager could write
02:21
Larry Gelbart on Danny Thomas, a "wonderful storyteller"
00:43

Mel Tolkin

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Larry Gelbart talks about the famous writers to come out of Caesar's Hour: and Mel Tolkin as a pioneer who brought "classicism" to the jokes
01:12

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