After M*A*S*H

Larry Gelbart is one of TV's last great writers. So why can't he stay tuned?

At this very moment, members of the Television Critics Association are gathered at the Ritz-Carlton in Pasadena, California, to preview this fall's new series, interview those responsible for them and, finally, gorge themselves silly and drink themselves stupid on the networks' dwindling dime. This event, the so-called "press tour," takes place twice a year: once, when the broadcast and cable networks debut their fall lineups, promising each new show as this year's breakthrough hit; again, when they roll out the shows that will replace the ones they heralded a few months earlier. In other words: If you hate what we're offering you this go-round, just wait six months. We'll give you shows that are even worse.

As late as April, Larry Gelbart expected to be part of this dispiriting gang-bang. The man who'd been in television since it was called radio wasn't looking forward to it, not really. He'd already been to the top of the mountain with a show he developed 30 years earlier: a tiny immortal called M*A*S*H. He had no desire to skin his knees in the valley, not at 74 years old. Besides, how the hell was Gelbart going to compete in the era of Baby Bob and the stinking pile Fox is offering up this fall (most of its pilots resemble parodies of real TV shows)? He'd written for Bob Hope, Danny Thomas, Sid Caesar (he, like Neil Simon and Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, was a writer on Caesar's Hour in the 1950s)--pioneers remembered by those whose Alzheimer's has yet to kick in. What the hell Larry Gelbart was doing in the TV business in 2002 was anyone's guess. Especially his.

"It has a proven record of humbling even the most successful people," Gelbart says. "People forget that, you know, Lucille Ball was dropped the last time around, and if you can do that, that's really storming the palace."

Like a Hawkeye: Larry Gelbart didn't create M*A*S*H, but he shaped it in his own brilliant, indignant image.
Like a Hawkeye: Larry Gelbart didn't create M*A*S*H, but he shaped it in his own brilliant, indignant image.

Besides, he'd been out of the TV series biz for a long time--since 1983, when Gelbart and a handful of M*A*S*H veterans tried to keep the remnants of the 4077 on life support. Gelbart had moved beyond the box, for the most part. He wrote movies: Tootsie for the big screen, Barbarians at the Gate and Weapons of Mass Distraction for HBO. He wrote plays, as he'd done since the 1960s. He penned his memoirs (1998's Laughing Matters, as hysterical as it is livid), played with his grandchildren and picked carefully. Gelbart knew that at his age, he'd be welcomed back to television with folded arms; the kids running the networks might know the name, they just don't like the wrinkled face (wrong demographic, dude).

But Gelbart was convinced that, just maybe, it was time to get back in the game--less as player than manager, which is what he would have been had his latest series, for ABC, been picked up. Instead, it was dropped right into the abyss. Gelbart doesn't even have a copy of the pilot he filmed for the Walt Disney-owned network. TV--it's a wonderful business, so respectful of its elders, so worshipful of its visionaries. Pontius Pilate would have made a great network boss.

The series, not so incidentally, was called The Corsairs, and it promised to be everything much of television is not: intelligent, irascible, insightful and other words beginning with "i" (except "idiotic," of which TV has plenty, thanks). It was, for lack of a better explanation, an hour-long anti-corporation diatribe masquerading as a soap opera; Gelbart actually likes to think of it as "soap-box opera."

It was to be about a family of media moguls, the patriarch of which was John Laroquette (as Brandon Corsair). The series would have starred Patrick Dempsey, Balthazar Getty, Robert Sean Leonard, Philip Baker Hall and Martin Landau--in other words, a damned fine indie-film cast, and TV will have none of that. Nor will it allow a series about media monsters who manipulate, scheme and betray not only each other, but the people they're meant to serve--the viewers, that is. The Corsairs would have allowed Gelbart the opportunity to comment on the consolidation of power in the media, the megamergers that have reduced myriad voices to a single dull, dim echo.

"It was a look at the all-too-familiar icons of today: the Fox News Corporation and the Disney Company and AOL Time Warner," Gelbart says. "I was trying to show what kind of shows get on--and why they get on--rather than satirize the content of those shows or the style of those shows. It was a look behind the scenes, really. And everyone did say, 'You're kidding. They're not going to put this on.' And sure enough, everybody was right. They weren't kidding. But those companies are so..." He pauses. "I'm searching for a better word than 'powerful,' a more powerful word. They can afford to talk about themselves in this tiny kind of way. It's really more the case of a mosquito biting an elephant's ear. It's nothing to them."

Gelbart was not surprised the show wasn't picked up in May, though he will allow that he's disappointed. Ironically, the series wasn't even his idea: Two years ago, Touchstone Television, which is owned by Disney, wanted to turn Gelbart's 1997 Weapons of Mass Distraction, in which two media moguls bite each other's backs down to the spine, into a series. Gelbart was not looking to get back into TV, but, he says, "the dreamer is awakened" when such possibilities are laid on the table. For a moment, he put aside his fears--getting notes from executives who are only creative at bookkeeping, say, or winding up with creativity by committee, an oxymoron at best--and got to work. When Disney boss Michael Eisner passed, the pragmatist and pessimist was awakened.

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