NY Times

(Originally published September 14 2009)

COMEDY TODAY, by David Kelly

Larry Gelbart, who died on Friday, was a driving force behind the TV show M*A*S*H and the movie Tootsie, as well as a great Broadway musical (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) and a very good one (City of Angels). He wrote for Sid Caesar in the ’50s, and he even wrote several pieces for the Book Review in the ’90s, including a review of Christopher Buckley’s novel Thank You for Smoking (which he found “hilarious”).

In an entertaining and informative new book, And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations With 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft, by Mike Sacks, we learn that Gelbart’s father, a barber, cut the hair of both John F. Kennedy and Jack Ruby (“If my father had been working in Texas, I’m sure he would have also been Lee Harvey Oswald’s barber. Judging by his photos, Oswald could have used a far better one”).

Here’s one exchange between Gelbart and Sacks:

GELBART. You want to know what I think is missing from comedy today?

SACKS. What?


SACKS. [Long pause] Are you kidding?

GELBART. It’s too goyish, it’s too scholarly, it’s too … when we talk about Caesar’s Hour, when one thinks of that time, all of the material was basically written by first-generation people. They were not that far from Europe. They were children of immigrants, and largely uneducated. There is something else that has crept in now, and it’s taken over. More corporate. …

I just think it helps to be hungry. And you don’t have to be Jewish to be that. I mean … I don’t think anybody has ever been funnier than Richard Pryor in his early years. You could feel the hunger. There’s a smart-alecky aspect to comedy now. I’m not saying you have to be born in a whorehouse or that you have to be born in Poland, but I think there’s a disconnect. The money is so huge, all of the hunger seems to come from the corporate side – the hunger to have a huge, revenue-spinning hit.