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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."

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*Hveterans 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 Gateand Weapons of Mass Distractionfor 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 Corsairswould 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.

"A very good source told me that Michael Eisner said it was just too good for his network, too smart for their audience," the writer says of his lost child. "I haven't dumbed the material down since then, and obviously his audience hasn't gotten smarter. I think the pilot was kind of a loss leader. I think it was kind of an expense of $4 million to say, 'See, we really are looking for some kind of quality programming.' And then they made their choice. Besides, it's not a pleasant thought at all, to be getting notes from..."

He pauses. "From 12-year-olds?" I offer.

"Twelve would be great," he says, coughing up what's either a laugh or a snarl. "I knew all the dangers, but I didn't say, 'But I'm safe,' because I did a half-hour pilot for ABC about two years ago, and that went down the tubes even before we shot the pilot. It's sort of like a Hollywood tour around me, you know? I come in and people are very respectful and generous with their comments about things I've done and shows they grew up with. I don't think they're thinking straight either when they say, 'Let's do a series together.' Because for whatever reasons, and it can't help but sound immodest, I think even at my advanced age--advanced for them--I'm more adventurous. I just don't have anything to lose."

But network television has everything to lose: Its audience shrinks with each new season, as those seeking quality shows are exiled to cable. It's testament to the paucity of new good shows that the old ones still sell to syndication for small fortunes--among them M*A*S*H, which only two weeks ago was picked up for syndication by the Hallmark Channel, which paid an astonishing $62.5 million to air the series on cable for several years. This, despite the fact Fox Home Video has released the first two seasons of M*A*S*Hon DVD, complete with scenes long ago trimmed to make room for extra commercials.

As it turns out, the best choices on TV most nights are shows long since vanished and banished from prime time--most of them made by writers and producers expelled along with them. The visionaries have been exiled to cable, while the shortsighted have been allowed to populate the networks with exhibitions of human cruelty and stupidity. Fear factor, it turns out, is what sets in when you turn on the TV.

"I was blessed in terms of M*A*S*H," Gelbart says. "The show was allowed to find itself on the air, and it proved to be such a success that people really kept their hands off creatively. Not that some didn't think they were experts on the show. There was a CBS executive during the second season who sat down and said, 'Let me tell you how you blew the series.' But...it's very hard to be 20 minutes ahead of your time. It's a chorus now. When executives with no experience in the creative world, or no creativity beyond their MBAs, when they become your collaborators, you can get a successful product, because you can put some very appealing players in it, you can put it in the right time and so forth. But you won't get a show that's somebody's vision."

Talk long enough with Gelbart, and it becomes clear he's now fueled as much by outrage as the desire to make you laugh; his is now a brand of comedy tempered by indignation. Maybe it always was: Before M*A*S*Hgrew soft during its final seasons, before Alan Alda wrapped it in gauzy sentiment, the show was far more scabrous than even the novel or film that spawned it. Gelbart fought against the use of the laugh track (the DVDs eliminate it); his work on the show (he lasted the first four seasons) was as much about the pain as the punch line.

But he no longer has the release valve, the venue through which he can blow off steam. So it gathers inside him, waiting for the right moment, the right target, the right opportunity. He says he doesn't want to work in TV ever again--"I cannot imagine under what circumstances, conditions or promises or hopes I would do anything for network television"--but if some exec were to give him total freedom, he'd likely play ball, or at least tell another pitcher where to throw it. TV was always a better place when Gelbart was around; ask Sid Caesar, ask Alan Alda. Ask your parents.

"There are more things to be angry about and fewer places to be angry in," he says. "There's no place to do any of that on the network or cable, either. Cable takes a long time, too. When you're younger, a year here and there is loose change. But it's too long a time now to wait, so I'm sort of stuck with the anger."

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