TV, movie and theater writer Larry Gelbart died today at age 81. The war comedy M*A*S*H was not the sum total of his career—he also wrote for Sid Caesar, wrote the movie Tootsie and the Broadway comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum—but it’s what I’ll remember him for. Because, of course, it was a landmark comedy; it showed that TV comedy could be hilarious and yet serious, that a sitcom could matter, that a work of pop culture could be very dark and very entertaining. (He wrote 97 episodes over the show’s first four seasons, probably its best.) His work challenged genres and inspired many of the best writers in the medium afterward.
All true. But honestly, I’ll especially remember watching it with my Dad.
When I was a kid, in junior high or high school, at one point the various Detroit- and Toledo-area affiliates ran M*A*S*H reruns three or four times a day. Because parents didn’t ration “screen time” (or use that term) the way parents of my generation do, I would watch most of those reruns. And usually, after my Dad would get off work, he would watch with me.
M*A*S*H was a pretty liberal comedy. (Though in Gelbart’s era it was not as preachy as it would later become.) My dad was not a pretty liberal guy. He wasn’t a conservative, exactly either—one of my earliest memories is of him griping at Richard Nixon on the TV news during Watergate, when I would have been a toddler. But he was a blue-collar guy—he drove a delivery truck—without much taste for hippie peace stuff: a little Archie Bunker, I guess, with a little Hank Hill. Which would make me Bobby Hill, and as I got older, our outlooks became more different and we’d sometimes argue about politics.
But when we watched M*A*S*H together, we’d both laugh. Because it was funny, just flat-out funny, and because whatever its attitudes were, they weren’t just about politics. M*A*S*H was deeply, committedly, anti-absurdity, anti-bureaucracy, anti-B.S. The biggest buffoons on the show were stuffed shirts like Frank Burns, or military brass devoted to pointless rules and full of their own importance.
M*A*S*H may have been antiwar, but it was the farthest thing in the world from being anti-soldier; it was, after all, about doctors fighting to keep soldiers alive (and, it repeated, about the absurdity of sending them back to get shot at), and it was nothing but sympathetic to the grunts in Korea. My Dad was a Marine, and that point-of-view must have appealed to him—though he never talked much about the war. Whatever my Dad and I thought differently about, say, the return of draft registration, we both loved seeing “Ferret Face” Burns get his.
Like a lot of great TV shows, M*A*S*H was important for what it said. But sometimes great TV is most important for what it makes us do: laugh, and connect, with people we love. Thanks for that, Larry Gelbart.