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The classic series “M*A*S*H,” the hit movie comedy “Tootsie” and the Tony-winning play “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” are part of the enduring legacy that writer Larry Gelbart left behind when he died Sept. 11 at age 81. But there also are the memories of those he inspired and made laugh.
“He was the single funniest human being I’ve ever known as far as being able to make a quip, a repost and make you laugh without using a straight line,” said Carl Reiner, the writer, producer, director and humorist who worked with Gelbart dating back to “Your Show of Shows” in the 1950s. “One word would be all he needed to take off on to give you a laugh.”
Reiner said Gelbart rivaled Jonathan Swift, the 18th century author of “Gulliver’s Travels,” as a satirist. He called many of his works, including the 1992 TV movie “Mastergate,” “extraordinary pieces of social document.
“This from a guy who used to do one-liners. I used to call him the ‘popcorn-er.’ Jokes popped out of him like popcorn, but all of a sudden he’s writing these long treatises. The volume of stuff he turned out, and the quality, was immense.”
Reiner collaborator Mel Brooks said Gelbart “had class, he had wit, he had style and grace. He was a marvelous writer who could do more with words than anybody I ever met.”
Alan Alda, who starred in “M*A*S*H,” said: “Larry’s genius for writing changed my life because I got to speak his lines — lines that were so good they’ll be with us for a long, long time. But his other genius — his immense talent for being good company — is a light that’s gone out and we’re all sitting here in the dark.”
“M*A*S*H” co-star Wayne Rogers said three things made Gelbart unique: “First, his gift for the language itself. Number two, his speed with which he was able to do it. And number three, the way he could cut against something and yet have the reality of it show through.”
Reiner recalled that Gelbart, born in Chicago, had moved with his family to Los Angeles and got his start while still in high school. “His father was a barber who had a lot of clients in the business; he used to give the jokes to them,” Reiner said. “The first set of jokes he gave to Danny Thomas, who bought jokes from this teenager. He was a staff member of a radio show while he was still in high school.”
TV producer Norman Lear also recalled the impact Gelbart made on him and so many future comedy writers.
“He was the wittiest man I ever knew,” he said. To spend an hour with him, Lear added, was to hear “thirty quips: He was the fastest man on a sentence. He was, in fact, the master of masters.”
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