Larry Gelbart became a legend by finding comedic fodder in subjects most people would not consider inherently funny: war, religion, Dustin Hoffman in mascara. Throughout a career that’s lasted fifty years—an anniversary that eludes many of even the best of marriages—Gelbart has proven to be one of comedy’s rare Renaissance men, responsible for groundbreaking work in every conceivable genre, from TV and radio to Broadway and cinema.
While a teenager in the late 1940s, Gelbart was already writing gags for the likes of such major talents as Bob Hope, Jack Paar, and Danny Thomas. Less than ten years later, Gelbart joined the now mythical writing staff of Caesar’s Hour. Along with Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Neil (and Danny) Simon, Gelbart was part of a team that many consider to be the finest in the history of television.
The comedy scene soon turned sour for Gelbart, however. In the late-fifties he quit Hollywood and moved to England, frustrated over Communist blacklisting. But he returned in the sixties to write a successful Broadway play, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and to revolutionize television yet again.
When CBS hired Gelbart in 1972 to create the pilot for a TV adaptation of Robert Altman’s 1970 comedy M*A*S*H, he could have easily gotten away with a few warmed-over jokes about the Korean War. Instead, he turned the series into a comedic commentary on the horrors of combat—portraying death, surgery, and madness in ways that had mostly been ignored or glossed over by network television.
Gelbart continued his creative winning streak into the next decade, writing scripts for “Oh, God!” (1977) and Tootsie (1982), and, in the process, was nominated for two Academy Awards for best writing. A half-century into a career that would impress anyone—in or outside the industry—Gelbart continues to write every day, working toward perfecting a skill that many would think he had perfected long ago.
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SACKS: You once said that, as a writer, one’s style is formed by what one can’t do. Now, how did you come to this conclusion? Were there different styles of comedy that you dealt with that were more difficult than others?
GELBART: I should have said “subject” instead of “style.” This would be the subject matter, rather than the style, of a comedy piece. Experience has taught me that what seems like a slam dunk rarely makes the most successful finished product. While confidence is always a comfort, risk provides a good deal more adrenaline. The project that requires me to learn about characters I’ve never met is the kind I enjoy the most. I’m always drawn to those subjects least likely associated with comedy, such as war, or God, or finance—in other words, subjects that I’ll have to wrestle with. I want to go to places I’ve never been before, in a sense. If my interest is piqued, perhaps audiences’ will be, too.
Are there any specific examples in which this happened? Where you took on a difficult subject, for the challenge?
I was referring to M*A*S*H and “Oh, God!” And even A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which was timeless in its depiction of human frailties but required massive research on ancient Rome—years before HBO discovered it.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is such an intricate work. How do you visualize a project like that? The summary of the play, alone, can run more than a full page.
At the risk of making it all seem somewhat metaphysical, you usually see things in your head, even before you’re able to capture it in writing—whether it’s a movie or a television show or, in this case, a stage show. You are watching it before anybody else does. You can visualize it. You see the characters; you see the situations; you get it. In my case, I saw it day and night for about five years. The problem, of course, is how to get what you see in your head onto the screen or stage.
Has this become any easier for you throughout the years?
I think so. I mean, after a while it’s not so much a question of, “Can I do this?” It becomes more a case of, “When I do this.” You get better at the craft. Your talent for writing may not be sharpened, or your originality. None of that has anything to do with craft.
If practice doesn’t make perfect, then it certainly can hone your ability to do the things you want to do. For instance, needing to get the feel of a scene. How do you know when a particular one is finished? You may not need three pages to get across what you need to get across. Half a page will do the same thing. Or even just a single sentence. Or even one word—if it’s just juste enough.
I keep thinking of what Miles Davis said about his style of jazz. He said, “It’s what you don’t play, you know.” However pretentious it might sound, I think of writing as a kind of music. A writer, like a musician, can hit the melody—and at just the right tempo—with precisely the right amount of whatever sense or nonsense is needed.
With comedy, would the jokes be the equivalent of the melody?
The plot is the melody and the jokes are the grace notes. I tend to think in those terms a lot. I think about how much less equipment a writer of dialogue has, as compared to what’s in a music composer’s toolbox. Writers are, by comparison, impoverished. We have to work with what we have.
How old were you when you first started writing professionally?
That’s a very young age to earn a living as a humor writer.
It helped that I was the product of two shtetls. I learned jokes from my father, but I learned humor through my mother.
My father was a barber in Chicago for years and years before the family moved to California in the early 1940s. He quickly built up a huge clientele of famous people—and a number of infamous ones as well. Even before we moved out West, he had shampooed and pampered the heads of a good many notable people. The list is extraordinary. Not only was he cutting the hair of people like John F. Kennedy, but he had also, strangely enough, been Jack Ruby’s barber back in Chicago in the forties. At that time, Ruby was known as “Sparky Rubenstein,” his nickname serving as an acknowledgment of his quick temper.
Did the Warren Commission know about all this?
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.
My father knew every joke anybody ever told. That was his currency as a barber—jokes. It was very hard to tell my father a funny story that he didn’t already know. And he was great at telling them. He was wonderful at it.
On the other hand, my mother had a really ironic, and sometimes needling, wit. It was from her, I believe, that I inherited whatever talent I may have for deflating a painful situation by turning something inside out; by making comedy a kind of victory. Where you have, maybe, not the last laugh but the only laugh about something. That I got from her.
The first thing my mother did when she arrived in America, from Poland, at the age of fifteen, was to take a job behind a sewing machine in some Chicago sweatshop. I don’t think she ever realized her full potential. She was stuck. Her wit was akin to prison or gallows humor; it was always slightly dipped in acid. I just hope she knew what a good audience she had in me.
Can you give me an example of a joke your father would tell versus a joke your mother would tell?
My father would have told a joke like, “A bum came up to me and asked for a bite, so I bit him.” My mother would probably have just made some smart-ass comment like, “Anybody can be a bum today.”
Wasn’t it your father who helped you get your first job?
He did, yes. One of his Hollywood clients was Danny Thomas, who, in the early forties, was appearing on the Maxwell House Coffee Time radio show. Danny had about a seven-or-eight-minute section on each program in which he played the role of Jerry Dingle, the Mailman. The character was a Walter Mitty type.
My father would shave Thomas every Sunday afternoon before the program, at the CBS studios. I had written some material in high school: talent shows, sketches, that sort of thing. My father took it upon himself to tell Thomas that he thought his son could be a comedy writer—without ever bothering to tell his son what the hell he was up to. Thomas, being a nice guy, told my father to have me write something so that he might judge for himself. Thomas liked what I came up with and gave it to the show’s head writer, Mac Benoff. Mac thought enough about what I wrote to ask, “Why don’t you stop by my house after school and work with me?” So, for the next couple of months, I would finish my last class and, still in my R.O.T.C. uniform, stop by to see Mac and learn how to put a radio show together.
What was that first script you showed to Danny Thomas?
Each week, Thomas’s character would deliver a package to a dentist, or he would deliver a letter to an architect, and he would invariably be insulted by that person. Very paranoid, Thomas’s character would then mutter to himself something like, “Architect, big deal! I could’ve been an architect!” Harp music would break in and Thomas would become “Jerry Dingle, world-famous architect.”
So I wrote a sketch, not too cleverly, but certainly understandably, about Thomas being insulted by a barber. He then dreamt out loud about how he could become “Jerry Dingle, world-famous barber.” It was good enough, I guess.
I worked with Mac for two months or so, until an agent from the William Morris Agency, a wonderful man named George Gruskin asked me, “Would you like to do more of this?” Naturally I said yes. George got me onto a radio show called Duffy’s Tavern, that took place in a bar. I stayed on that show for two years, at a salary of fifty dollars a week.
I’m not familiar with Duffy’s Tavern.
The show had no running jokes; no relationship jokes. It was very light on story. Really, it was just words, words, words. Duffy’s relied on a lot of writer tricks: malapropisms and spoonerisms and a few other –isms. Jokes like “This is just a mucus of an idea,” or “Let’s not jump to seclusion.” We’d also write a type of a joke that we’d call a “bull,” which would be something like: “I don’t need any help being stupid.” In other words, the character would think he was making a point, but he was really denigrating himself.
I soon got to see what was possible to do with words—how you could bend them, twist them, augment them, play with them endlessly. Using words as though each one were a trampoline. I learned that each could be the basis for a wider expression beyond the word’s definition.
It was a lesson that was to last a lifetime. If you just listen to an episode of M*A*S*H—not watch it, just listen—it’s not a bad radio show at all.
How much material would you and the other writers have to produce for these radio shows over the course of a season?
We had to write a tremendous amount of material. In those days, a radio season was thirty-nine programs a year.
Was this good training for you later in your career? Your having to produce a lot of material so quickly?
Invaluable. I notice with some television shows these days that writers do not have to, or are unable to, create a new episode every week. There’ll be a repeat, or some other show will be broadcast in its place. Well, nobody ever stood in front of a microphone in the early days of radio and said, “I’m sorry, but we don’t have a show this week. So why don’t you just listen to this instead?”
But what a great experience! It all seemed so normal then. Now, when I see a sixteen- or a seventeen-year-old kid, I think, My God! At that point in my own life, I was sitting down with grown-ups and writing grown-up material.
I wasn’t just some kind of mascot. I was a contributing member of the staff. It must have been a kick for them. It was certainly much more fun for them to have me around than someone they perceived to be a real threat.
How did you start writing for Bob Hope?
I was drafted at eighteen, and when I got out of the Army, I teamed up with a writer named Larry Marks, and we went to work for Jack Paar—then starring in his first radio show—and then eventually for Bob Hope. Hope wanted to give us $1,250 each.
So this was $1,250 a year?
No, a week.
A week? What year was this?
This was in 1946. Eighteen and single. Just thinking about it now makes my mouth water. I worked for Hope for four years at that salary, and I never took that job for granted—believe me.
What was it like to write jokes for Bob Hope? He’s such a pure joke comedian. You must have been required to come up with thousands upon thousands of jokes.
The most important thing for Hope, always, always, always, was the monologue. Whatever else he achieved in his career, he always considered himself primarily a monologist. The writers would look at what was going on in the world—current events, such as Bing Crosby having another son, or maybe it was the World Series, or maybe it was Oscar time. There were also political jokes, but they weren’t very barbed. Hope never had any interest in drawing blood. He was very scrupulous at that point in his life about not siding with one political party or the other.
A few teams of writers made up the staff. Each team would write twenty jokes or so on each monologue topic. At a staff meeting, Hope would then read everyone’s jokes aloud; hundreds of them. He’d put a check mark next to any joke that he liked. He’d then read them all over again. If he still liked a previously checked-off joke, he’d make a slanting strike through the check mark so that it looked like an “X” with a hook on the left. If he didn’t like the joke the second time through, he just drew a line through it, and the joke hit the wastebasket.
Then he would read all the material a third time, and if he still liked a joke, he would put a circle around it. Those jokes that survived all three readings were then separated and stapled together and put into some kind of a sequence that would form that week’s monologue—which is not to say that he would remain completely satisfied. He might call a writer anytime during the week and say, “Look, I don’t like that one joke. Can we get a bigger kid”—he would call his jokes “kids”—“can we get a bigger kid for that spot?”
Almost as if he thought of them as his own children.
What do you mean, “almost”? He saw these kids far more often than he saw his own.
Hope’s delivery was so strong. Even if he delivered an unfunny joke, it would become funny just through the sheer force of his personality.
I remember, in the late forties, being backstage at a theater in Blackpool, England. I was with a date, and Bob told a joke with the word “motel” in the punch line. The audience roared, and so did my British date. “Do you even know what a motel is?,” I asked her. When she said she didn’t, I asked her why she was laughing. Her answer was, “I don’t know! He’s just funny!”
Very often Hope’s writers would find ourselves in these remote places—in Alaska or in Okinawa—just weird places. We couldn’t travel with a lot of actors on those tours. So, occasionally the writers would be called upon to play characters onstage with Hope. These were roles that would have been assigned to professional actors had we been back in Hollywood. I remember the first time I performed with Hope, each of us standing behind his own live microphone. I delivered my line, and Hope came back with his line, and I felt as though I had been knocked back physically. The power of his delivery was amazing. If Jack Benny was the Fred Astaire of comedy, then Bob Hope was its Jimmy Cagney.
Were you always on call with him?
At any time of the day or night. He’d call you up and casually ask if you had a valid passport ready, because you’d be going to London with him in a day or two—or Alaska or Berlin or Texas. I wrote jokes everywhere, all over the world. I wrote jokes in jeeps, huts, airplanes. It was fantastic training. Just the fact that I had gone to Korea with him during the police action was enormously helpful years later, when I got to do M*A*S*H.
Were you with Hope when he made the transition from radio to television?
How did that go?
Terribly. It was a very rough transition. The writers all thought that television was radio with funny hats. We’d send Bob out in front of the cameras with a funny fifty-gallon cowboy hat and a dozen six-shooters hanging from his belt. We weren’t taking advantage of the things we could do for that medium. We’d end the sketches like we would for radio. Just some gunshots or another loud noise and then a fade-out to a commercial.
Not long after that, I got a call asking if I’d like to work for Sid Caesar. It was like, “Would you like to come and pitch for the New York Yankees?”
A lot of people might think that you wrote for Your Show of Shows, but you actually wrote for Caesar’s Hour, which was a continuation of that show.
It was the show after Your Show of Shows, which had previously been split into three different entities. NBC had said, Wait a minute. We have three very valuable assets here. We have Max Liebman, who was the producer. We’ve got Imogene Coca. And we’ve got Sid Caesar. They’re all doing the same show. Why doesn’t the network get three shows out of them? They gave Max his own chunk of prime time, Imogene a sitcom The Imogene Coca Show, and Sid got Caesar’s Hour.
I spent two years at Caesar’s Hour with Mel Brooks, Mel Tolkin, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, and Howard Morris.
The writing on Your Show of Shows and on Caesar’s Hour was renowned. Was there a sense at the time that what you were experiencing was special?
We didn’t tell ourselves, “Let’s be a comedy classic.” We just thought, Let’s write for ourselves. I didn’t hear the word “demographic” until I was fifty. We were the decision-makers. Our sponsors didn’t interfere. Affiliates didn’t interfere. The network might have interfered, but on a level that we were not conscious of, because Sid was the show’s owner/producer. Sid handled all of those affairs at that level. We just had fun. The writers didn’t have to worry about anything except doing the best that we could do.
We knew it was special, and we knew it with the kind of brashness that New York inspires and encourages. We knew we were different from anything else on television at that time. We had this powerhouse writing lineup. All kinds of strengths. You put half a dozen funny people in a room, and it’s amazing what they’ll come up with. We did the show on a Saturday, and we took Sunday off. Monday morning we said, “Okay, what do we do this week?” We had to have it finished Wednesday because the actors started putting the show on its feet, and sets had to be built. Costumes had to be sewn. Orchestrations had to be orchestrated. I am older now than the combined experience that was in that room. We were all so young, eager, and fresh. But we pulled it off, week after week after week, for three years.
You’ve talked in the past about the frustration and the joys involved with the collaborative process, both for television and, later, for the movies. But I assume this show must have been a joy for you?
A joy and a half. Each show seemed like an event. We had this guy to write for, Sid Caesar, who could do anything. I mean, Sid would do these parodies of Japanese movies that he had never even seen. We just wrote it, and he performed it. He was a wonder.
There’s a famous story of Sid punching a horse in the 1950s. Did that really happen?
In the nose. Decked him. It happened in Central Park. It was a rented horse.
Why would he do that?
Because the animal had the temerity to throw Sid’s wife, Florence, to the ground, and Sid was not about to take any shit from a horse. His massive strength was legendary—and very real. And he had a temper to match. He once threatened to pull a taxi driver through the cab’s window. Sid asked him, “Remember how it felt when you were born?”
How was Sid as a boss?
He was very good. He sat in the writers’ room with us every second that we worked. How we actually got the script on paper will always be a mystery to me, because there was all this planned anarchy going on. Mike Stewart, who later went on to write the books for Hello, Dolly! and Bye Bye Birdie and a great many other Broadway hits, sat at the typewriter as the other writers pitched jokes. Mike would look at Sid, and Sid would nod, and Mike would type. If a writer said something really terrible, Sid would suddenly look like a gunner on an aircraft carrier, and he would mime shooting down the joke. So Mike knew not to type that. But as a boss, he was good. I mean, he would have liked to have kept us there every night until midnight, but we were very strict about going home at 6 p.m. Unless it was a real, real emergency.
Sid was a workaholic?
He didn’t want to go home.
Even to his wife? The one he so valiantly defended by punching a horse?
A horse is one thing. Marriage is another.
It’s strange watching the DVDs of these shows. Sid looks much older than someone who was in his late twenties, early thirties.
That’s true. And he peaked so young. He had an unhappy career in a way. It was much too front-loaded.
Why was it front-loaded?
Do you know the competition that finally knocked Sid off the air? The Lawrence Welk Show. Sid got into television on the ground floor, when television was new. In the early years, most of the TV sets were owned by affluent people, and affluent people tend to be the most educated people. By the time Lawrence Welk came around, a lot of less affluent and far less-educated people owned sets. And these people would have much rather seen bubbles coming out of Lawrence Welk’s ass than Sid Caesar doing a takeoff on Rashômon.
The problem with Sid was that he was at the mercy of the decision-makers, the network people, who—yes, they respect talent, but they respect numbers a good deal more. If you don’t cut it—if your time slot’s not paying the rent—it doesn’t matter how gifted you are. They would have canceled Michelangelo if no one came to the Sistine Chapel.
Let’s switch gears and talk about _MA*S*H_ You said that you considered the show your favorite piece of work. Is that true?
No, it’s not. I don’t know. I must have felt that way when I said it, perhaps because that show just keeps reverberating. M*A*S*H just hangs on and on. It just won’t lie down.
You know what’s so interesting about M*A*S*H When Twentieth Century Fox decided to issue it on DVD, they included the option of watching it without the laugh track. If you’ve ever watched it without a laugh track, well, that’s the show as we intended it to be watched. We did not mean for people to be cackling throughout the show; it becomes so much more cynical and heartbreaking without all that cheap, mechanical laughter.
Why did CBS insist on a laugh track?
Because television executives at that time were largely people who had gotten their early training in radio. They were conditioned by that medium, in which there were always three- or four-hundred people sitting in a studio, who actually did laugh as they watched performers doing a live broadcast. These executives, conditioned to believe that was what the American public expected, continued to fulfill that expectation with their television programming.
What was your feeling when CBS demanded it?
Outrage. Anger. On a good day, mere frustration. It was a four-year battle that I lost over and over again. The one concession from the network was to permit us to never have the laugh track in any operating room scenes.
The canned laughter on _MA*S*H_ seems to arrive almost willy-nilly, appearing at inappropriate times.*
There was no appropriate time. It was always wrong. We didn’t write toward having those laughs in there. We didn’t even consider those laughs until we were at the part of the post-production when we had to insert them. And it was painful, and it was wrong every single time we were forced to include it.
When you take the laugh track out of the show, the characters seem different. The doctors don’t sound like a bunch of stand-up comics. They don’t sound like they’re trying to knock each other out with every line; although I must admit that there was still a tendency for the writing to appear that way. It is a little overwritten, which I regret. But I always gave myself the license to write some of those lines; the excuse was that these were educated people. Except for Radar [Gary Burghoff]. And, later, Klinger [Jamie Farr]. But pretty much everyone else in that show was a college graduate and had had medical training, which made their sophisticated comments plausible.
When do you think _MA*S*H_ really hit its stride? At what episode?*
Episode number seventeen. It’s called “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet,” and it’s about a friend of Hawkeye’s who dies on Hawkeye’s table as Hawkeye is trying to save his life. There’s a subplot about a young Marine, played by Ronnie Howard, who lies about his age to get into the service to impress a girl. Much to the kid’s outrage, after Hawkeye’s friend dies of his battle wound, Hawkeye reports that the young Marine is under age and should be discharged. We wanted something a little more hopeful, so we had one death possibly saving another life.
Hawkeye cries at the funeral.
Not at the funeral. He cries in post-op. We had our moments of seriousness up to that point in the first season, but I think that one really opened the door for us. We saw that we could be a bit more dramatic than we had been. We also took pains to let the audience get to know the guy who was to die in combat, rather than just have some extra wheeled out of the operating room with a sheet over his face. This was the same type of attitude we applied, years later, when we had Colonel Blake die [Season 3, March 1975].
Tell me about that episode, “Abyssinia, Henry” [pronounced “Ah’ll be seein’ you, Henry”]. No one knew that the character of Colonel Henry Blake was going to die?
Only Alan Alda was told. The rest of the cast was shocked. We shot that famous scene in the operating room, when Radar announces Blake’s death. Gary Burghoff was brilliant. I was directing that particular episode, and after the scene was done, I turned to our cinematographer and asked him if everything was okay technically. His response was negative. He thought we picked up a shadow that we shouldn’t have. Gary then had to enact the scene all over again, and he did it brilliantly. We got it in two takes.
There was another accident with the second take. It was an offstage noise—a medical instrument dropping to the floor. But I loved it, because it was real and it was natural and it broke the silence. So it stayed. It reminded us that we were in an operating room. We panned over to Hawkeye and Trapper, and they’re still working on another casualty. They can’t stop just because Henry was killed. Life goes on. And so, indeed, does death.
What were viewer reactions like?
Betrayal. Comments like, “You sucked us in. You made us think you were funny, and then you broke our hearts.” Since people took the time to register their reactions, I hand-wrote a reply to each of them.
The same week the “Abyssinia, Henry” episode aired, a planeload of children taking off from Saigon crashed on a runway, and every one of the Vietnamese youngsters was killed. I responded to some of the letter writers with, “I can only hope that you are as upset by what happened in Saigon to a group of real children as you are by the fictional Henry Blake’s passing.”
Why did you decide to leave the show?
After four years I felt that I had done my best, I had done my worst, and I had done everything in between. I just wanted to tackle something I knew absolutely nothing about—with subjects and characters I didn’t know like the back of my hand. You start out vowing that you’re not going to be clichéd, and then you find out that you’ve invented a few clichés of your own.
The pressure to produce that show was tremendous, almost killing at times. It was time to go. Before I did.
Let’s talk about Hollywood. It seems that your experience with film has been—
—spotted. Frustrating. When it comes to movies, in the beginning there was the face. It’s not the word. In Hollywood, they hire writers by the six-pack. If you’re not willing to do what the executive wants, then another writer can always be paid to be willing.
It was very difficult for me with movies. In films, I wasn’t a producer, I wasn’t a star, and I wasn’t the director. I was a writer. But it’s not all bad. You meet a nice class of snail at the bottom of the totem pole.
Was Tootsie a happy experience for you? Did your vision end up on the screen?
Tootsie is my vision, despite Dustin Hoffman’s lifelong mission to deprive anybody of any credit connected with that movie, except for his close friend, the writer and producer Murray Schisgal. I say that because Dustin appeared with James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio in 2006 and declared that the Tootsie idea sprang from Schisgal’s intestines. I don’t know much about gastroenterology, but I do know that the central theme for Tootsie came from me. And the central theme was that Dustin’s character, Michael Dorsey, would become a better man for having been a woman.*That was the cornerstone of the film. All of the other details are just floating around that idea.
*Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman): “I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man.”
Without that central theme, Tootsie would have just been a movie about cross-dressing. It had to have some deeper meaning to it.
When I was asked to work on this picture, I thought, Have I really got the chutzpa to try doing a better drag comedy than the classic Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond did? The answer came back, You may have the chutzpa, but you don’t have the balls to do another version of Some Like It Hot. So I thought about what this picture had to reflect upon, other than the clumsiness of men in high heels, and that was the contemporary consciousness of gender and the roles each one plays. And Tootsie was my take on that.
Are you frustrated with the finished product? Is it painful for you to watch?
Because of your experience? The script is famous for having gone through many rewrites with different writers, including an uncredited Elaine May and Barry Levinson. Or is it because of how the movie turned out?
There is one sequence that was meant to take place over a one-day period, which, if my clock is right, is around ninety-seven hours long. It just goes on and on and on. Dustin Hoffman’s character runs around the city, and then ends up back in his apartment, and then runs around the city again, experiencing scene after scene with character after character. That insane sequence—continuity-wise—just bothers the hell out of me.
There were so many screenwriters and other people involved with that movie that it was almost like a lifeguard giving you artificial respiration in the parking lot. You haven’t even put your swimsuit on and you’re already being given CPR. It was just way more help than I ever needed, and certainly more than I asked for.
So you feel the movie is stitched together? That it’s not as smooth as it could have been?
It is stitched together, yes. And yet it works for the audience, because Dustin is such a brilliant actor—far more brilliant as an actor than he is as a collaborator. I do think he should have won the Academy Award that Ben Kingsley ended up winning in 1983 for Gandhi.
Dustin in a dress is just irresistible, and the audience is certainly not sitting there saying to themselves, This couldn’t have happened all in one day. The audience did like the movie, but there are things I’m still bothered by. Tootsie had what Hitchcock called “refrigerator moments.” Have you heard this expression?
No. What does it mean?
It means that you see a movie, and everything makes sense, but then, later that night, when you’re home and you’re hungry and you go to the fridge, you think, Wait a minute … that one scene? The one that took place in the course of a day? The scene that was ninety-seven hours long? It makes no sense!
Has the Hollywood experience gotten any easier for you over the years?
Not really. I recently had the same type of experience with Robert Redford on what was meant to be a sequel to The Candidate. He wasted two years of my life trying to scratch an itch he couldn’t quite explain. Two years! And it was at a point in my life when that kind of time is no longer petty cash. It was very frustrating. But everybody goes through what I call “star dreck.” Paddy Chayefsky’s last credit was for Altered States, remember? And he refused the credit. If the man who wrote Network had to go through the madness of the studio favoring the director’s vision of a screenplay over the writer’s, what more is there to say?
You know, some people in Hollywood treat me like I’m a monument. They just want to drive around me and take a closer look—maybe even have our picture taken together. But I’d much rather have less of that type of respect and more of the other kind: the kind where they leave your work alone.
Not that I haven’t as well, but the business has gotten old. It’s also become something I would have to study very hard to be—it’s gotten mean. And it’s not just movies. Most TV series are now owned by networks. How funny are corporate people? Organization, which is famously known as the death of fun, is now, illogically enough, churning out sitcoms.
I guess the only real original comedy happens in clubs, where you have people of every stripe saying whatever they want to say about anything they choose; people who have yet to get a single note from an executive.
You want to know what I think is missing from comedy today?
[Long pause] Are you kidding?
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, more smart-ass.
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.
Are you saying that it’s no longer an industry where a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old kid would be invited in and then tutored in the ways of comedy?
I don’t think so. Then again, maybe it wasn’t the norm then either.
The love of the writing, is that still something that you have?
More than ever. I now think of writing as a privilege—as a gift that’s been given to me. Any day that I don’t get to write something—anything—is a day I have to spend being someone other than who I am.
Any advice you’d care to give to those writers out there just beginning their careers?
When you’re writing and come to a rough spot and the ideas just aren’t flowing, put down dummy text and keep on moving—especially if it’s at the end of the day and you’re going to stop. Your brain will never stop for the day, even if you have stopped working, and there’s a very good chance you’ll come up with something better. Also, at the very least, you’ll have something to come back to the next day, instead of a blank page. That’s important.
But in general terms, just sit your ass down in a chair and hope your head gets the message. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s advice for the struggling young writer was to stop struggling and write. As for me, I don’t have any other advice. If I did, I would have had a far more trouble-free life and a much, much better career.