Larry Gelbart’s back

Apr 29, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Rosebud, my ass.
That’s the name of Gelbart’s new drama pilot for Touchstone Television and ABC.
“They won’t let me use the `my ass’ part,” Mr. Gelbart says mischievously, his eyes twinkling. “Not good for the image, you know.”
“Rosebud, my ass” is, nevertheless, a wonderful title to describe the multiple Emmy and Tony award winner’s latest work. The show is, in the simplest description, a prime-time soap about the shenanigans–professional and extracurricular–of a media baron, his family and his empire.
For the sly Mr. Gelbart, who has a Ph.D. in wordplay, the title is a masterstroke. Yes, “Rosebud” is, as Mr. Gelbart wrote in his 1998 autobiography, “the one word in film vocabulary synonymous with innovation and experimentation.” But surely Mr. Gelbart is well aware that Orson Welles used the word in his most famous of media stories because Welles had learned that “Rosebud” was said to be the name William Randolph Hearst used to describe his mistress’s most delicate of private parts.
Later, an ABC executive explains there had been a misunderstanding about the “Rosebud, my ass” moniker. “At first we thought that’s what wanted to call the series, and that just wouldn’t fly. But then we realized that he was only using the title to refer to the pilot episode itself, not the series. So that’s OK.”
What Mr. Gelbart is actually calling the series is “The Corsairs,” the name of a fictional media clan headed by Brandon Corsair, played by Emmy-winner John Larroquette. And yo-ho-ho, matey, quite the clan it is. Here’s some promotional copy Mr. Gelbart has delivered to ABC to describe the series, should it be picked up for a full season’s run:
In the next year,
one will get pregnant
one will get divorced,
one will find love
and one will lose their mind.
All will see their net worth
increase by two billion dollars …
… after taxes.
But Mr. Gelbart may have been trumped by this description of the show’s cast and characters that ran on Baseline at Hollywood.com earlier this month, one that very succinctly spells S-O-A-P.
John Larroquette–Media Mogul
Gretchen Egolf–Daughter of Media Mogul
Patrick Dempsey–Son of Media Mogul
Balthazar Getty–Son of Media Mogul
Robert Sean Leonard–Illegitimate Son of Media Mogul
Philip Baker Hall–Media Baron
Martin Landau–Key Adviser
Add Mary McDonnell–First and Third (Current) Wife of Media Mogul and Mimi Rogers–Second Wife of Media Mogul, and you have the complete picture.
“If you’re going to do `Dallas’ in 2002, what better choice than media to substitute for oil?” observes Touchstone Television President Steve McPherson.
Or, as Mr. Gelbart says Oscar-winning cast member (Key Adviser) Martin Landau likes to describe the new show, “`Dynasty’ Meets Dostoyevsky.”
Chayefsky is more like it. Paddy had his “Network,” satirizing a very specific part of the media business: TV. And Mr. Gelbart himself did the 1997 HBO telefilm “Weapons of Mass Distraction,” a brutally biting dark satire focusing on a power struggle between two international media magnates.
The idea to turn a “Weapons of Mass Distraction”-like story into a weekly series was first tossed about at Touchstone two years ago, Mr. McPherson says. It was revived a year ago at a retreat attended by executives from Touchstone and its sibling, Walt Disney Co.-owned ABC.
“We were pitching out ideas, and `Weapons of Mass Distraction’ kept getting mentioned,” says Francie Calfo, Touchstone’s VP of drama series, about last year’s retreat.
What came out of that, Mr. McPherson says, was the idea of doing “a big family drama with soapy elements revolving around media. As we thought about who could do it, we joked that we should get somebody like Gelbart.” This led to Touchstone asking Mr. Gelbart himself.
Truth be known, Mr. Gelbart really has no interest in creating a prime-time soap as we’ve known the genre, just as he had no interest in creating a sitcom as we knew it when he developed “M*A*S*H” for TV 30 years ago.
“To call “The Corsairs” a soap is to oversimplify it,’ says Tony Etz, Mr. Gelbart’s agent at Creative Artists Agency. “Larry’s ambitions are larger and more complex than that.”
Indeed, what’s got Mr. Gelbart, at age 74, interested anew in weekly TV is the subject of power.
“What is such a compelling idea is the consolidation of power, the compression of power in the hands of very few people,” Mr. Gelbart says. “It offers me a chance to talk about a lot of stuff that’s important about our lives, and I could never resist that. It’s hard not to try to do it once a week for an hour which, in fact, is now only 44 minutes.” Then, unable to resist the quip, he adds, “By that reckoning, by the way, I’m probably 20 years younger than I am.”
Between thought and expression
But Mr. Gelbart knows the show will ultimately get labeled a soap. “Though it’s more a soapbox opera than a soap opera,” he says, “what the show offers me is a chance–after reading something that I find offensive in the world at breakfast–to sit down and sort of write a letter to the editor. The show offers me a chance to do something inside a series, which lets me express my feelings.”
Oh sure, there’s a winning formula: A prime-time lecture. PBS meets NPR. Zzzzzzzzz.
But, in fact, if done well, it can work. Aaron Sorkin has the ratings and the Emmys to show for his left-wing preaching. And Mr. Gelbart is a far more clever writer.
For example, consider this example from the script of “Rosebud, my ass”:
Willowy Billi Brand, 34 (sitting on the edge of the bed in a half-slip, putting her hose on, to someone off-camera): Doesn’t anyone ever say no to [media magnate Brandon Corsair]?
Another Woman’s voice: You don’t say no to a tsunami.
(A different angle reveals that Billi is speaking to another woman dressing for the evening–Shelby Corsair [daughter of Brandon Corsair])
Shelby (continuing): You don’t ask an earthquake to give you a fair shake. The chief perk of being a pope of communications is that you can excommunicate anyone you like. You don’t kiss the ring, he gives you the finger.
Billi: But damn, Shelby. Outing some poor … schmuck?

Shelby: I can’t be late for this.
Billi: Put yourself in his place.
Shelby: I am in his place, Billi. I have a same-sex partner. My Mr. Right is Mrs. Right.
Billi: Then why is [Character X] fit for lynching and nobody ever comes after you with a rope?
Shelby: For starters, I have never spent so much as five minutes of my life cowering at the back of a closet. And what you and I do under the silken sanctity of our sheets is something an inordinate number of men have always fantasized taking part in. Whatever [Character X] is supposed to have done with the man in the digital mask, no man would dare admit he’d like to find out what it might feel like being part of a hero sandwich. I’m a publisher, Billi. Very few people have any damp dreams about a publisher in the nude–let alone in flagrante. But what–or who–a jock gets into when he peels off his own, that is another, much juicier story. Now, come on, babycakes, or I’ll pour you into your dress yourself.
Billi (donning her dress): I guess it spoils you, having a father who actually cared about your feelings.
Shelby: Results. That’s what my father cares about. And you’re looking at one. Wife barren? Dump her, marry your secretary and knock out an heir and a spare–as well as the irresistible little girl that you go to bed with every night. … Then recycle your first marriage and give your brood mare a gift certificate to the world, which she now circles endlessly, drinking gobs of terrible green goop and searching for her own personal Holy Grail–a pair of perfect 71/2 double-As.
Serious smiles
“I never really ever want to be caught preaching,” Mr. Gelbart says, citing his `M*A*S*H’ work as a model of an entertainment that can also make a point. “I feel it’s hard for me to sort of turn into a bumper sticker or fortune cookie, but I think it’s possible to talk about issues without being preac
hy.” You do that by “having engaging characters, engaging either because you like them or engaging because you are repelled by them, but in any case, making a point in a drama or comedy that extends beyond mere enjoyment.”
Disguising a serious, even profound, point in an entertainment has been Mr. Gelbart’s life’s work. Take “Tootsie,” the hysterically funny gender-bending comedy that garnered Mr. Gelbart an Oscar nomination 20 years ago. The film is about an actor who disguises himself as a woman to get a role on a daytime soap opera.
“When I was asked to write it, the one thing I didn’t want to do is make everybody think I could write a funnier `Some Like It Hot,”’ Mr. Gelbart recalls. “That men look funny in women’s clothes, that they wobble in high heels, that they pad their bras, that’s not a statement you want to make. But I think I found the touchstone for the picture when I wrote a line–later it got a little changed–but the basic line was–I gave it to Sydney [Pollack, who played the actor’s agent] to say–`Ever since you became a woman, you’re much more of a man.’ Now that, I thought, that’s worth saying. If we can imagine, if we can understand what the opposite gender is feeling, thinking, experiencing, then we have a chance for a relationship that transcends romance, sex, even friendship [because] we really understand what life is to that other person. And that I was very proud of.”
In the pilot episode of “The Corsairs,” Mr. Gelbart says the one line that makes the piece most important to him is when Brandon Corsair, scheming to derail the plans of a rival media baron, says dismissively to an underling who mentions that the plan is expensive, “Cost is foreplay for profit.”
What he is illustrating there, Mr. Gelbart says, is “a frame of mind which says anything is worth it if you make money at it. Even losing money is acceptable [on the path] to making money. Even morals don’t matter. Shameful behavior does not matter. Success is what matters.”
Success is, of course, something with which Mr. Gelbart is most familiar. From his first job writing comedy on radio when he was 16, through writing for Sid Caesar during the early days of TV, through Broadway successes such as “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “City of Angels,” through movies such as “Tootsie” and “Oh, God,” Mr. Gelbart has been tickling our funny bone and stimulating our corpus callosum for seven decades.
So what’s a funnyman doing doing a drama after a lifetime of comedy?
“Well, it’s very deliberate,” he says. “I find this new show in the vein of `Barbarians at the Gate’ and `Weapons of Mass Distraction.”’
Indeed, the Emmy-winning “Barbarians at the Gate,” made in 1993 for HBO, was a landmark piece for Mr. Gelbart. He took a nonfiction best-seller about the leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco–oh, yeah, now that’s going to make a great movie–and transformed it into, well, a great big entertaining movie.
“I don’t know how I did that,” he says. “I swear to Christ I don’t.” At one point he piled all his various drafts on top of one another, “and it was about 18 inches high,” he recalls.
But Mr. Gelbart, who says he’ll write some more scripts if “The Corsairs” is picked up and will supervise the writing of others, is particularly happy that this show is an original and not an adaptation or a rewrite. Many of his projects, from “Forum” to “M*A*S*H” to “Tootsie” to “Barbarians” have been based on the works of others.
Revolutionary United States
Since Mr. Gelbart left “M*A*S*H” in 1976, his involvement in weekly series TV has been extremely limited. In 1983 he developed the short-lived “AfterMASH”; before that was the even-shorter-lived “United States.” Airing for just seven weeks during March and April 1980, and ending up No. 102 in the ratings (out of 105 shows that season), Mr. Gelbart says, “It is some of the best work I’ve done.”
The title of the show referred to the state of being united as man and woman. “I was too clever by half with that title,” Mr. Gelbart says. “People thought it was something from National Geographic.”
The premise of the half-hour program was “to examine the one marriage in two that doesn’t end in divorce, because the partners have found a way to get through the ups and downs of that most intimate relationship,” Mr. Gelbart says. In an unusual deal, Mr. Gelbart and his collaborator on the show, Gary Markowitz, talked then-NBC chief programmer Fred Silverman into ordering an entire season’s worth of scripts–to be written before the show went into production. And the show would have no laugh track.
“is a sensational writer,” says Mr. Silverman, who now consults for ABC, one of the three networks where he was once president of programming. “One of the best I’ve ever met. `United States’ was revolutionary. It was way ahead of its time. I’m very proud we tried it.”
The singer, the swinger, and the chimp
Mr. Gelbart’s memory of the experience isn’t as forgiving. “I call it death by electronic euthanasia,” he says. “They didn’t know what do to with it because it was unlike anything else. Was some of it dark? Yes. You couldn’t put it next to a traditional sitcom.”
So NBC put it on at 10:30 on Friday nights. “You have to look long and hard to find another half-hour show scheduled at that time,” Mr. Gelbart says. It followed a variety show, he recalls. “I remember one week that show closed with Dean Martin and Elke Sommer in bed with a chimp, and our show opened with Beau Bridges and Helen Shavers in bed with their child. What blaring incompatibility.”
“The show had charm, wit and sophistication, but there was no comfortable place for it,” Mr. Silverman says. “We only moved it around with frustration of not being able to find a home for it. We were the network of “Little House on the Prairie” and “The Rockford Files” at the time, and our audience just wouldn’t watch it.
This time around, Mr. Gelbart won’t have any such identification problems. Like “United States,” ”The Corsairs” has no laugh track (“How I hated that laugh track on M*A*S*H,” Mr. Gelbart says. “Maybe I should have explored doing an hour-long drama a long time ago.”). More important, he’s working in a form network executives feel very comfortable with.
“I think we’re very ripe for a big prime-time soap,” says Susan Lyne, president of ABC Entertainment, “and this one is particularly rich. is such an extraordinary writer. It was very entertaining on page. But the amazing thing is the layers of emotion and humor and just plain smarts that came through during the first reading of the script. It’s a revelation working with him.”
Mr. Gelbart just hopes Ms. Lyne is that laudatory after she sees the pilot, so she’ll put the show on ABC’s fall schedule.
He is also aware that issues he may deal with in the show may cut close to the bone of ABC corporate parent Walt Disney. And while he has not spoken to Disney CEO Michael Eisner about the show, he notes that “Michael, when he was at ABC, commissioned me to do the original pilot for `Three’s Company,”’ though ultimately Mr. Gelbart had nothing to do with that show.
“The ownership of the studios and the networks gives them too great a voice in creative material, and slowly the fun, the juice, the passion will go out of the business,” Mr. Gelbart worries. “Everybody will be making a show according to somebody else’s vision.”
It’s just one of the media subjects he says he “can’t wait” to deal with on “The Corsairs.” How much leeway will Disney give him to deal with these media-sensitive issues?
“We’ll see … we’ll see,” he says. “I would hope that they are so secure that a show like this should not suffer a crib death and be canceled after the pilot. Should it get on the air as a series, we’re like a fly on an elephant’s back–how much harm can we do?”
But being in this business as long as he has, Mr. Gelbart realizes that a prime-time series banging away at media issues might indeed hit too close to home for Disney. “If so, go f— ’em,” he smiles,
his eyes twinkling again. “But maybe, maybe, maybe, on the other hand, our show will let them say not only do we welcome competition so much so that we buy it, but that we’re also welcome to self-criticism, to constructive criticism.”