This … is CBS

Sep 2, 2002  •  Post A Comment

My near lifelong relationship with the Columbia Broadcasting System began in 1943, when CBS was a mere 16 years old, and I, a mere 15-year-old, stood in the studio audience line at Sunset and Gower for a broadcast of the “Pabst Blue Ribbon Town” radio show, starring the then merely 53-year-old Groucho Marx. (This was my second degree of separation from the network, actually.
The first, the fact that the hair on the head of the Tiffany Network, William S. Paley, was regularly cut by the Tiffany of barbers-my father, Harry Gelbart.)
By 1944, I was entering the very same building through the artists’ entrance, having become one of the writers of “Maxwell House Coffee’s Baby Snooks Show,” starring Fanny Brice. My employment was the result of my father’s convincing another of his stellar clients, Danny Thomas, who had a weekly spot on the program, that he had a son who could write funny material. (Even after getting the job, I was refused admittance by the stage doorman, who, taking one look at my acne and my saddle shoes, said that if I wanted to see the show, I had to get in line with the other civilians on Sunset Boulevard.)
My skin cleared up, and wearing Guccis, I went on to work at CBS again on the initial seasons of “The Red Buttons Show,” in 1952, and then, in 1963, on “The Danny Kaye Show.” (I leave it to you to guess who their barber was.)
Came the ’70s and it was time to return to Mr. Paley’s plantation once more. Just as the large, wooden pince-nez, the outdoor sign of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg, the optometrist, stares out at everyone in Fitzgerald’s “Gatsby,” I am forever feeling the glare of CBS’s Big Brotherish organizational orb between my shoulder blades, silently reminding me where my loyalties lie, admonishing me to stay monogamous.
And so, I came back home, unpacked my bags, and for the next four years helped turn out the series that was to change my life-and, should there be anything at all to the notion of reincarnation, probably half a dozen more to come. Being a slave to symmetry, the combination of doing “M*A*S*H” for CBS was irresistible enough to make my heart skip an unsymmetrical beat.
If anyone can possibly bear to tune in to just one more rerun just one more time, if only for 30 seconds or so, don’t watch the picture, listen only to the dialogue-most especially the speeches assigned to Hawkeye, the engine of show, and see if you don’t detect the indelible influence that the star I waited in line to see on the “Pabst Blue Ribbon Town” radio show near 60 years ago has always had on my writing. To say nothing of on my mind. And the less said about that, the better.
I will leave it to others on the occasion of CBS’s platinum-plus anniversary to commend the efforts of everyone from Murrow to Moonves. For my part, I would like to sing a chorus or two in praise of CBS’s VP in charge of programming for the West Coast during my four-year hitch on “M*A*S*H.” I do this with the full realization that a writer complimenting a network VP in charge of anything at all is not unlike the United Jewish Appeal awarding a lifetime achievement award to Heinrich Himmler. But Perry Lafferty, unlike his co-mavens, was not a mere network humanoid. In a universe of suits, Perry Lafferty was a sport jacket (and when a sticky situation called for him to exert his considerable charm and smoothness, he could also be Mr. White Tie and Tails).
What distinguished Perry from the powers that were (and all too many that are) was his early training in broadcasting. Long before he had his own key to the executive loo, he had earned a living-and the accrued professional and human relations experience-as a TV cameraman, a director and a producer. In the apt words of my friend Leonard Stern, “Perry Lafferty is the only television executive in the business who knows what kind of job he’s out of.”
Perry was also what any entertainment decision-maker would or damn ought to be: He was an unabashed and appreciative fan of those talents with which he worked. He was in no way interested in being a star executive. He was an executive who was content to let the stars be the stars. He understood that to be gifted is to be a little nuts. Gifted himself, and therefore, also a little nutty, but not so it ever showed, Perry knew how to mediate; he knew how to ameliorate. He was a wonderful bridge between those who were above the line and those whose interest was only the bottom one. With his seemingly effortless, distinctive style, it was a bridge that extracted a toll from no one.
Pressing Perry Lafferty for a response to a question that was burning a hole in your heart or in your intestines always prompted his stock response: “If you need to know right now, the answer is no”-the wisdom he had acquired in all of his years in the trenches having taught him that, in an emotion-charged business, putting some space between a problem and a solution could, as often as not, turn out to be the very solution to that problem.
And if, in his WASPy, Godfather-like way, he said that he’d get back to you within 24 hours, you didn’t get Perry’s call at 24:01.
Always on the job, blocking and tackling in the smoothest, most unobtrusive way, he had a way of making the artists who were turning out the programming on his watch feel as though he was their man at the network. In all the time I worked with the man, he never once gave me a note-other than the ones that read “thank you.”
It would seem that what started out as an appreciation of CBS has turned into a confession-or rather more of an admission-that whenever it is I think of that particular network, I really think of it as PBS.
That is to say: Perry’s Broadcasting System.
Larry Gelbart co-created the “M*A*S*H” series and produced and wrote many episodes.