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TV History All Over the Place: Larry Gelbart Friday, "Bonanza" Saturday, Leno Tonight
September 14, 2009  | By David Bianculli
bonanza-map.jpgTV history seems to be everywhere all of a sudden. News broke Friday of the death of Larry Gelbart, whose TV triumphs go back to the Golden Age with Sid Caesar. Saturday marked the 50th anniversary of the Ponderosa clan. And tonight, Jay Leno takes the TV talk show into very significant virgin territory...

I know of only a few members of the Television Critics Association, and I was one of them, who lobbied especially hard for Larry Gelbart to be honored with the TCA Career Achievement Award this year and last, to no avail. LarryGelbart_photo_web.jpgNow the only way to honor him is posthumously -- but in the history of TV, few writers spanned as many eras, or created as many out-and-out classics, as Gelbart, who died last week at age 81.

Movie fans will, or should, know him for such screenplays as Tootsie, and Broadway audiences for the book (with Burt Shevelove) of Stephen Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. But on TV, check out Gelbart's impeccable career highlights:

In the 1950s, he wrote for Sid Caesar on both Caesar's Hour (with Mel Brooks) and The Chevy Show (with Woody Allen). Most obituaries credit him with writing for Caesar's Your Show of Shows -- but they're wrong.


In the 1970s, Gelbart developed, for CBS, the TV version of the movie M*A*S*H, presiding over one of the best TV series ever made.

Also in the 1970s, he created NBC's United States, a "romantic dramedy" with no laugh track, starring Beau Bridges and Helen Shaver, that was decades ahead of its time.

Then, in the 1990s, he wrote an HBO telemovie called Barbarians at the Gate, starring James Garner as a tobacco tycoon in a comic dramatization of the ruthless battle to buy out a major tobacco company.

In short, Larry Gelbart achieved TV greatness in the 50s, 70s and 90s, and that's just for starters. What other TV writer, living or dead, can make that claim? I don't think there is one.

Goodbye, Larry.



More TV history: Saturday was the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Bonanza on NBC, a series that made its first appearance on September 12, 1959. By 1961, it was TV's number two show. By 1964, it was number one -- a position it held for years, until, ahem, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour managed to eat into some of its audience and dent its TV supremacy.

Bonanza was presented in color from the very start, and scheduled initially on Saturday night so that families out on the town could see this color Western on the new TV sets demonstrated in hardware and appliance store windows -- and, as a consequence, eagerly line up to buy color TV sets made by RCA, which was NBC's parent company.

By the way: When Bonanza premiered in 1959, the Western already was TV's dominant prime-time genre, overwhelming the schedule even more than reality shows do now. In 1958-59, for example, eight of the Top 10 TV shows were Westerns, with the top four spots going to Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Have Gun Will Travel and The Rifleman.



Finally, INSTANT television history. Jay Leno isn't the first Tonight Show host to take his act to prime time after leaving his late-night nest. Steve Allen did it, and so did Jack Paar (and so, for completists, did Ernie Kovacs). But those were either as specials, or weekly shows. No one else has stripped across the board, Monday through Friday, the way The Jay Leno Show is, beginning tonight at 10 ET on NBC.

Even here at TV WORTH WATCHING, we have different opinions about whether this is a good move or a bad move. My position is that, if you're a fan of quality scripted TV, it's bad, because it eats up so many hours of prime time. But the flip side is, NBC of late is so infatuated and infested with bad programming anyway, five hours of Leno could be a marked improvement.

His success, though, would be copied by other networks, resulting in even FEWER hours available for such already precious gems as ABC's Pushing Daisies and NBC's Life, neither of which could survive past two seasons in the current, stifling TV climate. So make no mistake: What happens this week, and in the near future, will impact television history greatly.

And it's no laughing matter.




Diane Werts said:

Just an addendum to Dave's Bonanza 50th anniversary note:

The first season of Bonanza comes out on DVD this week, two half-season volumes arriving the same day -- click here for info or Amazon ordering -- which is designed to appeal to both pennypinchers and completists.

I've had a peek at the sets, and TV's first big color hit looks superb on DVD. After a slow start in the TV DVD game, CBS/Paramount has lately been doing a great job of video mastering on its series releases. Also of trying to unearth intriguing extras.

The Bonanza sets' special features mostly come courtesy of series creator David Dortort. He offers reminiscences of cast members like Michael Landon/Dan Blocker (Vol. 1) and Lorne Greene (Vol. 2), and even recollections of how that Bonanza map in the opening credits (and Dave's post) is actually inaccurate.

The sets are also crammed with production and publicity photos, on-air promos, and Dortort's 1953 pre-Bonanza western teleplay "Man of the Comstock" (Vol. 1).

Best of all, Vol. 1 includes an alternate ending to Bonanza's 1959 pilot episode (which, by the way, is a hilarious hour mess to which the subsequent series fortunately bears little resemblance in tone).

That unused ending has the Cartwrights saddling up to exit town while singing -- yes, singing -- their theme song.

You'd have thought better of airing a vocal version, too.

Comment posted on September 14, 2009 3:09 PM

Eileen said:

Thanks for your kind mention of Larry Gelbart. I'm old enough to know his prolific involvement in early tv. But it's M*A*S*H that most people will remember him for.

In NYC the cable channel ION has back-to-back M*A*S*H reruns on Sundays. And I never tire of watching them. You are so right -- it's one of the best tv shows EVER. Even when the cast changed, it was usually for the better. Bye bye, McLean, hello Colonel Potter. Likewise when Mike Farrell appeared; Frank was good, but Charles was hilarious.

So thank you, Mr. Gelbart, for entertaining us for so many years and in so many venues. The likes of your talent and creativity won't be seen again.

Comment posted on September 15, 2009 9:22 AM
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