Wednesday, September 16, 2009

John Matuszak: 2 kings of TV comedy pass on

I'd like to pay tribute to two television icons who recently passed from the scene.

One is a writer who gave us a group of army surgeons who fought against the insanity of war with their own kind of divine madness.

The other is a seller of propane and propane accessories who rode herd on his loopy neighbors and family members in the town of Arlen, Texas.

Goodbye, Larry Gelbart, co-creator of the TV series M*A*S*H, who died Sept. 11 at 81.

Goodbye, Hank Hill, patriarch of the animated series "King of the Hill," which aired its last episode Sunday after a 12-year run.

Gelbart served his comedic internship thinking up gags for cut-ups Danny Thomas and Bob Hope (even touring Korea), and then did his residency keeping TV audiences in stitches along with Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks and Neil Simon.

He won a Tony for "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," about a scheming Roman slave thwarting authority.

The Vietnam War was still dragging on in 1972 when Gelbart took on the challenge of introducing a serio-sitcom about combat to American audiences more accustomed to the domestic doings of the Brady Bunch.

TV viewers were beginning to accept more contemporary offerings such as "All in the Family." But it was far from certain that they were ready for the combination of comedy and carnage Gelbart and Co. had in mind.

Gelbart wanted to stay away from the "frolics at the front" mentality of such wartime shows as "Hogan's Heroes." The early episodes did lean toward the silly side, with surgeons Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce and "Trapper John" McIntyre boozing it up, chasing nurses and tormenting Major Frank Burns, in between 18-hour stints in the OR.

The series hit its serious stride with the first season's "Sometimes You Hear the Bullet," in which a childhood friend of Hawkeye's dies on the operating table before his eyes.

"All I know is what they taught us in command school," Col. Henry Blake tells the grief-stricken Pierce. "Rule Number One is that young men die, and Rule Number Two is that doctors can't change Rule Number One."

Never before had a television audience been presented with such a portrait of humor and horror as M*A*S*H. It took them awhile to embrace it, with the series languishing at the bottom of the ratings for the first season. But with network support it built a following that allowed the series to continue for 11 seasons, becoming an American icon enshrined in the Smithsonian Institution.

Through Hawkeye, his alter ego, Gelbart's perspective on war could be applied to our own current adventures in nation-building:

I don't know why they're shooting at us. All we want to do is bring them democracy and white bread, to transplant the American dream: freedom, achievement, hyeracidity, affluence, flatulence, technology, tension, the inalienable right to an early coronary at your desk while plotting to stab your boss in the back.

Gelbart stayed with the show for the first four seasons, its most creative and iconoclastic. He went on to earn Osacar nominations for screenplays for "Oh,God," a wickedly funny epistle on our misguided attitudes about religion, with George Burns as the Almighty; and "Tootsie," in which a cross-dressing Dustin Hoffman took on feminist issues.

With other changes in the cast and creative team, M*A*S*H lost a lot of its edge and became increasingly sanctimonious and formulaic, although it remained popular. Its two and a half hour finale in 1983 drew a record audience. Even those of us who had abandoned the show, like myself, had to watch to say "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen" to the men and women of the 4077th.

Watch those early episodes now on DVD, minus the network-imposed laugh track, and realize just how groundbreaking the show really was, how the combination of comedy and drama still cuts to the bone.

Besides making me a pacifist, I have one other thing to thank Larry Gelbart for. He gave me my only nickname. After work my friends and I would gather to watch M*A*S*H reruns. Our apartment became known as the Swamp, after the surgeons' slovenly quarters, and I became Trapper John, or simply Trap, to all the people who came to kick back and get a little crazy (with lots of coffee instead of alcohol).

I tuned into the last original broadcast of "King of the Hill" with the hope that the final frames would at least approach the sublimity of the earlier efforts. Unfortunately, it was as flat as the southwestern plains.

Most comedies have a short creative life, usually about four or five years. There is only so much gold you can mine out of a particular situation or character.

"King of the Hill" stayed sharp for about that long. What made the series appealing to me was that Hank Hill was the only American father on TV who wasn't treated like a complete idiot. He could be as misinformed as the rest of his redneck neighbors, but he usually recognized this at some point and was able to make amends. Just as often, when everyone else doubted him, Father, it turned out, did know best.

Creator Mike Judge treated the denizens of Arlen with a balance of satire and sweetness. Soccer moms and school board dunderheads took their hits along with the local yokels.

So I'd like to say my own goodbyes to Hank, his Boggle-champion wife, Peggy, and pudgy pre-pubescent prop comic son, Bobby; neighbors Dale Gribble, the conspiracy theorist who never discovered that his wife was having an affair under his nose; desperate divorcee and army barber Bill; mumbling Boomhauer, with an accent as thick as Texas five-alarm chili; and the entire galaxy of Lone Star State residents he conjured up.

Thank goodness for reruns, I'll tell ya what.

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Design is copyright 2009. All rights reserved. Bexley Public Radio Foundation. Text is copyright 2009. All rights reserved. John Matuszak.

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