Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Larry Gelbart

Whatever you do, whatever the medium, don't just strive to entertain. Use your talent as you would a stun gun. Dazzle us.

If you don't recognize the name Larry Gelbart, well, ya' should. You have seen his work. He's been around the block several times and, as a writer, has left his thumbprint in a couple of different areas of note. He started in radio writing for the classic comedy Duffy's Tavern. He moved into the Golden Age of Television writing for Ceasar's Hour and sharing writing credits with the likes of Sid Ceasar, Woody Allen, Howard Morris, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Selma Diamond and Neil Simon. In theater, he wrote Broadway favorites like; A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, The Sly Fox and City of Angels. His films include Tootsie, Oh, God! and Movie Movie. He's probably best known for being a strong guiding force in bringing M*A*S*H to television as a producer and writer. This is a guy who, if asked "Would you like to live your life over, again?" I hope he declines and says, "Let that Janes kid take it for a ride."

At 75, he's still very sharp and savvy about show business and writing. He recently gave the commencement speech at UCLA. Here are highlights from that speech.

For the record, and with no desire to spoil your day: being young is no trick. We all start out that way. The real challenge in the years ahead will be your ability to stay young.

I'm talking about retaining -- make that clinging tenaciously -- to what is the very best about your youth: remaining creatively curious. Of having an itch that no amount of scratching can ever ease. Of being restless. Of being endlessly experimental. Of being less interested in knowing all the answers than in learning that it's impossible to ever know all of the questions.

...it is imperative to know what's preceded whatever efforts you have in mind that will constitute your own bodies of work. No crystal ball really works well unless it comes equipped with a rear view mirror. We all have an obligation to appreciate the legacy left behind by the founding fathers and the birthing mothers of the dramatic arts.

Such knowledge will broaden the range of your interests; such knowledge will add to the height of your standards.

Get to know your predecessors; they are your real competition, not the names that you find daily in Variety and in the Hollywood Reporter.

Get to know them all. From Aristophanes to Arbuckle. From Shakespeare to Chayefsky. From former émigrés to present day MBA's.

Get to know the sisters Gish; the brothers Warner; the brothers Mankewicz and certainly, the brothers Marx.

We, each of us, have to know the works of Larry and Curley, to say nothing of Moliere.

To those who argue that there is nothing new under the sun -- usually in defense of their own creative poverty -- there is a counter-argument that challenges that assumption.

That something is you. You are what is new.

Consider their criticism, by all means -- even a committee of one million monkeys, working together over an equal number of years, might eventually manage to produce a movie or a series or even a play, but use only what makes a solid, valid connection with your internal gyroscope. To put it more graphically: as often as you can, go with your gut.

...at the risk of burdening you with one moment more of sage advice, here are some final, hopefully helpful hints from my zip code in downtown Delphi:

Learn to defy conventional wisdom. Defy convention. Defy yourself.

Never mind working your head off. You'll soon learn how quickly it can grow back.

Whatever you do, whatever the medium, don't just strive to entertain. Use your talent as you would a stun gun. Dazzle us.

Remind us how to care. Remind us how to feel. And not just good. If your goal is to merely to make people feel all comfy and cozy, do a cooking show.

Shine your light into the darkest corners of our hearts and help us to remember our universal commonality.

Don't just add to the noise. We've had enough sequels and prequels. We don't need another movie that's based on another movie. Or one based on a ride. Or a game. Or, God help us, on a toy.

Do the first of something. The first of anything. Then, shred the recipe.

Beware of creative slam-dunks. Things you're able to do with the back of your hand are very often the only thing an audience might reward you with.

Be partial to projects that have a potential for failure. It always helps to doubt whether or not you can accomplish just what it is you had in mind. Discover how much adrenaline there is in risk. Failure is a far better teacher than success.

As the TV commercial so needlessly reminds us: Life comes at you fast. Just be sure that you're there when it happens. If being in the moment is a good idea, it's a far better one to be ahead of it.

While all things imaginative are in some sense autobiographical, try shuffling the deck now and then and tackling a subject -- or a world -- which you know absolutely nothing about.

Trust me, there is nothing like starting on a new project to give you a refresher course in humility.

You will find it a whole lot easier to express your opinions when someone else isn't paying for them.

Okay, it's your turn now. Your turn -- as the Reverend William Sloane Coffin put it -- "to go out and have a lover's quarrel with the world."

Thank you.

You can read the speech in its entirety HERE.