Gelbart was not surprised the show wasn't picked up in May, though he will allow that he's disappointed. Ironically, the series wasn't even his idea: Two years ago, Touchstone Television, which is owned by Disney, wanted to turn Gelbart's 1997 Weapons of Mass Distraction, in which two media moguls bite each other's backs down to the spine, into a series. Gelbart was not looking to get back into TV, but, he says, "the dreamer is awakened" when such possibilities are laid on the table. For a moment, he put aside his fears--getting notes from executives who are only creative at bookkeeping, say, or winding up with creativity by committee, an oxymoron at best--and got to work. When Disney boss Michael Eisner passed, the pragmatist and pessimist was awakened.
"A very good source told me that Michael Eisner said it was just too good for his network, too smart for their audience," the writer says of his lost child. "I haven't dumbed the material down since then, and obviously his audience hasn't gotten smarter. I think the pilot was kind of a loss leader. I think it was kind of an expense of $4 million to say, 'See, we really are looking for some kind of quality programming.' And then they made their choice. Besides, it's not a pleasant thought at all, to be getting notes from..."
He pauses. "From 12-year-olds?" I offer.
"Twelve would be great," he says, coughing up what's either a laugh or a snarl. "I knew all the dangers, but I didn't say, 'But I'm safe,' because I did a half-hour pilot for ABC about two years ago, and that went down the tubes even before we shot the pilot. It's sort of like a Hollywood tour around me, you know? I come in and people are very respectful and generous with their comments about things I've done and shows they grew up with. I don't think they're thinking straight either when they say, 'Let's do a series together.' Because for whatever reasons, and it can't help but sound immodest, I think even at my advanced age--advanced for them--I'm more adventurous. I just don't have anything to lose."
But network television has everything to lose: Its audience shrinks with each new season, as those seeking quality shows are exiled to cable. It's testament to the paucity of new good shows that the old ones still sell to syndication for small fortunes--among them M*A*S*H, which only two weeks ago was picked up for syndication by the Hallmark Channel, which paid an astonishing $62.5 million to air the series on cable for several years. This, despite the fact Fox Home Video has released the first two seasons of M*A*S*H on DVD, complete with scenes long ago trimmed to make room for extra commercials.
As it turns out, the best choices on TV most nights are shows long since vanished and banished from prime time--most of them made by writers and producers expelled along with them. The visionaries have been exiled to cable, while the shortsighted have been allowed to populate the networks with exhibitions of human cruelty and stupidity. Fear factor, it turns out, is what sets in when you turn on the TV.
"I was blessed in terms of M*A*S*H," Gelbart says. "The show was allowed to find itself on the air, and it proved to be such a success that people really kept their hands off creatively. Not that some didn't think they were experts on the show. There was a CBS executive during the second season who sat down and said, 'Let me tell you how you blew the series.' But...it's very hard to be 20 minutes ahead of your time. It's a chorus now. When executives with no experience in the creative world, or no creativity beyond their MBAs, when they become your collaborators, you can get a successful product, because you can put some very appealing players in it, you can put it in the right time and so forth. But you won't get a show that's somebody's vision."
Talk long enough with Gelbart, and it becomes clear he's now fueled as much by outrage as the desire to make you laugh; his is now a brand of comedy tempered by indignation. Maybe it always was: Before M*A*S*H grew soft during its final seasons, before Alan Alda wrapped it in gauzy sentiment, the show was far more scabrous than even the novel or film that spawned it. Gelbart fought against the use of the laugh track (the DVDs eliminate it); his work on the show (he lasted the first four seasons) was as much about the pain as the punch line.