The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Who's the funniest man in Hollywood?

December 4, 2008 | 12:28 pm

Writers can be a miserable lot, but something wonderful seems to happen when you drag them away from the computer and dump them in a ballroom full of free food, drink and other writerly company. It brings out their best side, from sly wit to hidden passion to even a generosity of spirit. So there was much good cheer at PEN USA's 18th annual Literary Awards Festival last night at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where everywhere I turned I bumped into a great writer, from Paul Thomas Anderson to Aaron Sorkin to Matthew Weiner to the immortal Larry Gelbart, winner of this year's Lifetime Achievement Award, who got to sit at a front table with other immortals, including Kirk Douglas.

GelbartPEN gives out awards for really important stuff, like creative nonfiction, poetry and freedom of speech---let's just say it was the first awards banquet I've been to in years where only one person thanked their manager during an acceptance speech. But I was far too intimidated to hang out with U Win Tin, who won the Freedom to Write Award after being repeatedly imprisoned in Myanmar for his efforts to bring democracy to that country. So I gabbed with the Hollywood types. PT Anderson was a crack-up, constantly teasing Paramount production chief John Lesher, who was there to present Anderson with PEN's Screenplay Award for "There Will Be Blood." Just when I started to enjoy seeing a studio chief being razzed by a big-shot filmmaker, Anderson turned to me and said, "By the way, [when you wrote about 'There Will Be Blood'] you got my budget totally wrong."

Weiner, the creator of "Mad Men," was in rare form as well. When I congratulated him, mistakenly assuming he was there as winner of the Teleplay Award, he immediately corrected me. "No way," he said. "I'm the loser. I'm here to give the award to Terence Winter." (Winter won for one of his "Sopranos" scripts.) That's very generous, I said. Weiner shook his head. "I'm not generous," he explained. "I'm competitive."

Since he and Winter are close pals, having worked on "The Sopranos" together for years, Weiner really worked the loser bit. When he introduced Winter on stage, he said, "Terry's a very generous person, though obviously not quite as generous as I am." Weiner revealed that Winter had held many jobs before becoming a writer, including doorman, butcher, lawyer and actor, adding, "Terry also functioned as his own agent at one point, which I consider a form of acting."

Once he arrived on stage, Winter used most of his acceptance speech to pay tribute to Gelbart, who, for the uninitiated, began his career working on Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows" and wrote "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "Oh, God!," "Tootsie" and innumerable episodes of "MASH." His tone so clear, his jabs so tart, he was an inspiration to generations of comedy writers. Winter said that years ago, when he was a young lawyer, he took a date to a New York jazz club to hear Mel Torme. There, at the next table, was Gelbart. Winter turned to his date, whispering triumphantly, "Look, it's Larry Gelbart."   

His date said, "Who?" Between each Torme number, Winter would toss out another Gelbart credit, all to no avail. What began as a great night out on the town with a beautiful lady ended in sorrow. "It was a lousy evening," Winter recalled. "But I realized three things. First of all, I'm with the wrong woman. Second, Larry Gelbart only tipped 12 1/2%, because I heard the waiters complaining. And third, I realized that I really wanted to be a writer. He was living what I always dreamed about."

It's hard to think of higher praise for a writer. When it was Gelbart's turn to accept his award, Aaron Sorkin piled on more praise. But by then, the hour was late and Gelbart, always blessed with great comic timing, sensed that the audience was eager to head home. So he kept his acceptance speech brief and to the point. At 80, having won practically every comedy honor known to man, he can afford to be self-deprecating. "It's not the legs that go first," he joked, as always, thinking like a writer. "It's remembering the word for legs that goes first." 

Los Angeles Times photo of Larry Gelbart