I’ve seen countless posts across the Internet this year saying some variation of “2016 sucks for killing so many of our favorite celebrities.” Obviously they worded it less like a robot pretending to be a human, but you get the point. I’m not breaking any news when I say it’s sad when people die. But when a celebrity that you’ve grown up with, or whose art shaped you goes away, it closes a door. There won’t be any more new songs from David Bowie or Prince or performances from Alan Rickman or Gene Wilder, and that stings.
But then, once in awhile, there are surprises like Mastergate.
Larry Gelbart was a comedy legend. I could write “He created M*A*S*H” and be done, but there’s so much more on his resume. He wrote for Caesar’s Hour, he co-wrote the book for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with Bert Shevelove, he co-wrote Tootsie with Murray Shisgal, and the list goes on and on and on. Any one of those things would get him into the Comedy Hall of Fame, but Larry never stopped.
Mastergate was initially written by Gelbart as a play. It premiered on Broadway in 1989 with the subtitle “A Play On Words” and was a send-up of all your major political hearings up until that point: Watergate, McCarthy, Iran-Contra, you name it. In 1992, producer David Jablin brought the play to Showtime’s attention, got in touch with Gelbart, and the two got to work at adapting it for TV.
Where the stage version was stylized, with actors playing multiple roles and characters appearing in “limbo,” the television version… puts it on television. Now the piece begins as a broadcast from TNN (Total News Network) that is breaking in on its own coverage to report on what is ultimately a whole lot of political mumbo jumbo. The movie is a pitch-perfect parody of the 24-hour cable news network of the day, with its reliance on of-the-time high tech graphics, the constant interrupting of itself, and news anchors that speak with earth-shattering gravitas about nothing at all. Come to think of it, strike that “of the day.”
When Mastergate first aired, Time magazine dubbed it “George Orwell meets the Marx Brothers” which is the perfect analogy. From the moment the Congressional hearings begin, the viewer needs to hold on tight as punchlines might be hurled at you, two, three times a sentence. The co-chairman Archer Bowman (Richard Kiley) takes his place behind the microphone and with a heavy delivery that imparts great meaning onto every word, he introduces exactly what the aim of these proceedings are: “This panel, which intends to give every appearance of being bipartisan, will be ever mindful of the President’s instructions to dig down as far as we can no matter how high up that might take us… This is not a witch hunt. This is not a trial. We are not looking for hides to skin or goats to scape. We seek to answer the question: What did the President know, and does he have any idea that he knew it?”
What unfolds is an investigation into the CIA diverting funds into the purchase of Master Pictures Studios as a cover for illegal arms trading. Throughout this investigation led by David Ogden Stiers, Jerry Orbach, Pat Morita, and Robert Guillaume, a star-studded cast is called to the carpet, each of whom finds new ways of playing things more and more deadpanned. Ed Begley Jr. plays Stuart Butler who struggles to talk about his time working as the assistant to the acting assistant deputy attorney general within the Department of Justice. Frequently his answers are intercepted by his legal counsel, Mr. Foster Child of the firm of Pryor, Pastor, Priest and Pope. Bruno Kirby as Abel Lamb, a former IRS aide, reads from his prepared statement in which he expresses a difficulty “remaining silent in all I’ve said up till now.” James Coburn as Major Manley Battle describes the “film” that the government planned on filming in the Philippines, which for accuracy’s sake, involved dropping an awful lot of Agent Orange on the area’s inhabitants. Dennis Weaver, as Vice President Dale Burden, attempts to “dislinger” suspicions that the President was personally involved in the Mastergate cover-up but makes it clear that he has never denied anything once he’s finally admitted it.
Of course, it would be cable news if we weren’t constantly interrupted by the next big thing that was there to distract us in the world. Among the many distractions TNN disrupts their coverage of the Mastergate hearing to cut to, we meet Marvin Rotweiler (Ben Stein) the official press secretary who reacts in real time to “lies” from the hearing, Buck Henry as embedded reporter Clay Fielder who runs into assorted difficulties in doing his job, and I won’t spoil exactly who the late Burgess Meredith plays, but boy does he makes an entrance.
Mastergate aired on the eve of Election Night ‘92, the first time we elected a Clinton to office. It was a timely piece of satire then, and sadly, it’s just as timely today. It received excellent reviews and was included on a number of best of lists a few months later. However, as is the case with so many great television events, it aired a few more times and then simply disappeared. Until today, that is.
To rescue the piece from obscurity, the film’s producer, David Jablin (whose large body of work we’ve covered here and here), is taking a page from Louis C.K.’s playbook and self-distributing Mastergate as a last minute October comedy surprise. Jablin said, “That with the most bizarre and surreal political season ever in a full-tilt frenzy to the finish line the timing seems absolutely perfect to re-introduce Larry’s lost ‘masterpiece of political satire’ to an online audience. I know Larry would just get a ‘YUGE’ kick out of his opus ‘Play On Words’ being seen again in such a timely context.” Mastergate is now available to rent or purchase exclusively at Vimeo On Demand here with releases on iTunes and Amazon forthcoming. Jablin is donating all proceeds to Norman Lear’s People for the American Way Foundation in Larry Gelbart’s memory.
Comedy lovers and wonks alike have the chance to work their way through the intricately worded stream of political double-speak that flows from these insane hearings. In the 24 years since Mastergate originally aired, we may not have learned from our mistakes in politics, but luckily we can still laugh at them.