Charlie Joffe and I had our television development deal at Lorimar for two years ('90-'92). As our term there was winding down, we found ourselves building a relationship with the Showtime network where we established a new development deal that kicked in once the Lorimar contract expired.
The day after an article appeared in Variety announcing that we would be producing specials and movies for Showtime, Charlie got a phone call from legendary comedy writer Larry Gelbart (credits include the play, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the movie Tootsie and creator of the TV show M*A*S*H).
Larry told Charlie that he had written a satirical play called Mastergate which had a nice run off-Broadway but there were no plans to do anything further with it. Would we be interested in adapting it as a TV special for Showtime? It struck us as a rhetorical question. Of course we were interested!
Gelbart had subtitled Mastergate ''A Play On Words'' which was, in itself, a play on words because Mastergate was a play that, well... played on words.
It's actually a very witty political satire. Taking its cue from Watergate and the Iran-Contra hearings, Mastergate spoofs Congressional investigative committees and shows how politicians have mastered the art of using language as a smokescreen. Hardly a sentence emerges from anyone’s mouth that doesn’t have at least two meanings, yet almost everything said is meaningless.
The "Mastergate" hearings uncover our government’s covert shipment of illegal arms to a Latin American country, using a big budget Hollywood action movie as a cover. The film's budget eventually exceeds a billion dollars ("1.3 billion with catering.")
It’s hard for any description to do this brilliant work justice. Mastergate reminds you how sorely "wit" is missing from what passes for comedy today. Watching it, you can’t help but be awed by the mind that came up with all this. But that’s Gelbart.
Joffe and I hooked up with a very talented producer named David Jablin who was already in love with the stage play and had long hoped to bring it to the small screen. We were all in agreement about one point from the beginning: we should take advantage of the television medium by presenting the work as a live TV broadcast of the Mastergate hearings, CNN-style. As absurd as the dialogue was, the action should be presented realistically enough that those tuning in might think they’ve stumbled onto live coverage of a Congressional hearing. At Gelbart’s request, we recruited director Michael Engler who had directed the play off-Broadway. A huge amount of credit, however, must be given to producer Jablin who was truly the brains behind the transition from stage to screen.
I wish I could take more credit for this show, but as Co-Executive Producer, my role was more administrative and supervisory than anything else. We managed to corral an amazing cast for Mastergate (which premiered on Showtime on November 1, 1992, less than a week before the election that first put Clinton in the White House.)
The cast included: Richard Kiley, David Ogden Stiers, Ed Begley Jr., Bruno Kirby, Tim Reid, Marcia Strassman, Darren McGavin, Henry Jones, James Coburn, Burgess Meredith, Dennis Weaver, Pat Morita, Jerry Orbach, Buck Henry, Ron Vawter, Ben Stein and Robert Guillaume.
Mastergate is available on home
video, distributed by Showtime Home Entertainment/New Video.