"There've been better times to be me," says Larry Gelbart, who created "M*A*S*H" for television, wrote "Sly Fox" for Broadway and coauthored "Movie Movie" for the silver screen. It's the little gray screen that depresses him now, because his ambitioius intelligent, groundbreaking comedy "United States" appears doomed.

Ratings for the NBC series have been not merely iffy but downright awful. The program will be preempted during the entire month of May and expectations are that after NBC airs the remaining four shows, it will quietly drop the program. "You don't need a magnifying glass to read this handwriting on the wall," Gelbart says from his Los Angeles home.

There simply is no question that "United States," the battle hymn of a modern marriage, was superior, thoughtful television and that it strayed far outside the normal primetime mediocrity spectrum. But this is a TV season in which CBS became the ratings champ by airing a vicious four-hour movie about mass suicide in Guyana and by putting two episodes of "The Dukes of Hazzard" on in the same week. Both episodes came in among the top ten shows the week they were shown.

Gelbart says he is not bitter, but he certainly isn't encouraged. He knows he can find less enervating forms of frustation than trying to upgrage network TV.

"I said 'never again' once before, but I thought 'never again' would be longer than a few weeks," says Gelbart. "I'm older now and I know what never again' means. No, I would never do a series again. There's just no point. I can't see doing it again, at least not under the present system." n

Gelbart doesn't want to stomp on sour grapes, but he obviously feels some resentment against NBC President Fred Silverman, who took deep bows for giving Gelbart months in which to prepare the series but then failed to engineer the buildup it needed when it finally got on the air. There were also poormouths within NBC who'd refer to the show as "a downer" or "a noble experiment."

"I think there were some rats who deserted the ship before it was launched," Gelbart says. "The important thing to remember, though, is that when you talk about NBC, you're really only talking about Silverman. Everything runs according to his command, his whim and his desire."

Silver is supposed to be Mr. Promotion; recently he flew into a rage over the lousy job NBC's promotion department has done in hyping the network. But Gelbart feels "United States" could have been ballyhooed much more effectivelly than it was, especially since it suffered the handicap of an almost inaccessible time slot (Tuesdays at 10:30 p.m. EST) and an "incompatible" lead-in, "The Big Show."

"I'm not bitter and I'm not cynical," Gelbart says, "and I certainly don't feel as though the American public has let me down or that they're not worthy or something. With sufficient promotion and advertising, with the kind of attention NBC gives to Gary Coleman and "Speak Up, America" and BJ and the Bear," we might have had a chance. But you don't buy an exotic plant and keep it in the basement." h

NBC wanted an unusual show from Gelbart says, "and I certainly don't the unspoken reaction seems to have been that the show was too unusual. "I guess i was far more revolutionary that anything they expected," Gelbart says. The show might have found an audience if given time to grow, but NBC is in desperate straits when it comes to ratings and Gelbart wonders, "If you're starving, you can afford to order something from the menu that takes 24 hours to cook?"

Was the program "too adult" and "too realistic" compared to most TV fluff, and therefore rejected? "I don't know," Gelbart says. "I don't think I reckoned with what the expectations of the audience really are. Maybe people do want talking wallpaper or whatever, and have no real desire to become involved in or with it.

"I think I was being naive, and perhaps too egotistical, in thinking that I could make a difference, in thinking that I would be treated differently in what is a competitive, callous and tough business. I thought maybe I'd earned the right to be treated differently, but I wasn't, really.

"There's not much point in batting my head against a wall. I know we did a helluva job. It was the best I could do. I've been given a terrific lesson in humility. The next time out, I'll just look for another medium -- the stage, or movies, or maybe cable television. I don't need to run around looking for rejection."

Even if the program's ratings were infinitesimal by "Dukes of Hazzard" standards, "United States" still had millions of fans. Gelbart heard from some of them, including one man who said he and his wife never miss the show, but always watch it in separate rooms on separate TV sets to prevent a fight over the issues it brings up.

"Well, I'm sitting here with 19 scripts for next year with more of that kind of stuff," Gelbart says. "Maybe I'll just rent a hall and do readings."