Archives for July 2015

‘Hey, Doc’

M*A*S*H: A writer’s view. #6 in the series.

We have arrived at the fourth season of M*A*S*H. The show has weathered the first storm of cast changes with its audience more or less intact, though the tone is subtly changing. The war is still a horrible and inhuman calamity, beyond the power of any of the characters to prevent or affect; but we can no longer say the same of the Army.

Hitherto, the spirit of the armed forces has been represented by the duo of Frank Burns and ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan, not so much characters as caricatures, and their futile quest to turn a parcel of draftee doctors into GIs. They were the Enemy, with a capital E; the North Koreans and Chinese were merely a disaster, usually offscreen. But now Colonel Potter, the career man, is in charge, and third on the bill: he is one of Us, and that means that the Regular Army, in toto and categorically, can no longer quite be regarded as Them.

There will be plenty more stories about military stupidity, wrongheaded regulations, gung-ho but incompetent officers; but the emphasis changes. These things that continue to afflict the 4077th are diseases of the military; we begin to lose the sense that the military, as such, is the disease. In this, the show is changing with the times. The Vietnam War reached its final catastrophe in 1975: North Vietnamese troops entered Saigon on April 30, just six weeks after ‘Abyssinia, Henry’ was broadcast. M*A*S*H, the film, was a thinly veiled protest against that war; the TV series continued in the same vein. But there was no longer a war to protest against; if the show had gone on that way, it would have become a museum piece.

As it was, M*A*S*H lost a considerable chunk of its audience. Many fans of the show stopped watching in outrage after Henry Blake was killed; the show dropped out of the top ten in the Nielsen ratings the following season, though not out of the top twenty. But the new characters, Potter and Hunnicutt, quickly won over the remaining viewers, and the fourth season produced a new flowering of technical excellence.

This was the last year with Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds in charge (now credited as co-producers). They continued to refresh the pool of writing talent, in part, by tapping their long-time connections in the industry. One of the new writers was Rick Mittleman, who received his first and, alas, only M*A*S*H credit for an episode called ‘Hey, Doc’. [Read more…]


M*A*S*H: A writer’s view. #5 in the series.

In one of my previous posts on M*A*S*H, I mentioned that the original cast, with its three distinct comedy double acts, could have carried on almost indefinitely, but that external forces prevented them. The old theologians liked to talk about the three great sources of temptation, the World, the Flesh, and the Devil; and one could make a pretty fair case that these three tempters broke up the three double acts and prepared the way for the series’ eventual decline. Actually, the frequent changes of cast were a mixed blessing for M*A*S*H. The exquisite structure of the original cast was broken up. On the other hand, new actors and new characters meant new situations that the writers could exploit; and since the writers themselves were replaced at a fairly steady rate (until the great climacteric of ’79, to be discussed later), there were always fresh approaches and new points of view in the scripts.

The third season, for instance, featured the first scripts by Linda Bloodworth and Mary Kay Place, the show’s first women writers; their chief contribution, perhaps, was to make the nurses more important to the stories, without using them merely as love interests or sexual foils for the surgeons. Mary Kay Place guest-starred in an episode she had co-written, ‘Springtime’, playing a nurse whom Radar inadvertently (and comically) seduces by reading her a horrible poem by ‘Ruptured Brooke’:

The damned ship lurched and slithered. Quiet and quick
My cold gorge rose; the long sea rolled; I knew
I must think hard of something, or be sick….

Do I forget you? Retchings twist and tie me,
Old meat, good meals, brown gobbets, up I throw—

At which point Place throws herself at Radar, moaning, ‘You don’t give a girl a chance!’ Whereupon the rest of the poem (‘A Channel Passage’) is fortunately lost.

But the real genius of the middle years of M*A*S*H belonged to a veteran writing team that Larry Gelbart brought in for the third season: Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum, who had cut their teeth in radio, and had worked in television since the beginning of that medium. Before he died, Greenbaum did a long interview for the Archive of American Television, which (among many other reminiscences) sheds much light on the process of writing for M*A*S*H.

Greenbaum and Fritzell, more than anyone except the show’s creators, had their fingers on the pulse of M*A*S*H; they understood the characters (and the armed forces) intimately. So the producers relied on them exclusively for the most difficult and delicate writing jobs of all: writing out old characters and introducing new ones whenever the cast was changed. [Read more…]

The Artist’s Statement

Hat tip to Michael Flynn. Out of the mouths of smart-alecks comes spot-on satire:

Calvin and Hobbes strip on artists' statements

‘Don’ts for Dogmatists’

I should very much like to write one last roaring, raging book telling all the rationalists not to be so utterly irrational. The book would be simply a string of violent vetoes, like the Ten Commandments. I would call it ‘Don’ts for Dogmatists; or Things I Am Tired Of’.


. . . . . . . . . .

Don’t say, ‘There is no true creed; for each creed believes itself right and the others wrong.’ Probably one of the creeds is right and the others are wrong. Diversity does show that most of the views must be wrong. It does not by the faintest logic show that they all must be wrong.

I suppose there is no subject on which opinions differ with more desperate sincerity than about which horse will win the Derby. These are certainly solemn convictions; men risk ruin for them. The man who puts his shirt on Potosi must believe in that animal, and each of the other men putting their last garments upon other quadrupeds must believe in them quite as sincerely. They are all serious, and most of them are wrong. But one of them is right. One of the faiths is justified; one of the horses does win; not always even the dark horse which might stand for Agnosticism, but often the obvious and popular horse of Orthodoxy. Democracy has its occasional victories; and even the Favourite has been known to come in first. But the point here is that something comes in first. That there were many beliefs does not destroy the fact that there was one well-founded belief.

I believe (merely upon authority) that the world is round. That there may be tribes who believe it to be triangular or oblong does not alter the fact that it is certainly some shape, and therefore not any other shape. Therefore I repeat, with the wail of imprecation, don’t say that the variety of creeds prevents you from accepting any creed. It is an unintelligent remark.

—G. K. Chesterton, A Miscellany of Men

Visit Edmonton!

The oldest and most vibrant Alberta tradition is the bitter rivalry, amounting to actual hatred, between Calgary and Edmonton. This dates back to 1905, when the Canadian government (over the objections of most Albertans) made Edmonton, then a village in the remote North, the capital of the new province, instead of the thriving young city of Calgary. As a sop, Calgary was supposed to be the site of the new University of Alberta… but that went to Edmonton as well. (Calgary did not get its own university until the 1960s.)

The long history of actual insults and injuries is largely forgotten now, except by old curmudgeons like myself; the rivalry has largely been sublimated into the realm of professional sports. The ‘Battle of Alberta’ between the NHL’s Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers, in particular, is heated and acrimonious, and in days gone by (when both teams were good) produced some of the most viciously entertaining hockey ever played. Just recently, the Oilers tried to freeze Calgary out of the act by trademarking the phrase ‘Battle of Alberta’, despite more than 30 years of usage in the public domain. This is how Albertans keep warm in the insanely long winters.

Herewith, one Calgarian’s effort to spruce up Edmonton’s public image.


Visit Edmonton – Alberta's Own Frozen Wasteland (poster)

‘Deal Me Out’

M*A*S*H: A writer’s view. #4 in the series.

Until the middle of the 1970s, conventional wisdom had it that a half-hour situation comedy had room for only one plot per episode. Subplots, if any, were kept down to the level of a running gag. Fitting a good story (and some laughs) into 25 minutes of film was hard enough; to tell two was thought to be impossible. M*A*S*H was one of the first sitcoms to break that rule and introduce multiple story lines per episode: so successfully, in fact, that the technique became a mainstay of the show’s formula in later years. Nearly every episode from the fourth season on has clearly identifiable ‘A’ and ‘B’ stories.

In those later years, when the original writers had been replaced by lesser talents, the ‘A’ story was usually straight drama. This afforded the actors opportunities for Serious Dramatics and tub-thumping on their favourite causes célèbres, whilst making the writers’ jobs easier. Comedy is much more difficult to write than drama; it is harder to act, too – though far less gratifying for the performer’s ego, since Oscars and Emmys and the like are generally awarded by humourless clods. (Charlie Chaplin never won an Academy Award as an actor; he got his sole Oscar as a composer, for the score to Limelight. Before he died, the Academy gave him an honorary award for lifetime achievement as an actor: the feeling was that if they let Chaplin die without winning an Oscar for his acting, the Oscars themselves would be devalued. Chaplin did not win an Oscar so much as the Academy won a Chaplin.)

In the first year and a half of M*A*S*H, there were several ‘odds and ends’ episodes, consisting mostly of comic sketches strung together without much pretence of a plot. Usually, the unifying device was a character’s letter home, as in the ‘Dear Dad’ episodes. ‘Showtime’, the final episode of the first season, lacked even that. Commissioned at the last moment, when CBS demanded one more episode than Reynolds and Gelbart thought they were under contract for, it features a USO performance at the camp, intercut with brief comical interludes. This was not where the future of the series lay.

That future began with an episode called ‘Deal Me Out’, in which, for the first time, the writers worked multiple plot lines together into a unified story. The structure is complex and ambitious, and in lesser hands, could easily have turned into an unfocused mess. Fortunately, the writers were Larry Gelbart and Laurence Marks, and the script is a landmark, not only in the history of M*A*S*H, but in sitcom history as a whole. [Read more…]

A follow-up: On hope

After all, he never had any real hope in the affair from the beginning; but being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope, as long as despair could be postponed.

The Return of the King

Dear Theophilus,

Not being a cheerful hobbit, I have not Sam Gamgee’s happy frame of mind. My outburst the other day, which the Loyal 3.6 have read, some have remarked upon, and one has sneered at, came from the exhaustion of hope. I shall try, this time, to be less cryptic and elliptical about what is bothering me. [Read more…]


I shall not fool myself again. I shall immure my heart in the living rock a thousand fathoms deep, where it will trouble no son of Adam, and vex no daughter of Eve. And though I have nothing to gain by my labours, labour I shall: for I cast my defiance in the teeth of oblivion. I have seen that no reward can come for my work in this world, for the longing of my heart is denied, and the desire of my soul is shut up against me. Asking bread, I have received stones; casting my net for fish, I have caught serpents. Very well, I shall live upon stones and serpents while I may; and though none may mark my passing, or remember my works thereafter, at least it shall not be said that I ceased from my duty. I shall sow, though I cannot reap; I shall pour out the last measure of myself, though the vessel be not refilled. Let it be for a bitter jest; and if all the world have no manner of use for me, nor for the work of my pen, still let the jest be played. God at least may laugh.