‘April Fools’

M*A*S*H: A writer’s view. #14 in the series.


M*A*S*H, as I have mentioned before, reached a grand climacteric in 1979. Before that, while the series gradually changed in tone, becoming more dramatic and less consistently funny, it remained substantially the same show that Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds had created. Actors left the cast, but new characters were invented to replace them; writers left the show’s stable, but new talent was recruited. The newer writers were not in the same league as Gelbart, Laurence Marks, or Greenbaum and Fritzell; but they were quite good enough to ensure the smooth running of the machine that those more gifted hands had built.

After 1979, the show stopped developing altogether.

That was the year that Gary Burghoff left, the last regular cast member to do so. Many fans of M*A*S*H felt his loss keenly, and it is true that the show was never the same afterwards. But in fact the character of Radar had been slowly diminishing in importance for years. As I mentioned before, Burghoff had special dispensation (written into his contract renewal) to skip ten of the show’s twenty-four episodes each season; and for the most part, his absences were so deftly handled that one simply doesn’t notice when he fails to appear. The real break with the past happened offscreen.

Each year before that, there had been a certain amount of turnover in the writing staff, but never enough to seriously jeopardize the continuity of tone and character development. From seasons 2 through 7, on average, about a quarter of the writing credits went to writers who had not worked on M*A*S*H before.

Then Ken Levine and David Isaacs left the show, feeling that they had said everything that they could think of to say in that medium. The show was becoming stale and repetitive, and they did not want to linger on, treading the same rut again and again. Most of the writers left along with them, or (what amounts to the same thing) were not hired by the new editing team. Eleven new writers got their first M*A*S*H writing credits in the 1979–80 season, and among them they accounted for 78 percent of the credits that year. If you leave out the two-part ‘Goodbye, Radar’, written by Levine and Isaacs before their departure, the percentage rises to 81. So far as the writing goes, it was very nearly a whole new show.

Where the old M*A*S*H was a screwball comedy, the new M*A*S*H was a ‘dramedy’ with a tendency to drop the comedy element altogether. Old M*A*S*H made fun of the Army from inside knowledge; new M*A*S*H preached against war from the viewpoint of civilians who could hardly understand what an army is for. Old M*A*S*H had an ensemble cast, and most of the humour arose from the interactions among the characters. New M*A*S*H was Alan Alda’s baby, and a number of episodes were marred by his habit of inserting Hawkeye into scenes where he simply wasn’t needed. Old M*A*S*H was skilfully written and brilliantly funny. New M*A*S*H sometimes made you wonder why it had a laugh track at all.

The eighth season actually works reasonably well in spite of these massive changes. The new writers, as always, brought new points of view and new ideas; and the actors, after so many years’ experience playing the same characters, helped to assimilate the new talent and maintain a connection with the show’s past. Some of the new hands were good screenwriters, and one, Jim Mulligan, was brilliant. But the forward motion of the show stops, never to resume again. The cast and crew begin to perform by rote, and the stories decline into formula.

The last episode of that season was ‘April Fools’, written by Dennis Koenig. Koenig had a knack for comedy writing. He had recently come from a stint as a writer for Rhoda, and he would go on to write or story-edit chunks of Night Court and Growing Pains. He was eventually credited as a producer on M*A*S*H. One cannot question his ability. But at that time, there were serious lacunae in his skills. ‘April Fools’ shows him at his best and worst.

By this time, M*A*S*H scripts had developed a fairly strict structural formula. There was always an ‘A’ plot and a ‘B’ plot, which ideally contributed to each other’s resolution, but sometimes barely intersected. The ‘A’ plot was straight drama as a rule, the ‘B’ plot comic relief, which tended to become more perfunctory and clownish, and less genuinely funny, as the years wore on. Every regular actor had to be guaranteed a sufficient quota of lines and screen time; which meant that the rich variety of supporting actors and roles tended to diminish.

In the early seasons of M*A*S*H, we feel that the cloud of extras in olive drab who populate the set are there for a reason: we see enough of them at their work – supply sergeants, orderlies, motor pool men, mess NCOs (but never the cook, who remained a faceless menace until late in the series) – and, of course, nurses – to give the feel of a fairly large and busy hospital. In the later years, jobs were given to the regular cast simply because they were regulars. We occasionally see surgeons running the mess, heading charity drives, even doing laundry and hauling garbage.

The concluding episode of season 7, ‘The Party’ (by Burt Metcalfe and Alan Alda), shows this tendency at its worst. The people of the 4077th arrange a during-the-war reunion back in the States, at which their loved ones can congregate and get to know each other. It was a daft idea to begin with. What makes it unbearable is that the eight series regulars, and only those eight, got to invite their families to the party. The other hundred-odd members of the 4077th were omitted without a thought. The script seems to have been hacked together at the last moment, after ‘Goodbye, Radar’ was postponed to the following season. It makes the weakest season finale since ‘Showtime’, the collection of random skits and sight gags that concluded the show’s first year.

‘April Fools’ is a stronger finale than that, but it largely works in spite of itself. The central conceit is not one of the show’s best; there is no proper ‘B’ story at all. There are merely two takes on the same comic plotline: one that tries to be funny and often fails, one that tries to be farcical and succeeds. The story functions because the villain of the week is menacing enough to maintain genuine tension, and the laughs are magnified because they relieve that tension. In structural terms, Koenig makes the best of a middling scenario. But his work tends to fall apart at the sentence level, and the scenes are not strong enough to bear the weak dialogue.

Let us set the scene. The surgical staff are changing out of their whites after another gruelling session in O.R. They exchange sour gibes. ‘This war has definitely lost its allure,’ says B. J. Winchester merely groans. Then Hawkeye delivers a well-crafted quip:

          HAWKEYE
If we didn’t have such a terrific union, I’d give my two-week notice.

In the context of the scene, this line works very well. It is exactly the kind of wry, exhausted humour that one does hear from people who are demoralized by overwork. The ‘terrific union’ crack is a fine backhanded slap at the practice of manning Army hospitals with conscript surgeons.

Only this is not what Hawkeye said. He actually made a different joke:

          HAWKEYE
I’d give my two-week notice, but I’m too weak.

I happen to have a fondness for puns, and this one is especially good, because it comes naturally. The wordplay is not forced at all. It is brief, snappy, and has the proper timing for a one-liner.

But I tell a lie – again. Here is what Hawkeye really said:

          HAWKEYE
If we didn’t have such a terrific union, I’d give my two-week notice… but I’m too weak.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the Joke-and-a-Half Technique. The punchline of the first joke is the setup of the second. That means that the first punchline occurs in the middle of a sentence, which is the worst place for it, and destroys the timing. It also means that the second punchline comes across as an apology for the weakness of the first joke; and since the second joke is conceptually weaker than the first, the whole thing comes down with a bump. We begin with the setup for a wisecrack about Army life, and end with the pun. The line would have worked better if it had been amputated at one end or the other.

This kind of trouble recurs throughout the script. The would-be funny lines are clustered together as if they were afraid to travel alone. Instead of a build-up, a punchline, and the requisite canned laughter, one seems to get a weak joke, another weak joke to explain the first, maybe a third joke to apologize for the second, and some by-play to stretch out the timing and make it to the next checkpoint on the laugh track.

So we have the doctors changing clothes after an O.R. session, and cracking rather tired jokes, which eventually meander around to the actual topic of the scene: B. J. has received a package of food from home, parts of which he shares out to his colleagues. There are brownies for Hawkeye, fruit salad for Col. Potter, and a large can of pralines.

          WINCHESTER
     (grabbing the can from B. J.)
Ah! Pralines, the South’s only contribution to civilization.

          B. J.
Don’t be shy, Charles.

Of course, there are no pralines; only that old standby of unimaginative practical jokers, the snake nut can. The snake jumps out of the can, and Alan Alda tries to sell the scene by screeching with laughter. In case this doesn’t work (which it doesn’t), Koenig follows up with the weak explanatory joke:

          B. J.
Hey, Charles! Beware the Perils of Praline!

Potter is gruffly unamused; Winchester calls it a ‘lame jest’, which is exactly correct. Now the apologetic third joke:

MARGARET SCREAMS, off. She opens the curtain upstage with a violent jerk and enters.

          MARGARET
     (furious)
All right. Who left the dead minnows in my pocket?

          WINCHESTER
     (in mock indignation)
They were alive when I put them there. You’ve killed them!

HAWKEYE and B. J. hoot with laughter again.

          POTTER
Et tu, Winchester?

          MARGARET
Go ahead and laugh, guys, there are plenty of minnows in the sea. A Houlihan never forgets.

          POTTER
Et three, Margaret?

MARGARET exits by snapping the curtain shut.

          POTTER
What’s going on here?

Now we get another joke-and-a-half, but this time the conjoined one-liners do not even work separately:

          B. J.
’Tis the season to be silly, Colonel. April one-eth is at hand.

Yes, folks: we have another practical joke episode. Practical jokes have worked brilliantly in the past on M*A*S*H, either as the ‘B’ story or as incidental comic relief. This is the first time they are required to carry the whole weight of an episode, and frankly, this crop of jokes just isn’t equal to the burden. We have seen some golden pranks in the past, usually at the expense of Frank Burns: Frank is packed in a shipping crate while he sleeps. Frank falls for a get-rich-quick scheme involving a nonexistent stock, ‘Pioneer Aviation’. Frank digs a foxhole outside the Swamp out of sheer paranoia; B. J. fills it with water, and Sidney Freedman shouts, ‘Air raid!’ Almost none of the gags in this episode rise to that level. The pranks are tedious, sophomoric, and perfunctory. As hard as the cast tries to sell them by overreacting with paroxysms of mirth, the viewing audience is unlikely to muster more than a tired and ironic ‘Ha, ha.’

Potter, at least, has the sense not to let himself be dragged down to this level. Koenig meant him to express this sentiment in the inimitable Potter style, part down-home folksy Missourian, part vivid and fanciful. Potter likes his wordplay; he likes to express himself by a modern version of what the Anglo-Saxon scops called ‘kennings’. The tone was set in his very first O. R. session at the 4077th: ‘Nice to know there’s still a little pizzazz left in the old digits.’ He habitually checks for comprehension of his orders with interrogatives like ‘Capisce?’ or ‘Comprende?’ The style, as I say, is inimitable, and Koenig does not manage to imitate it. Instead he produces a kind of ghastly burlesque:

          POTTER
Just include me out. Understandez-vous?

Hawkeye promises to comply. But as Potter turns to leave, we see a raccoon tail pinned to the tail of his shirt with a haemostat. Cue the laugh track; another checkpoint.

Cut to Klinger’s office, where the yawning clerk is just getting off the phone after taking down a TWX message, which he hands to Potter as the colonel comes in. Father Mulcahy barges in, wearing a woman’s frilly dressing gown. He is irate at having been made the victim of yet another lame practical joke. Again, Koenig follows up the weak sight gag with a weak one-liner:

          POTTER
Good morning, Padre. Or should I say, Padress.

This line is followed by several more perfunctory gags at Mulcahy’s expense, after which he leaves, having accomplished nothing. One suspects that he was shoehorned into the scene merely to give William Christopher something to do in this episode.

Now, at last, we get down to business. The plot is kicked into motion by another cheap parody of a Potter expletive:

          POTTER
Now that Gorgeous George is gone, can we get back to— Holy haemostat! We’re in for it now!

          KLINGER
For what, sir?

          POTTER
Colonel Daniel Webster Tucker, lord high executioner of the Surgeon General’s office, is coming to observe our medical setup!

          KLINGER
‘Observe’ doesn’t sound too scary.

          POTTER
This fellow can observe you to smithereens! From what I hear, he’s a fire and brimstone doctor with a three-second fuse. A stickler’s stickler. Quotes Army medical regs by memory – especially the part on courts martial!

It is interesting that Koenig has no trouble writing authentic Potter patois – when he is not trying to be funny. ‘Holy haemostat’ is embarrassingly bad; it reaches for a laugh and misses. Potter’s next two lines are not intended to be funny, but they show wit, spirit, and a flair for descriptive language. The Potterese language is entertaining in itself; but when it stoops to accommodate the laugh track, it shows symptoms of lumbago. Koenig would have done better to let Potter be Potter in this scene, and let Klinger handle the comic relief.

Potter orders Klinger to clean up his files and order supplies – ‘everything you can order, including order forms!’ Next, he calls an emergency meeting of the senior medical staff, consisting of the other surgeons and the chief nurse. Klinger wakes the Swampmen, setting up another weak practical joke: As Hawkeye puts on his boots, he discovers that one of them is full of oatmeal, courtesy of Major Houlihan.

Cut to the meeting. Potter lays down the law concerning Tucker’s visit:

          POTTER
So for the sake of me and my eagles, which I worked so hard to get, there will be no – I repeat, nada – in the way of larks, antics, or shenanigans while he’s here. Got it?

But Hawkeye cannot leave ill alone. He promises to follow Potter’s instructions to the letter – no jokes while Tucker is in camp – but talks the other Swampmen into one last prank to take revenge on ‘Margaret the Menace’. They retire to the Swamp to plot amongst themselves.

Meanwhile, we see Klinger in the motor pool, trying to enlist Sgt. Rizzo’s help in shaping up the camp. This scene is a comic gem; the minor recurring actors, unlike the leads, were never shy about being funny. G. W. Bailey is an unsung comic genius. He plays Rizzo to the hilt as a scheming, Cajun-fried goldbrick, three parts bayou drawl and one part narcolepsy. Klinger finds him under a jeep, supposedly repairing it, actually taking a nap. Not even Colonel Tucker’s inspection can disturb the motor pool sergeant’s tranquillity. In a magic phrase, he reveals ‘the Luther Rizzo secret of military success’:

          RIZZO
Never smile.

          KLINGER
Huh?

          RIZZO
The Army hates to see a man grin. Makes them think they’ve failed somehow. But moan and groan and carry on, and they’ll leave you all to your lonesome. Long as they know you’re miserable, they’re happy…. You can do anything you want in the Army. Just act like you don’t want to do it.

This lesson spawns a brilliant scheme in Klinger’s warped but fertile brain: the last of the great Section Eight ploys. He will use reverse psychology on the Army:

          KLINGER
I’ve been doing it all wrong!

          RIZZO
Yeah!

          KLINGER
I’ll be the world’s greatest soldier!

          RIZZO
Right!

          KLINGER
Make ’em think I love the Army!

          RIZZO
Right!

          KLINGER
Then, and only then, I’ll pull the old switcheroo!

Happy with his new idea, Klinger leaves Rizzo to resume his snooze under the jeep.

We return to Hawkeye’s practical joke. Considering the conditions on the Fox set, it was spectacularly ill-conceived.

Each episode of M*A*S*H was filmed several months before its air date. This allowed most of the production to take place in summer, taking advantage of the longer daylight hours. But the last episodes of each season were generally filmed in autumn, on a sound stage replica of the outdoor set in the Malibu hills. For this reason, these late episodes tended to include a lot of night scenes: the replica set looked less obviously fake with the added lighting effects.

‘April Fools’, as I have said, was a season finale, filmed entirely indoors. In an over-elaborate and sadly unfunny prank, the Swampmen steal Margaret’s tent, leaving all her belongings arranged inside the tent frame exactly as they were before. Alas, the eye can tell that the scene is taking place on a sound stage. Not a breath of wind disturbs her frills and lampshades.

To over-compensate, Koenig makes Margaret react with a tantrum: not the generous overflow of martial anger that she used to exhibit in her days as Hot Lips, but the watered-down late-season version, signalized by a frigid gasp of maiden-aunt indignation. Again, we see the second weak joke to compensate for the first. Margaret barges into the Swamp, not yelling, but feebly bleating, ‘Get up, Pierce, you tentnapper!’ She yanks back the blanket on his bunk to reveal a plastic skeleton, which causes the hardboiled Army nurse to scream like a little girl in a Hallowe’en haunted house.

The Swampmen emerge from their hiding place, and the encounter degenerates into a pillow fight. Lest anyone forget this is a comedy, Koenig supplies a steady flow of weak gags:

          MARGARET
Where is my tent?!

          HAWKEYE
We pitched it somewhere!

HAWKEYE, B. J., and WINCHESTER laugh hysterically while MARGARET beats them with the pillow until it bursts.

          MARGARET
Where is my tent?!

          B. J.
We gave it to a dog, now it’s a pup tent!

Of course, Col. Tucker chooses this very moment to make his appearance. Tucker is brilliantly played by Pat Hingle; he makes an utterly convincing and straight-faced heavy. He is not impressed to see three surgeons and a head nurse having a pillow fight. They try to make light of it, and fail:

          TUCKER
This is disgraceful. Absolutely disgraceful.

          B. J.
You know, you’re right. They just don’t make pillows the way they used to.

Potter comes out of his tent, yelling more imitation Potterisms:

          POTTER
What in the name of Marco blessed Polo is going on here!
     (looking at TUCKER; suddenly fearful and contrite)
Oh. How do. Uh… You would have to be Colonel Tucker.

          TUCKER
And you would have to be Colonel Potter. My God, Potter, what kind of place are you running here? Don’t you have one competent person here?

Enter Klinger, playing the one competent person. He is wearing his Class A uniform, bracing and saluting like a West Pointer – the model of military efficiency. He sucks up to Col. Tucker in fine soldierly style, after which Tucker retires and Potter gives his staff a cornball chewing-out.

Next day, we see Tucker observing in O. R. This scene is a wasteland of missed opportunities. Tucker himself is brilliant; the surgeons are badly let down by the script. Margaret tries to apologize for their conduct the night before, but Tucker brushes her off. B. J. and Winchester are removing shrapnel from a patient’s chest, and trying to show off for teacher:

          WINCHESTER
     (picking up the shrapnel with forceps)
Ah, ha. Voilà!

          B. J.
Nice work, Charles. For a foul ball, you sure know your way around the old chest cavity.

          WINCHESTER
     (laughs)
Thank you, Hunnicutt. Yes, it was rather exceptional work. Wouldn’t you agree, Colonel?

          TUCKER
What do you want, a medal?

          B. J.
     (indignantly)
Hey, he just saved this kid’s life!

          TUCKER
Isn’t that the general idea?

The trouble is, Tucker is exactly right. Removing shrapnel from a patient’s chest is routine meatball surgery. Winchester is a brilliant thoracic surgeon; to congratulate him for this virtually amounts to sarcasm. Here is an opportunity lost. If Koenig had jettisoned Mulcahy’s needless appearance, and tightened up the dialogue (particularly by reining in the Potter gags), he would have had time to develop this into a genuinely dramatic scene. Winchester could have been working on something genuinely difficult, which would make Tucker’s reaction more obviously one of personal spite, and not a perfectly reasonable response from an irritated senior officer. As it is, we are actually tempted to sympathize with his sarcasm:

          POTTER
Colonel, I’ll admit we’ve got a full rack of eight-balls here, but when it comes to cutting, these people are the real McCoy.

          TUCKER
I should hope so. I assume they’ve all been to medical school.
     (clasping his hands in mock contrition)
Oh, I am so sorry. I should give the good doctors a round of applause for doing their jobs.
     (clapping)
Hear, hear, Doctors. Hear, hear.

Now, at last, the story is moving at full steam. Klinger, the Model Soldier, escorts Tucker on a tour of post-op. He insults the doctors on duty, sticks his nose into their patients’ charts, and generally puts their back up. Hawkeye rebels:

          HAWKEYE
     (frigidly polite)
Can I help, Colonel?

          TUCKER
Just having a little look-see, Doctor, that’s all.

          HAWKEYE
This is my patient. You have any questions, ask me.

          TUCKER
Why, Doctor, you don’t have anything to hide, do you?

HAWKEYE
Only my outrage. You know, you really are a sanctimonious—

B. J. and WINCHESTER approach TUCKER.

          B. J.
     (interrupting)
Hawkeye, no. Let me.

          WINCHESTER
Colonel, I really must voice my resentment concerning your attitude.

          TUCKER
No, you mustn’t. What you really must do is keep your mouth shut!

Margaret tries to offer Tucker her sympathy and support. He rejects it with another insult – ‘I hardly need the support of a woman!’ – eliciting another maiden-aunt gasp. As Tucker turns to leave, Hawkeye brings matters to a head:

          HAWKEYE
Colonel, I wonder if we could have a four-letter word with you outside the hospital zone.

          TUCKER
Fine! I’m a reasonable man.

They step outside. Margaret and the surgeons offer up a few snippy lines of their own, to which Tucker responds with brutal effectiveness:

          TUCKER
Get this. I’m going to shape this place up, and I can’t think of a better way to start than barring all of you from medical service.

          HAWKEYE
     (laughing mirthlessly)
Golly gee, boys and girls, are we in dutch!

          B. J.
The colonel’s going to make us stand in a corner of Korea.

          MARGARET
And go to bed without supper.

          WINCHESTER
For which, Colonel, I shall be eternally grateful.

          TUCKER
You people think you’re very funny, don’t you? Well, I’ve had it with you screwballs. As of right now, you’re all on report for gross insubordination, conduct unbecoming officers, and anything else I can think of.

          MARGARET
I can’t believe that.

          TUCKER
You’d better believe it, Major. If I have my way, you’ll all be court-martialled. And since I’m the man who makes those decisions, I always get my way. Let me see you laugh that one off, gang.

In spite of the bad one-liners and the wordy dialogue, Koenig has brought the story to a fine crisis. Hingle’s performance helps us postpone the moment of fridge logic, at which we will wonder why doctors who have got away with far worse for years should be court-martialled over pillow fights and angry words. But there is enough reason on the writer’s side to make the idea work. In the pilot, as we saw, General Hammond refused to court-martial Hawkeye and Trapper because he could not spare two such skilful surgeons; this set a pattern that was often repeated. But Tucker is not in the chain of command; the MASH units are not under him, and he is not responsible for their effective operation. He can afford to be a loose cannon, and has the power to indulge personal vendettas.

Now we cut to the ‘B’ plot. Tucker walks into Klinger’s office, only to find him dressed up as Cleopatra: the promised switcheroo.

          TUCKER
I don’t understand. Is there going to be a costume party?

          KLINGER
Oh, I hope not. I don’t have a thing to wear!

Tucker concludes that Klinger has broken under the strain of being the only competent soldier on this crazy post. He offers Klinger his long-awaited medical discharge, which the corporal accepts with a fine show of reluctance.

Unfortunately, the writer’s next move is another weak one. Back at the Swamp, the four condemned officers plot their revenge against Tucker. Instead of working up their defence against his charges, they decide to ‘let the crime fit the punishment’. They will pull a practical joke on Tucker, presumably so they can actually deserve their sentence in Leavenworth. This is a thoroughly stupid idea, but it matches their childish behaviour through the episode so far, so we let the writer get away with it. But he has to resolve the plot fast, because our disbelief will not remain suspended for long.

Cut to the officers’ club, where the Swampmen and Margaret enact their vengeance. Tucker comes in and orders his usual drink, a shot and a beer. The bartender, per arrangement, brings the colonel his shot.

          TUCKER
I ordered a shot and a beer! Where’s my beer?

          HAWKEYE
Beer’s on you, Colonel!

Hawkeye pulls a rope, tipping over a bucket of beer concealed in the rafters and soaking Tucker. The colonel surges to his feet, sputtering with rage while the condemned officers laugh like hyaenas.

          TUCKER
Nobody does this to Daniel Webster Tucker!—

TUCKER falls face down on the bar.

          MARGARET
     (alarmed)
What is it? What’s wrong?

          POTTER
It’s his heart!

They stretch Tucker out on the floor and prepare to administer first aid. Winchester orders a cardiac kit. In the midst of the hubbub, we hear Tucker faintly calling for Hawkeye.

          TUCKER
Pierce…

          HAWKEYE
     (kneeling beside TUCKER)
What is it? I can’t hear you.

          TUCKER
Is that you, Pierce?

          HAWKEYE
Yeah, what is it?

          TUCKER
Just one thing…
     (beat)
April fool!

The whole inspection was a prank, set up long in advance by Potter and Tucker. The two colonels are old war buddies, and cooked up the scheme to upstage the younger officers and their juvenile jokes. The victims take it uncommonly well, laughing and applauding.

          HAWKEYE
Fellow jokers, we are in the presence of greatness. We have been royally had!

In the tag, we see them all gathered round the bar, listening to the colonels’ reminiscences.

          TUCKER
Sherman and I have been doing this for three wars now.

          POTTER
Of course, things didn’t always work out so good. Remember the time we slipped the rubber hamburgers into the chow line?

          TUCKER
Yeah. Trouble was, nobody noticed!

The last one taken in by the joke is Klinger, who still thinks Tucker’s offer of a Section Eight is legitimate. He walks into the club in full Egyptian regalia:

          KLINGER
Come on, Colonel! I want to get home to see my mummy.

All the others break up in laughter.

          KLINGER
What’s so funny?

FREEZE and ROLL CREDITS.

Once more, Pat Hingle’s performance is letter perfect. The setup worked only because he was absolutely convincing as the ‘lord high executioner’; the payoff works because he is equally convincing as Sherman Potter’s old practical-joking chum. The transformation requires brilliant acting to remain believable, and Hingle delivers it.

As I said, ‘April Fools’ shows the new writers at their best and worst. The scenario is a strong one; the best, probably, of all M*A*S*H episodes turning on practical jokes. The central joke, Tucker’s performance as the Genghis Khan of the medical corps, is strong enough to pull the whole episode’s weight. But there is a lot of weight to be pulled. The pace is slowed by corny Potterisms, excessive dialogue, and above all, by the sheer weakness of the minor practical jokes in the setup. The whole story (to borrow George Orwell’s phrase) is well told without being well written.

Klinger’s subplot is as good as anything his character was used for on M*A*S*H. If the rest of the dialogue had been written with the same quality as his scenes with Rizzo and Tucker; if the supporting practical jokes had actually been moderately funny; if the script had relied less on corny Potterisms and apologetic second jokes — if these things had been accomplished by a little judicious editing, ‘April Fools’ would have ranked as one of the finest episodes in the series’ long run. As it stands, it is not much more than a passable vehicle for Pat Hingle’s bravura performance.

The trouble, I suppose, is that the judicious editing was not forthcoming. Dennis Koenig was not only the screenwriter, but the story editor as well. And as Frederik Pohl once remarked, the problem with being your own editor is that you have no editor. Larry Gelbart, or even Levine and Isaacs, would have made Koenig sharpen up his quill until it drew blood. Koenig the editor could not perform that office for Koenig the writer: he lacked the necessary critical distance.

Half the job of a comedy writer is to come up with scenes and lines that make the audience laugh. The other half is to throw them away, and replace them with scenes and lines that make the audience laugh louder. ‘April Fools’ stands as an unfortunate landmark in the final era of M*A*S*H: the lazy execution of an excellent idea. Too often, in these last years, we will see the lazy execution of mediocre ideas. The rot has set in; soon we will begin to smell the gangrene.

Back to M*A*S*H: A writer’s view

Comments

  1. Stephen K says:

    A great review, thank you.

  2. TheConductor says:

    Marvelous. Subscribed.

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