Michel de Montaigne, back in the 16th century, was the first writer to call his short, informal pieces by the name ‘essai’. The French word means ‘trial’ or ‘attempt’; Montaigne’s essays represented no set body of knowledge, but his own attempts to work out his thoughts in writing. The pieces collected here are in the same rambling and experimental tradition. I sometimes use the French spelling ‘essai’, not because I am terribly pretentious, but to remind me of the original meaning of the word. Nothing posted here should be taken too seriously. —T. S.

‘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. [Read more…]

Life, Carbon, and the Tao

My essai for the first anniversary of L. Jagi Lamplighter’s Superversive blog is now up in full:

Part One: What’s so special about carbon?

Part Two: What’s so special about the Tao?

Reposted on SuperversiveSF in one piece.

Go, read, and I hope you enjoy.

In other news, I shall not be writing this week, as I have finally enlisted some help to do a top-to-bottom cleaning of my flat, which is many months overdue. The accumulation of books and papers was making it impossible for me to hoover up the dust, and the dust was making it difficult to do anything else. I have been living largely on a diet of antihistamines and facial tissue. Enough of that!

Legosity

So far, I have described my thoughts about ozamataz up to the point where I asked whether one could attract that kind of self-sustaining fan participation, and if so, how. This is also the point at which the Muse, or the Guardian Angel, or the Collective Subconscious, or Something, stepped in. Perhaps it was the Great Oz himself.

Having worked out something of the nature of ozamataz, I asked my brain: ‘OK, brain, what is it that makes some things have ozamataz when others don’t?’

And my brain, without missing a beat, obligingly answered: ‘Legosity.’

I was duly annoyed, for I then had to figure out what legosity was. My brain is cryptic and has no manners, and seldom troubles to explain itself.

The one thing my brain did deign to tell me is that legosity has something to do with Lego. This made sense on the face of it. Lego toys have an ozamataz of their own. They have inspired movies, games, theme parks, and of course, the imaginations of millions of children the world over. The manufacturer’s recent habit of producing specific single-purpose Lego sets like model kits, which hardly fit together with other Lego and are hardly intended to, is most regrettable. These kits tend to take up shelf space at the toy shops and displace the kind of Lego that you can really play with. But the original bricks and doors and windows, Lego people and Lego cars and Lego trees, and so on – those are still available, and you can do anything with them. Nowadays, you can even buy Lego with moving parts and electric motors, and build Lego machines that can be controlled via computer. There are Lego robots in the world, and serious men with doctorates in the hard sciences have been known to play with them.

As the unfortunate history of the kit-model kind of Lego shows, it is not so much the brand name, or even the mechanical ingenuity of Lego that gives the toys their unique quality. It is the concept. At bottom, Lego consists of a whole range of bits and pieces, all designed to fit together easily and without fuss, so that they can be used to build anything the imagination can conceive. You do not have to be a skilled carpenter, or a watchmaker, or know how to build ships in bottles, to build houses and cities and fairy castles out of Lego. The skill in your fingers (especially a child’s fingers) ceases to be a limit on what you can achieve, and the mind is set free to soar.

Even the name Lego is well chosen, and means, I think, more than its inventor intended. We are assured that it comes from the Danish phrase leg godt, ‘Play well’. But it is also Latin and Greek, and in those languages the word has a wide and subtle range of meanings that reach right down into the guts of the human psyche. [Read more…]

Life, Carbon, and the Tao (part 1 now up)

The estimable L. Jagi Lamplighter is featuring my new essai ‘Life, Carbon, and the Tao’ on her Superversive blog. Part 1 is now up; part 2 to follow next week.

Ozamataz

I have spent the last week or so (when not sleeping off my medications) in a fairly continuous process of brainstorming, chewing over several new-to-me ideas and figuring out how to turn them into actual writing techniques.

I forget exactly what prompted me to revisit the Key & Peele skit I reposted some time ago, in which the duo performed a thorough piss-take on the silly (and often self-inflicted) names one so often sees among American football players. Of all the daft monikers they introduced to the world, one in particular seems to have caught the public imagination: ‘Ozamataz Buckshank’. The name Ozamataz has been ‘repurposed’ for any number of online game characters and social-media personas. I think part of the reason lies in the delivery: in the original skit, the name was pronounced in a drawl reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart. It is, in fact, a fun name to say aloud, and I think that contributes to its popularity. But there may be more to it than that. A name like ‘Jackmerius Tacktheritrix’ or ‘Javaris Jamar Javarison-Lamar’ is too Pythonesque, too blatant in its silliness, to have much staying power. ‘Ozamataz’ is almost, but not quite, realistic; it could plausibly be an actual word.

And so, hearing the name again, I asked myself: If ozamataz were a word, what would it mean?  [Read more…]

‘Operation Friendship’

M*A*S*H: A writer’s view. #13 in the series.


The last of the comedy doubles on M*A*S*H is a study in opposites. One was a streetwise working-class kid from Toledo; the other was a Boston Brahmin who, the minute he was born, spat out the silver spoon because it was not 14-karat gold. One was the first regular character not taken from Hooker’s novel; the other was the last character added to the cast, and was loosely based on a pair of surgeons who appeared in the book.

Five years into the series’ run, Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum went back to the fountainhead for a scene that would help them with one of their most difficult writing tasks. Near the end of the book, two replacement surgeons arrive at the 4077th: a pair of young Ivy Leaguers fresh out of residency, Captains Emerson Pinkham and Leverett Russell. Col. Blake makes the Swampmen show them the peculiar techniques of meatball surgery, instead of letting them sweat it out and learn for themselves. [Read more…]

‘Goodbye, Radar’, Part 2

M*A*S*H: A writer’s view. #12 in the series.


After three seasons on M*A*S*H, Gary Burghoff, like many Hollywood stars, was having serious trouble with his marriage. Unlike many of them, he did not give in to the easy solution of a divorce. So he renegotiated his deal with Fox; henceforward he would appear in only 14 of the 24 episodes each season, allowing him more time with his family. To keep up appearances, he was listed in the opening credits of every episode, and it is quite possible for the casual viewer not to notice his absence unless the script calls attention to it. Usually that attention-calling takes the form of having Klinger serve as company clerk pro tem.

After four more years, this half-measure was no longer enough. Burghoff’s domestic problems were becoming acute, and besides, it was becoming harder every year for an actor in his thirties to play a character perpetually in his late teens. He was becoming typecast as the adolescent boy he could no longer portray. Moreover, there is evidence that he was not popular with his castmates. At that time, Burghoff had the usual insecurities of the actor to an unusual degree. He could be touchy, thin-skinned, and temperamental; and the fact that he practised his own version of ‘Method’ acting did not make him easier to work with – though it probably contributed to the emotional sincerity of his performance, and allowed him to pass himself off as the teenaged Radar years longer than he might have done by conventional techniques. The fact that he received special treatment from Fox, being spared the gruelling schedule of a 24-episode season, probably did not endear him to his fellow actors. Everybody loved Radar, but nobody, it seems, cared much for Gary Burghoff; and in the end the contradiction was too much to sustain.

Ken Levine and David Isaacs, the story editors, also wanted out. Levine tells how he came to his decision to leave the show. They were just shooting an episode called ‘Preventive Medicine’, another script by Tom Reeder, in which Hawkeye removes a perfectly healthy appendix from a bloodthirsty line officer to get him removed from command. One day, Levine went home and saw a M*A*S*H rerun on the TV. It was an episode from about five years before, with exactly the same plot device; only that time it was written by Larry Gelbart, and consequently funnier and more dramatic. The only way in which the new episode improved on the old one was that B. J. gave a passionate argument against Hawkeye’s scheme: ‘Cutting into a healthy body is mutilation!’ Even that was put in at the insistence of Mike Farrell, who had a heated dispute with Alan Alda over that precise point. It was then that Levine realized the show was repeating itself, and he was running out of original contributions to make. It was time to go.

Before they left, Levine and Isaacs wrote one final script: the two-part ‘Goodbye, Radar’. [Read more…]

‘Goodbye, Radar’, Part 1

M*A*S*H: A writer’s view. #11 in the series.


Now we come to the character that was the unquestioned heart of M*A*S*H: Corporal Walter Eugene ‘Radar’ O’Reilly, late of Ottumwa, Iowa, myopic farmboy, animal lover, Grape Nehi drinker, perpetual adolescent, and all-round débrouillard. When Gary Burghoff gave up the role after seven years, a considerable part of the show’s appeal left with him; also some of the audience, though not enough to seriously damage the ratings. When other actors left, their characters were replaced: Henry Blake with Col. Potter, Trapper John with B. J., Frank Burns with Winchester. Radar was irreplaceable.

The first thing we find out about Radar in ‘M*A*S*H: The Pilot’, in the very first scene before the opening credits, is that he hears incoming helicopters before anyone else. This ability, along with his nickname and his home town, came from the real-life Radar: Don Shafer, who served in Korea as company clerk to the 171st Evacuation Hospital. (Unlike Radar O’Reilly, Shafer went on to serve in Vietnam and eventually earned the rank of chief warrant officer.) In a 2009 interview, Shafer distinguished himself from his fictional counterpart: ‘I didn’t have ESP, obviously – I’m not sure if anyone does – but I was observant. I would listen for things… that nobody else was listening for.’

The novel MASH makes it clear that Radar does have ESP; the Robert Altman movie makes him do things that pretty solidly imply it; the TV series leaves it an open question. The TV Radar’s anticipations of events can generally be explained by natural causes, first among which is the sheer predictability of his superiors. Radar knows the official routine of the 4077th so well that he can put his hands on any needed paperwork five minutes before Col. Blake even knows it will be needed, and he is generally even ahead of Col. Potter. This is solidly established in the pilot episode, in the first scene where we see Radar in Col. Blake’s office. Radar has just come into the room behind Henry’s back, anticipating the call: [Read more…]

‘Hot Lips is Back in Town’

M*A*S*H: A writer’s view. #10 in the series.


Let us go back a bit, to the spring of 1977. The finale of the fifth season of M*A*S*H was ‘Margaret’s Wedding’, which was also the swan song for Gene Reynolds (who directed the episode) and Larry Linville. It also marked the first on-screen appearance of Col. Donald Penobscot, whose off-screen engagement to Margaret Houlihan had already caused such far-reaching changes to the tone of the show and the balance of the cast.


On this occasion only, Penobscot was played by Beeson Carroll: clean-cut, likable, well-spoken apart from a tendency to mix up words when drunk (he finished ‘396th out of 227’ at West Point, where he went in for ‘Greco-wrestle Romaning’). It was a hilarious rather than a happy ending to the engagement. The Swampmen, in one of their most heartless practical jokes, encase the hapless Penobscot in a body cast the night before the wedding. By the time they relent and try to tell Margaret that he has not broken half the bones in his body, it is too late: the newlyweds are already departing by helicopter, and can’t hear over the noise of the chopper blades. The only blue note in the composition is played by Frank Burns, standing alone and forlorn on the helicopter pad, saying to the empty sky: ‘Goodbye, Margaret.’


And goodbye it is: for while Loretta Swit returned in the new season and remained with M*A*S*H to the end, Hot Lips was gone for good. (It is significant that her nickname is used only a handful of times in the last six seasons.) Nor was it simply a case of replacing ‘Miss Houlihan’ with ‘Mrs. Penobscot’. The new production team, dominated by Alan Alda, decreed that Margaret’s marriage should be doomed from the start.


In ‘Fade Out, Fade In’, besides writing out Frank Burns and writing in Charles Emerson Winchester III, Fritzell and Greenbaum were assigned the task of wrecking the marriage during the honeymoon. Margaret actually leaves Donald in Tokyo and returns to the 4077th before her leave is over. The Swampmen, consumed with curiosity, pester her with kindness until she confesses:

[Read more…]

‘Fallen Idol’

M*A*S*H: A writer’s view. #9 in the series.


Before we can continue with the story of Margaret Houlihan, we need to take note of an irrevocable change that happened on M*A*S*H at this time. In 1977, after five years on the show, Gene Reynolds stepped down as executive producer. He continued to be listed on the credits as ‘Creative Consultant’, but what this meant, in effect, was that the new production team had a chat with him once a week or thereabouts. It was no longer his show. Larry Gelbart, as we have seen, left a year earlier and was not even involved as an occasional consultant. At the same time, Allan Katz and Don Reo stepped down as producers after a single year at the helm.

So whose show was M*A*S*H now? Burt Metcalfe, who had been with the show from the beginning, and had shared production credit with Katz and Reo in the fifth season, was now credited as sole producer. But this is misleading. Metcalfe was a superb technician, who could always be relied upon to keep a show running smoothly, to work around any production glitches and keep the Hollywood-sized egos around him suitably groomed and massaged. He was a perfect right-hand man. That was the job he had done for Gene Reynolds for five years, and he would continue to do it for six more. But for whom? In theory, Reynolds was still his superior. But his actual boss was the other man listed in the new position of Creative Consultant: Alan Alda.
[Read more…]