‘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.
Duke, having determined that all they had to do was fix the small bowel and that time, up to a point, was not going to be a factor, decided to sweat it out. For two hours he stood there amusing himself by mildly insulting Knocko McCarthy, who wouldn’t hurt him while he was scrubbed, and assisting in wonder as Captain Russell performed a small bowel resection as performed by the residents in a large university hospital. “Do y’all mind if I do this one?” he asked, as Captain Russell finally advanced on the second area needing repair. “I lost twenty bucks in that poker game, and I’ll never get even at this rate.” He didn’t wait for an answer. In twenty minutes he removed the damaged segment of bowel and sewed the two ends together. “Y’all probably noticed,” he explained to Captain Russell as they were closing, “that when clamping and cutting the mesentery, I wasn’t quite as dainty as y’all were. Y’all will recall that I didn’t do the anastomosis with three layers of interrupted silk, like y’all did. I used an inner layer of continuous catgut and interrupted silk in the serosa. Where y’all put twelve sutures on the anterior side of yours, I put four. Y’all observed that the lumen in my anastomosis is as big as yours, I’ve got mucosa to mucosa, submucosa more or less to submucosa, muscularis pretty much to muscularis and serosa to serosa, and there ain’t any place where it’s going to leak. It took y’all two hours, and it took me twenty minutes. Your way is fine, but y’all can’t get away with it around here. Y’all will kill people with it, because a lot of these kids who can stand two hours of surgery can’t stand six hours of it.” “But…” Captain Russell started to say. “That’s right,” Duke said, “and if I’m really in a hurry I’ll ride with just the continuous catgut through all the layers.”
Larry Gelbart had already lifted a phrase from this scene and cut it down to television size for ‘M*A*S*H: The Pilot’, where, as I mentioned before, Hawkeye writes home to his father: ‘…a lot of these kids who can stand two hours on the table just can’t stand one second more.’ Now observe how Fritzell and Greenbaum took the detailed and somewhat wordy prose above, and cut it down for the requirements of meatball writing – that is, to suit a half-hour situation comedy:

          POTTER Major, we can’t spend two hours on a bowel resection.

          HAWKEYE Chaahls, move on.

          WINCHESTER I’m moving on as fast as I can.

          B. J. I’m finished here, Charlie, let me show you.

          WINCHESTER You show me? Certainly not.

          MARGARET Doctor, we do have shortcuts.

          WINCHESTER Shortcuts are sloppy surgery. More suction.

          MARGARET Doctor, if we can’t control the bleeding, we’re going to lose him.

          POTTER B. J., take over. Winchester, watch him.

B. J. comes over to WINCHESTER’S table and begins to crowd him aside.

          B. J. Move it.

          WINCHESTER Now, see here! I—

          B. J.      (interrupting) Wounded egos come later. For now, just watch.

(There is a bit of byplay in the background, as Hawkeye prepares to take another case.)

          B. J. When you’re in a hurry, you cut the mesentery between two big clamps and forget daintiness.

          HAWKEYE Throw in a layer of catgut, and interrupted silk in the serosa.

          POTTER Maybe eight sutures on the anterior side.

          B. J. Mucosa to mucosa, muscularis to muscularis.

          POTTER Serosa to serosa.

          HAWKEYE And Natchez to Mobile.

          WINCHESTER It’ll leak.

          B. J. No, it won’t, and it’ll only take twenty minutes.

The monologue is shortened, then divided among four characters. It moves quickly – the whole section quoted above plays in under 50 seconds – and the interplay of the speakers makes it livelier than Duke Forrest’s uninterrupted lecture. And the repurposed scene serves as a wonderful first lesson in humility for the new arrival, who even inherited his middle name from Captain Pinkham: Major Charles Emerson Winchester III. Winchester replaced Frank Burns as the Swampmen’s resident nemesis. Burns, a cartoon villain on the level of Elmer Fudd, almost never got the better of the other surgeons except by pulling rank. Winchester had to be made of sterner stuff. A brilliant technical surgeon, a serious and competent officer, he is not actually a contemptible human being: the writers let him have the virtues of his faults. He is arrogant, but he works hard to live up to his opinion of himself. He is a snob, but he genuinely has the broad education and culture to partly justify his snobbery. His mind is filled with rubbish about ‘good breeding’, and he thinks of himself as an aristocrat; but he is devoted to his family, especially his sister Honoria. He is neither a fool nor a hypocrite. Winchester’s chief fault is situational: he resents his exile to a MASH unit, and when not working, he spends half his time scheming to get reassigned and the other half giving people the cold shoulder. ‘I don’t intend to be here long enough to get chummy,’ he announces soon after his arrival; and though he was a regular character on M*A*S*H for six seasons, he lived up to the letter of that intention. Such a character is enormously appealing to a writer, because there are so many ways that he can play the villain without ever losing his humanity. Some illustrative cases from his first year on the show: • ‘Change Day’ (one of the last scripts by Laurence Marks): Winchester concocts a scheme to exploit the Koreans who have been using U.S. Army scrip. This is technically illegal, but if they want to do business with the GIs in their midst, they have to take the paper in which the GIs are paid. The Army is replacing the old blue scrip with red, to foil the black market and the profiteers, and Koreans are not allowed on base while the troops are exchanging their money. Winchester buys the Koreans’ scrip for actual U.S. greenbacks at ten cents on the dollar, plotting to make a killing on the exchange. Hawkeye and B. J. concoct an elaborate scheme to foil him, and he loses his tailored shirt. • ‘The Merchant of Korea’ (by Ken Levine and David Isaacs): Winchester lends B. J. some money till payday, but the pay chest is short and there is only enough money to pay off the enlisted men. By way of interest, Winchester makes B. J. do a whole series of petty but demeaning favours for him. (Hawkeye parodies the situation: ‘Oh, Hunnicutt, since I lent you that money, would you be a good sport and Simoniz my head?’) The rest of the cast invite him to a poker game. Beginner’s luck nearly pulls him through the game, but Radar spots his ‘tell’: he whistles ‘Libiamo ne’ lieti calici’ (a typical Winchester touch) while he plays, and whistles louder when he is bluffing. Winchester loses his shirt again. • ‘The Smell of Music’ (Fritzell and Greenbaum): Winchester insists on practising the French horn in the Swamp. He plays abominably, and Hawkeye and B. J. go on strike, refusing to bathe until he gives it up. All three surgeons make themselves intolerable, until the whole camp rebels, giving the Swampmen a forced bath and running over the horn with a jeep. A local craftsman repairs the horn with spare parts, creating a monstrosity with five different bells and no mouthpiece. • ‘Dr. Winchester and Mr. Hyde’ (Levine, Isaacs, and Ronny Graham): In trying to cope with the inhumanly long working hours at the 4077th, Winchester gets himself hooked on amphetamines. (B. J. guesses correctly: ‘With his ego, he probably figured he could handle it.’) He even gives ‘a mouse’s portion’ to Daisy, Radar’s pet mouse, helping her win a high-stakes race against a Marine’s mouse. Daisy takes ill, Radar is apoplectic, Winchester collapses and has to refund the Marines’ bets. • ‘Major Topper’ (Allyn Freeman): Hawkeye and B. J. pass the time by exchanging tall tales, but Winchester tops them every time. When they brag about the women they have dated, he produces a photo of himself with Audrey Hepburn. He asks them: ‘When will you two cretins realize that your feeble imaginations cannot keep up with my real life?’ But even Winchester is astounded when Col. Potter successfully treats a ward full of casualties with a placebo instead of morphine. It was not until the following season that the writers stumbled upon the idea of pairing Winchester up with Klinger. The transvestite corpsman is Winchester’s polar opposite in personality, upbringing, class, profession, and in his role on the show. Remarkably for a situation comedy, Klinger is the only one of the regulars whose sole function (until he takes over as company clerk) is to be funny. It is easy to see that the writers had enormous fun coming up with his outrageous schemes to get out of the Army. The sheer gonzo ingenuity of his ideas, and their absolutely constant and predictable failure, puts him in a class with Wile E. Coyote. For instance: • ‘Radar’s Report’ (by Laurence Marks): Frank and Hot Lips demand that Col. Blake get rid of Klinger, whom they regard as a disgrace to the unit. Henry sends for the divisional psychiatrist, Dr. Freedman, who is unimpressed by Klinger’s act. Nevertheless, Freedman hands him the discharge paperwork: ‘It says I’ve examined you, and found you to be a transvestite and a homosexual. For all I know, you may also have post-nasal drip.… Now, this will be on your record permanently. From now on, you go through life on high heels. Sign it.’ Klinger refuses indignantly: ‘The hell I will! I’m just crazy. All I want is a Section Eight!’ • ‘The Trial of Henry Blake’ (McLean Stevenson, Gelbart, and Marks): Klinger builds a hang glider and tries to fly out of camp in a housecoat and slippers, looking like ‘a big red bird with fuzzy pink feet’. Both Hawkeye and Trapper describe him that way, separately, as he passes overhead, and the phrase ends up in the official report after he crashes two miles away. • ‘Officer of the Day’ (Laurence Marks): After Frank Burns calls him ‘an insult to American man- and womanhood’, Klinger tries to escape by disguising himself as a nun, then as a prostitute. Meanwhile, Col. Flagg has brought in a North Korean POW for treatment so he can be taken to Seoul and executed, to the Swampmen’s outrage. Hawkeye gives Klinger a trip to Seoul by putting him in the ambulance instead of the North Korean. • ‘Dear Sigmund’ (Alan Alda): Klinger pretends to have been hit in the helmet by a chopper blade, and he can only speak gibberish in Arabic. Subtitles: ‘My olive has no pit and there is no yolk in my egg… Father, give me your cheese from the windowsill.’ Potter is serenely unconvinced: ‘You can have a piece of my herring, but you’re not going home.’ • ‘Last Laugh’ (Greenbaum and Fritzell): Klinger starts going everywhere with his imaginary camel, Habibi. The scenes where he is trying to lead the camel (and sometimes it leads him) constitute one of Jamie Farr’s finest comedy performances. In the end, after a trip to I Corps, Col. Potter comes back with a discharge – for the camel. ‘It’s always the other guy,’ Klinger remarks sourly. (Many years later, Jamie Farr wrote a children’s book about Habibi. He knew a good thing when he didn’t see it.) • ‘Preventive Medicine’ (Tom Reeder): Klinger tries to get his discharge by putting a curse on Col. Potter, using such paraphernalia as a voodoo doll and a dead chicken. Potter turns the curse back on him by assigning him KP and sentry duty until further notice. Pointing at his eagle insignia and Klinger’s chicken, Potter observes: ‘My bird is more powerful than yours!’ One of the best comic scenes in M*A*S*H pits Klinger against Henry Blake. In ‘Mail Call’, by Gelbart and Marks, Klinger comes into the colonel’s office with an alleged letter from home, asking for a compassionate discharge because his father is dying. Blake pulls Klinger’s file and leafs through a stack of previous letters:

          HENRY Father dying, right?

          KLINGER      (sobbing) Yes, sir.

          HENRY      (going through the letters, with a beat after each) Father dying last year… Mother dying last year… Mother and father dying… Mother, father, and older sister dying… Mother dying and older sister pregnant… Older sister dying and mother pregnant… Younger sister pregnant and older sister dying… Here’s an oldie but a goodie: Half of the family dying, other half pregnant.      (putting down the letters) Klinger, aren’t you ashamed of yourself?

          KLINGER Yes, sir. I don’t deserve to be in the Army!

In ‘The Young and the Restless’ (Mitch Markowitz), we see a new variety of crazy: Klinger doesn’t want to go home, he thinks he is at home, a civilian in Toledo. Among other shenanigans, he walks into Col. Potter’s tent and tries to sell him aluminium siding. Finally, Potter pretends to give in:

          POTTER Klinger, you’ve convinced me. At first I thought all this not believing you’re in the army was just another scam. But you really think you’re in Toledo, don’t you?

          KLINGER      (puzzled) Don’t you?

          POTTER O.K., let’s get to it. I just want to check the facts before I send your paperwork to HQ.

          KLINGER I don’t understand what you’re talking about, but you’re the foreman.

          POTTER O.K. Name, Max Klinger.

          KLINGER Right. That’s with one X.

          POTTER Got it. Place of birth?

          KLINGER Toledo, Ohio.

          POTTER Fine. Mother’s maiden name?

          KLINGER Abodeely. That’s with two E’s.

          POTTER Social Security number?

          KLINGER 556-78-2613.

          POTTER Rank?

          KLINGER Corporal.

          POTTER      (triumphantly) Aha! Gotcha, soldier!

Over time, Klinger turned from a running gag into an actual character, largely because of Jamie Farr’s own contributions. Like Farr, Klinger (despite his name) is a tough Lebanese kid from the wrong side of the tracks in Toledo. He is a big fan of the Toledo Mud Hens and Packo’s Hungarian hot dogs. His girl back home is Laverne Esposito, whom he marries via ham radio, and later divorces when she cheats on him with a sausage-maker. We never see far into Klinger’s soul; not even Alan Alda troubles to psychoanalyse him in his scripts. But we know more about the surface of his life, probably, than any other character on M*A*S*H. In David Ogden Stiers’ second season as Winchester, the writers teamed him up with Jamie Farr and discovered that the two had a wonderful on-screen chemistry. The discovery came in ‘They Call the Wind Korea’, by Levine and Isaacs. Winchester is desperate to reach Seoul and catch a plane to Tokyo before the coming windstorm grounds all further flights. Unable to commandeer a helicopter, he dragoons Klinger to drive him to Kimpo by jeep. They become lost, and spend the night desperately working to treat a squad of Greeks who were injured when their truck overturned. Winchester tells Klinger his life story, but flatly refuses to hear Klinger’s in return. After a harrowing night, he sends Klinger up the nearest hill to search for landmarks. Klinger finds out that the hill directly overlooks the 4077th. They have spent the night hopelessly lost, just a few hundred yards from their own camp! By this time, the show had evolved away from its comedy roots, and the original cast, with its three double acts, had long since been broken up. It is unfortunate, but not surprising, that the new producers did not fully realize what they had in Winchester and Klinger: a duo every bit as good as Hawkeye and Trapper, Frank and Hot Lips, or Henry and Radar. Perhaps they chose not to. More screen time for those two would have meant less time for Serious Anti-War Rants from Hawkeye and B. J., or Serious Feminist Statements from Margaret. And it was the serious stuff that got the Emmy nominations. Still, several episodes did turn on the mismatched pair. They had a touching moment in ‘Death Takes a Holiday’ (written and directed by Mike Farrell). The 4077th is playing host to a truckload of children from a nearby foster home. The home is run by one Choi Sung Ho, played by Keye Luke with his usual impeccable dignity. Winchester, carrying on an old family tradition, orders in a big shipment of candy from the finest chocolatier in Boston, and delivers it to the home as an anonymous gift. Meanwhile, he plays Scrooge at the camp Christmas party, donating nothing but a tin of smoked oysters. There is plenty of unjustified outrage to go round. Everyone else thinks Winchester a consummate heel; but he has the same opinion of Mr. Choi, when he discovers that the candy has been sold on the black market. They leave the party for a confrontation outside:

          WINCHESTER Deny it. Deny it! You took the Christmas candy I gave you and you sold it on the black market. Have you no shame?

          CHOI May I explain?

          WINCHESTER No! What you may do is retrieve that candy immediately, and have it in the children’s stockings by morning. Otherwise they’re going to find you hanging by the chimney without care!

          CHOI Major, I cannot. The money is gone.

          WINCHESTER You – parasite!

WINCHESTER turns his back on CHOI and takes a few steps away, seething. CHOI approaches him from behind.

          CHOI Please. Your generous gift and insistence that it remain anonymous touched me deeply.

WINCHESTER looks sharply over his shoulder at CHOI.

          CHOI The candy would have brought great joy to the children – for a few moments. But on the black market, it was worth enough rice and cabbage to feed them for a month.

WINCHESTER turns back towards CHOI, half in spite of himself.

          WINCHESTER      (quietly) Rice and cabbage?

          CHOI      (nodding) I know.      (beat) I have failed to carry out your family tradition. And I am very sorry.

          WINCHESTER On the contrary. It is I who should be sorry. It is sadly inappropriate to give dessert to a child who has had no meal.

They shake hands and make up. Choi offers to share some Christmas cheer, but Winchester prefers to be alone. We have seen a brief shot of Klinger at the door of the mess tent, eavesdropping on the confrontation. Later, he shows up at the Swamp with Christmas dinner for Winchester: the last of the buffet from the mess tent.

          KLINGER Ah! Major Winchester, a party of one. Dinner…

KLINGER unfolds a napkin with a brisk snap and spreads it over WINCHESTER as a bib.

          KLINGER …is served.

          WINCHESTER      (annoyed) What is this?

          KLINGER Well, let me see. For your appetizer, the last of the macadamias.

KLINGER hands WINCHESTER a bowl.

          KLINGER Followed…

KLINGER uncovers the main course – a plate from the mess tent, covered with a helmet.

          KLINGER …by a mixed grill – of Lebanese salami, sugar-cured ham, pig’s feet and hog jowls. We have seconds on those. Sorry, sir, no smoked oysters, I just smoked the last one.

          WINCHESTER But I—

          KLINGER Ah! And for dessert – Frisco fudge and nutty fruitcake.

          WINCHESTER All laced with hemlock, I’m sure.

          KLINGER Sorry, sir, no hemlock. But I can get you some ketchup.

KLINGER heads for the door.

          WINCHESTER      (suspiciously) And – what, pray tell, is the catch of the day?

KLINGER turns back to face WINCHESTER.

          KLINGER Oh, just one catch, Major.

          WINCHESTER      (anticipating something unpleasant) Ah-ah.

          KLINGER      (quietly, with a trace of a smile) The source of this Christmas dinner must remain anonymous. It’s an old family tradition.

WINCHESTER looks over his shoulder at KLINGER. He is surprised, grateful, and solemnly touched.

          WINCHESTER Thank you, Max.

          KLINGER Merry Christmas… Charles.

Just a few weeks later, a script called ‘Operation Friendship’, by Dennis Koenig, would give the fullest expression of the peculiar relationship between Winchester and Klinger. The autoclave at the 4077th malfunctions, and Klinger shoves Winchester out of the way just before it blows up. As Hawkeye tells B. J., describing the incident: ‘Charles is fine, but Klinger has damaged over fifty percent of his body. He broke his nose.’ Winchester is determined to repay the debt of honour, and the bedridden Klinger decides on a whim to see how far he can take advantage. He starts small:

          KLINGER Well… if you’re sure it’s not too much trouble… a little tea would be nice.

          WINCHESTER Tea? Trouble? If I had to, I would sail to Ceylon.

          KLINGER I would love a drop of honey, but darn, there’s probably none here.

          WINCHESTER Honey is no object. I shall milk the finest bees in all Korea.

WINCHESTER winks and exits.

          KLINGER Well, how about that! Every broken nose has a silver lining.

It is a slow period at the 4077th, so Winchester has time to take over Klinger’s clerical duties for the moment. (In another pure Winchester touch, we see him rubber-stamping a stack of forms to the tune of the Anvil Chorus.) He takes Klinger’s dinner tray and reviews his order for breakfast in bed – three-minute eggs, lightly buttered toast with the crusts trimmed off.

          KLINGER One more thing, Charles.

          WINCHESTER      (in a tone of long-suffering patience) Yes, Max.

          KLINGER No – no, forget it.

          WINCHESTER Now, what is it?

          KLINGER Well – Well, I… I think it would really boost my spirits if you read me a bedtime story.

          WINCHESTER Aren’t you just a tad old for fairy tales?

KLINGER grabs a paperback book off the shelf.

          KLINGER Fairy tales, hell! This is for adults only!

WINCHESTER takes the book.

          WINCHESTER      (almost choking as he reads the cover) I, the Jury, by Mickey Spillane.

          KLINGER I traded a dozen cigars for that. Just read the underlined parts.

          WINCHESTER      (opening the book at random; reading) ‘I kissed her hard. I knew I was hurting her, but she didn’t pull away—’

Winchester breaks off, embarrassed. He tries to put Klinger off with offers to play checkers or Go Fish, but Klinger is insistent – and shameless:

          KLINGER A game is fine if you don’t want to read to me. It’s just that I find it so heartwarming to hear your voice ringing out vibrantly, after you came so close to being – shall we say – dead.

The next morning, Klinger suggests that Winchester wheel him over to the officers’ club to play darts.

          KLINGER Of course, a brainy guy like you might find that boring, and I wouldn’t dream of asking you to stay. So feel free to come back here. Maybe inventory supplies. Even varnish the floor.

          WINCHESTER      (barely controlling his temper) Ma-ax… There is a fine line between Good Samaritan and abused toady. At the moment, I am teetering on the precipice.

          KLINGER You are absolutely right. I’m a fair man. The floor can wait till tomorrow.

Klinger keeps needling Winchester and piling more work on his overstrained gratitude. At one point, Winchester confides to a nurse: ‘I can’t wait for his nose to get better so that I can break it again!’ In the tag, Klinger finally drives his ‘abused toady’ to the breaking point.

          KLINGER      (into the PA mike) Paging Charles Emerson Winchester, the Living! This is your saviour speaking! You are wanted in the reading room! So for the last time I say, ‘Chop chop, Chuck Chuck!’

Enter WINCHESTER, carrying a small paper bag.

          KLINGER Oh, thank goodness you’re here! I lost my copy of I, the Jury. You can help me find it.

WINCHESTER sits on KLINGER’S desk.

          WINCHESTER Fear not, dear Maxwell. Mr. Spillane’s torrid tome is in the safest of hands: mine.

WINCHESTER pats the paper bag.

          KLINGER How appropriate! A plain brown wrapper.      (rubbing his hands in glee) Well, let’s get started.

          WINCHESTER Rather than reading, and more in keeping with your… heroism – what I propose is an I, the Jury ticker-tape parade.

WINCHESTER begins opening the bag.

          KLINGER I don’t understand.

          WINCHESTER Oh! Well, then, let me Spillane!

The bag is full of confetti made from the ripped-up pages of the book. WINCHESTER shakes the bag, showering KLINGER with the confetti as we FREEZE FRAME AND ROLL CREDITS.
The ‘A’ plot of this episode, the serious dramatic plot, has B. J. develop a compartment haemorrhage in his right hand, threatening his career as a surgeon. Potter calls in a specialist to treat him, and the specialist turns out to be a seething cauldron of resentment with an insult for everybody and everything. This plot is capably handled for the most part; but it is the Winchester–Klinger story that steals the show, and that everybody remembers after the show is over. The scenes are beautifully structured: first the setup, then rising tension in tandem with rising comedy, until the final explosion of the dénouement. The serious story is flat by comparison. It is a great pity that M*A*S*H so seldom exploited the chemistry between David Ogden Stiers and Jamie Farr, and the very funny opposition between their characters. Like the three earlier duos, this pairing was magic: you had only to put them both on the screen together, let each one behave in character, and comedy ensued. I mentioned before that the Odd Couple is a twist on the ‘star-crossed lovers’ duo; well, Max and Charles are the Odd Couple in a combat zone. I have often wished that Stiers and Farr could have starred in a Broadway revival of The Odd Couple after M*A*S*H was off the air. They would have been perfect for the leads. By this time, however, M*A*S*H was firmly in the grip of its own delusions. Various cast members were insisting publicly that it was not a sitcom, a word that they pronounced as if it were a mild obscenity. They tossed around neologisms like ‘dramedy’ to describe the terribly important and artistic work that they were doing. The show-stealers simply could not be allowed to steal the show too often. Larry Gelbart would have let them have their head; but Larry Gelbart was never ashamed of producing comedy. The cast and crew of M*A*S*H increasingly gave the impression that they were; and the new writers who took over the show in its last years pandered to them. There continued to be funny moments almost until the end, but they became fewer, farther between, and as we shall see, not nearly so expertly done. Back to M*A*S*H: A writer’s view

‘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:

          RADAR Yes, sir.

          HENRY      (a split second too late) Radar!      (exasperated, gritting his teeth) Radar, don’t do that.

          RADAR Yes, sir. You wanted to see me, sir?

          HENRY Yes. Let me say I want to see you before I see you.

RADAR hands a sheaf of papers to HENRY.

          RADAR Yes, sir. You wanted to see this, sir?

          HENRY How did you know that?

          RADAR That’s why you called me.

          HENRY Oh, yeah.

Once or twice over his seven-year run, we see him misstep – for instance, in ‘Henry, Please Come Home’, when Frank Burns is in temporary command:

          FRANK Bring me the, uh…

          RADAR Fitness reports.

          FRANK Not the fitness reports! You can’t anticipate what I’m thinking. I’m not Henry Blake.

RADAR turns back to FRANK’S desk, puts down his sheaf of papers, and picks up another one.

          RADAR Sorry, sir.

          FRANK I want the—

          FRANK and RADAR (together, as RADAR hands over the papers) Efficiency reports.

Half the secret of superhuman efficiency is having good people under you. The other half, in too many cases, is taking all the credit for their work. The official company clerk at a MASH unit was only one wheel in the clerical machine, owing to the sheer volume of medical paperwork. Radar was the balance wheel: he made the rest of the clockwork run on time. Since this is television, and the number of characters who can be shown and developed onscreen is strictly limited, Radar is the only member of the clerical staff we hear of by name. Col. Potter at one point makes mention of a typing pool, and in the later years, Klinger occasionally filled in as clerk when Radar was on leave. Otherwise, we are left with the impression that Radar was a one-man operation. This is misleading, like the reduction of the medical staff from fourteen medical officers to four; but it preserves the essentials. Radar’s official work as company clerk is only half of his job at the 4077th, and often it is the short half. Every large organization is in a permanent state of struggle between two tectonic forces, the formal structure and the informal systems that fill in the gaps. Radar sits at the fault line between them, which makes him the natural choice (for anyone who knows military life) for the heart of the show. On the one hand, he has to feed the insatiable maw of the Army with daily, weekly, and monthly reports, supply requisitions, patient records, personnel files – all the myriad varieties of bumf that keep the formal structure from seizing up. On the other hand, he has to turn the often comically inappropriate supplies the unit receives (ice cream makers and salt tablets during a blizzard) into the stuff the hospital actually needs. The plot of many an episode turns on Radar’s success or failure as a scrounger. From the beginning, the creators of M*A*S*H had an ambivalent attitude towards scrounging. When Radar scrounges penicillin to save lives, he is a hero; when Koreans or other unauthorized personnel do it, they are black marketeers and therefore villains. I have never heard of any army that could run without scrounging; the black market is an inevitable feature wherever the troops are scrupulous enough to trade for their supplies instead of looting. The writers, on the whole, seem to have understood this, though some of the characters – Hawkeye in particular – clearly did not, and resented the occasional necessity of such dealings. Father Mulcahy knows better: twice, in fact, it is he who trades for supplies that cannot be had through official channels. In ‘Tea and Empathy’, by Bill Idelson (season 6), he learns the location of the cache where black marketeers are keeping the penicillin stolen from the hospital, and goes with Klinger to steal it back. In ‘Out of Gas’, by Tom Reeder (season 7), he actually makes a deal with the black market for desperately needed pentothal. The most convoluted black-market plot of all came in ‘Black Gold’, by Larry Gelbart and Simon Muntner (season 3). For once, Colonel Flagg, the bumbling counterintelligence agent, comes across as a sympathetic (though unsavoury) character. Thieves have been raiding the 4077th’s supplies, stealing their penicillin in particular. One of the culprits is caught red-handed, but he is wearing stolen dog tags and refuses to identify himself. Enter Col. Flagg. He goes to the tent where the thief is being held, ostensibly to question him, and orders the guard away. Instead of interrogating him, he gives an order: ‘Beat it. Get lost. Take a powder.’ He then wrecks the furniture and knocks himself out, making it look like the prisoner overpowered him and escaped. The reason for this bizarre behaviour? Flagg needs the black marketeers. He himself is trading the stolen penicillin to the enemy for information about troop movements, enabling the U.N. forces to anticipate and prevent enemy attacks. In fact, as he points out to the Swampmen, he is saving more lives with the drug than they could save by administering it to patients. This cuts no ice with the doctors; but when the escaped thief turns out to be a corpsman, who also needs the penicillin to treat wounded men at the front, they offer him all they can spare if he will only ask instead of stealing it. We are meant to come away with the impression that saving casualties with medicine is a noble thing, but preventing casualties by spying is a dirty trick. Perhaps I am not the only one who drew a different conclusion. But let us return to Radar. His first master stroke of scrounging occurs in ‘The Incubator’, by Larry Gelbart and Laurence Marks (season 2). A patient in Post-Op is critically ill with an undiagnosed infection. Standard Army procedure for testing blood cultures amounts to ‘hurry up and wait’, and the Swampmen are indignant:

          NURSE OWENS Rizzo… I did a white count on him. What’s the problem?

          TRAPPER We don’t know. Complications. Fever.

          OWENS OK. I’ll ship this off to the Tokyo lab. We’ll know what he has in 72 hours, then you can treat him.

          HAWKEYE Seventy-two hours? The kid’s so hot now, you can fry an egg on his head.

          TRAPPER Why don’t we have an incubator here so we can do our own tests?

          OWENS Because it would save time and effort, and it would make sense.

          HAWKEYE Can’t have any of that in the Army.

Every serviceman recognizes the wry truth of the last two lines. In the early years, M*A*S*H did a brilliant job of portraying the follies of military life with realism leavened by humour. In the later years, both realism and humour were frequently absent. I have known quite a number of soldiers and ex-soldiers in my time. To a man, they loved the early seasons of M*A*S*H, and most of them quoted lines like these from memory. None of them had much use for the later seasons, though some of them watched the show right to the end from force of habit. The Swampmen go to Henry’s outer office, where he and Radar have just finished assembling their new barbecue, official Army issue. The two surgeons ask their commanding officer for help:

          TRAPPER Our lab needs an incubator.

          HAWKEYE Yeah, we could speed up diagnoses and treatment by days.

          HENRY Well, hell! We just got the barbecue, I can’t pester them for an incubator.

          HAWKEYE Tell them we decided to open up a hospital instead of a restaurant.

          TRAPPER Radar, how do we go about requisitioning an incubator?

          HENRY Now, just hold it! I’m sick and tired of you guys going over my head down to Radar!

Henry reluctantly acquiesces and sends for Captain Sloan (Eldon Quick) from Quartermaster Corps. Sloan crisply informs them that they can’t have an incubator.

          SLOAN I checked your B.E.L. – basic equipment list. This unit has everything it’s supposed to have. You’re not entitled to an incubator. That would be a luxury.

          TRAPPER Luxury?

          HAWKEYE We’re not asking for a jukebox or a pizza oven.

          SLOAN Oh, those I can let you have.

Foiled by official channels, the Swampmen try the other way, and tell Radar to track down an incubator. He finds out that there are three at the 728th Evac, in the keeping of one Major Morris. On Henry’s advice, they put on their Class A uniforms and go to beg the major for one of his spares. They are delighted to find three brand-new machines, two still in their crates. Morris dashes their hopes:

          MORRIS My clerk said you wanted an incubator. No dice.

          HAWKEYE Yeah, but you’ve got three.

          MORRIS That’s right, but if I give one away, I’ll only have two.

          TRAPPER What’s wrong with two?

          MORRIS Two is not as good as three.

          HAWKEYE You’re not even using them.

          MORRIS Who says I have to?

          TRAPPER What do you do when you want a culture?

          MORRIS I send a smear to Tokyo. If I use one of these and it breaks down, then I’ll only have two.

Morris has an alternative suggestion:

Why don’t you guys just salute and get the hell on out of here?

So the Swampmen go over his head to Col. Lambert, who offers to sell them an incubator for a thousand dollars.

          HAWKEYE Ah! Preparing a little doggie bag for Switzerland, Colonel?

          LAMBERT That was a perfect diagnosis, Doctor.

          TRAPPER Wait a minute. You sell incubators?

          LAMBERT Oh, yes. Sterilizers, ice cream makers, pontoon bridges, jeeps, and with a week’s notice, the odd B-52. The crew is extra, of course.

This, by the way, is an anachronism: the B-52 bomber did not go into service until 1955. Such slip-ups were frequent in the early years of M*A*S*H: for instance, there were several references to Godzilla, though Ishiro Honda’s original Gojira did not appear until 1954. The offence is a venial one, since most of the anachronistic dialogue occurs in punchlines and does not materially affect the plots. Onward and upward: the Swampmen pester General Mitchell at a press conference. The gathered reporters, hearing what an incubator is, grab the wrong end of the stick and start asking if the U.S. is engaging in germ warfare. Pandemonium ensues; between the cut and the next scene, Hawkeye and Trapper are arrested by MPs and sent back to the 4077th. Their mission has ended in ignominious failure. But Radar has already saved the day. With a triumphant ‘Ta-da!’ he uncovers the coveted incubator, now sitting in the outer office.

          HAWKEYE      (astonished) Radar, how?

          RADAR Oh, a little wheeling-dealing, a little horse-trading… a little this for that….

          TRAPPER And we went all the way up to a general.

          HAWKEYE And a little corporal shall lead them.

          RADAR You guys gotta learn to start at the top.

In the tag, we discover just what ‘this’ Radar traded for ‘that’:

          RADAR Um, sir? We… we do have just a little bit of a problem here.

          HAWKEYE What?

          RADAR      (pointing his thumb back at HENRY’S office) Well, uh, he wants steak for tonight. Barbecued.

          HAWKEYE So?

          RADAR Can you set this thing for rare?

Radar knew better than to engage in a wild-goose chase, trying to beg or borrow the incubator. Though the script does not say how he made the deal, it is fairly easy to figure out. For Major Morris, the pathological pack rat, or (more likely) his clerk, two incubators are not as good as three; but two incubators and a barbecue are better than three of a kind. From Radar’s point of view, it did no harm to let the Swampmen ask for the machine; Morris might have said yes; stranger things have happened. But he already had Plan B ready. The moral of the tale is that the Army is stupid, and nothing gets done through official channels. But the moral in the tail is quite different, though slyly hidden, like the words of wisdom that Shakespeare puts in the mouths of fools and madmen: There are orders even a general cannot give, but Private Enterprise outranks any general. By way of contrast, this lesson was lost on the Swampmen, especially in their later edition with B. J. Hunnicutt. At times, Hawkeye and B. J. positively prided themselves on their lack of practicality in business matters. A case in point is ‘None Like It Hot’, by Ken Levine, David Isaacs, and Johnny Bonaduce (season 7). Hawkeye and B. J. receive a collapsible canvas bathtub from Abercrombie & Fitch. At first, they try to keep it a secret from the camp. When it is discovered, everyone in the company wants a bath in the scorching heat of the Korean summer. The queues are endless and unruly; fisticuffs break out; everyone is snarling at everyone else. A visiting sergeant, an old and battle-hardened scrounger, shows up and offers to buy the tub; the Swampmen turn him down flat.

          SGT. RHODEN I got it figured out. You’re making money on this, aren’t you? I seen that lineup. Now how much are you charging, five bucks a butt? Ten?

          B. J. Nothing.

          RHODEN Nothing for a skinny dip in paradise? What are you guys, Communist?

Rhoden is played as a thoroughgoing heavy, smarmy, sleazy, cocky, unpleasant, complete with redneck Southern accent; we are meant to regard him as a villain, and his ‘Communist’ crack as just a bit of loony Red-baiting by another idiotic right-wing Army clown. In fact, he is completely right. If the Swampmen (who, after all, own the tub) let people pay to use it, the queue would thin out, the disturbances would cease, and they would raise money that they could use for other purposes. They could order another tub; they could donate the proceeds to charity (Father Mulcahy could suggest a few), or put the cash in the Officers’ Club kitty for a unit party – any number of things. Instead, the queue is worthy of the old GUM store in Moscow – Communist indeed. Basic economics tells us that every scarce resource must be rationed, either by price, by privilege, or by some other method. The Swampmen have tried privilege (keeping the tub secret); they have tried the Communist method (making everyone wait their turn, wasting scores of man-hours and causing an intolerable ruckus); but they are too high and holy to dirty their hands with lucre, so they refuse even to consider rationing by price. In the end, Col. Potter gets fed up with the fighting and orders them to get rid of the tub. The mere facts of the plot make an excellent parable on the failings of socialism; but the production team and the cast spare no effort to throw all our sympathies onto the other side, painting the socialist solution as egalitarian and caring, the capitalist Rhoden as callous and selfish. Yet the egalitarian and caring Swampmen are selfish enough to hog the only tub in Uijeongbu for themselves. In the end Rhoden gets the tub anyway, and the Swampmen are out the purchase price (which is never mentioned at any time) and the months they spent waiting for it to arrive. As we shall see, Radar never lost his skills as a wheeler-dealer, though he had fewer opportunities to show them off in later years. However, that side of his character was gradually downplayed in favour of his endearing (and sometimes cloying) naïveté. ‘I Hate a Mystery’, by Hal Dressner (season 1), is a thoroughly forgettable episode, important in the history of M*A*S*H only because it introduces Radar’s teddy bear. Larry Gelbart later came to regret this, saying that the device became coy through overuse. At the time, it offered an interesting sidelight on the character: this slick operator, part magician and part juvenile delinquent, who kept the 4077th running in spite of its madcap staff and foggy-headed commander, was at heart just a little boy who needed his stuffed toy. But over time, the little boy took over. Unlike some of the later changes, which happened through laziness or sloppy writing, the redesign of Radar was quite deliberate and instigated by the show’s creators. The teddy bear struck a chord with viewers. Hawkeye remained the star of the show, but the audience’s hearts went out to Radar: the sole enlisted man among the regular cast at that time, he stood for all the draftee GIs who were too young for the horrors they endured, and longed above all to be home. Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds exploited this effect to the full. They worked with Gary Burghoff and the writing staff to make Radar gentler, more innocent and childlike. We can trace this process by stages; it was complete well before Gelbart and Reynolds left the show. Some of the key episodes:
  • ‘Love Story’, by Laurence Marks (season 1). Radar receives a ‘Dear John’ record from his girl back in Iowa. Initially heartbroken, he rebounds and falls for a new nurse, the highbrow Lt. Louise Anderson (Kelly Jean Peters). To help him win her, the Swampmen give him a crash course in classical music and literature, teaching him to fake it with phrases like ‘I’m partial to the fugue’ and the old standby, ‘Ah, Bach!’
  • ‘The Army-Navy Game’, by Sid Dorfman (season 1). A brilliant episode, in which Hawkeye and Trapper risk their lives trying to disarm an unexploded bomb in the compound – which turns out, when it detonates, to be a CIA bomb filled with propaganda leaflets. While the whole camp is hunkered down and fearing imminent death, Radar works up the courage to proposition the statuesque Nurse Hardy (Sheila Lauritsen): ‘For months now, I have worshipped you from below.’ She leads him away gently by the hand, and though nothing specific is said, we are led to believe that he manages to lose his virginity before the bomb goes off. Emboldened, he tries the same come-on on the next nurse he sees – but to his embarrassment, the ‘nurse’ turns out to be Klinger.
  • ‘The Chosen People’, by Laurence Marks, Sheldon Keller, and Larry Gelbart (season 2). Oops! Radar is a virgin again. A Korean girl puts the finger on him as the father of her half-American baby. At first he denies paternity, but then decides to go along with it until a blood test reveals that the child cannot be his. Radar confides to Hawkeye: ‘Do you remember when she first came around and I said that I do, but I didn’t? Well, I didn’t because I don’t, and I never. But I sure liked the way it felt when everybody thought I did.’
  • ‘Springtime’, by Linda Bloodworth and Mary Kay Place (season 3). As previously discussed, Radar accidentally seduces Nurse Simmons (Mary Kay Place) by reading an awful Rupert Brooke poem to her. Later he turns up in Henry’s office, glasses askew, uniform in disarray, with lipstick smeared all over his face: ‘I think I’ve been slaked.’
  • ‘Mad Dogs and Servicemen’, by Linda Bloodworth and Mary Kay Place (season 3). Radar is bitten by a dog. If the dog can’t be tracked down and tested for rabies, Radar will have to undergo a long and arduous series of rabies shots. He shows more concern for the dog’s fate than his own.
  • ‘Private Charles Lamb’, by Larry Gelbart and Sid Dorfman (season 3). M*A*S*H mavens seem to concur that this episode marks the real emergence of the childlike Radar. The Greek contingent of the U.N. forces, many of whom have been treated at the 4077th, express their gratitude by putting on an Orthodox Easter feast, with a live lamb for the main course. Radar, the animal lover, decides to rescue it, tricking Henry into signing an emergency leave for ‘Private Lamb’ so he can spirit it out of the country. The Greeks wind up celebrating Easter with a substitute lamb made out of Spam.
  • ‘Welcome to Korea’, by Everett Greenbaum, Jim Fritzell, and Larry Gelbart (season 4). Radar accompanies Hawkeye to Seoul to try to catch Trapper’s flight home (which they miss) and pick up Trapper’s replacement, B. J. Hunnicutt. At the officers’ club at Kimpo Air Base, we see Radar order a Grape Nehi for the first time. Henceforward, he is a teetotaller.
  • ‘Dear Mildred’, by Everett Greenbaum and Jim Fritzell (season 4). Radar is still ill at ease with his new C.O., Col. Potter. A chopper pilot reports that he has spotted a wounded horse, and suggests it ought to be put out of its misery. Radar objects vehemently: ‘It’s got rights!’ He talks the Swampmen into rescuing and treating it, and then gives it as a present to Col. Potter, finally breaking the ice between the colonel and himself.
  • ‘The Gun’, by Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds (season 4). A wounded colonel has to check his antique Colt .45 with Radar, but Frank Burns steals it out of the gun locker. The colonel threatens to throw the book at Radar, who tries to drown his sorrows at the Officers’ Club. We see him swaying on his barstool, and his speech is slurred. Klinger, concerned, asks him how many beers he’s had. ‘One,’ says Radar. He contemplates the prospect of fifteen years in the stockade: ‘I’m going to jail in my puberty, and I won’t come out till my adultery!’
  • ‘Mulcahy’s War’, by Richard Cogan (season 5). Frank Burns refuses to operate on a wounded dog, even though the dog is a soldier in the U. S. Army – Corporal Cupcake. Radar tries to talk him into it: ‘After all, dogs are people too!’
With the new Radar firmly established, the old one begins to disappear down the memory hole. In ‘Chief Surgeon Who?’, just a few weeks into the show’s run, we saw Radar in Henry’s office, drinking brandy and smoking cigars. Five years later, in ‘Fade Out, Fade In’, Col. Potter helps Radar smoke his first cigar, and Radar is duly sick. In ‘Hot Lips is Back in Town’, despite his previous experiences with Nurses Hardy and Simmons and possibly others, Radar is completely and comically lost when trying to make time with the latest arrival, Lt. Linda Nugent. No wonder Charles Winchester, in the same episode, made a sarcastic reference to Radar’s ‘interminable childhood’. Through the magic of the sitcom reset-to-zero, Radar was actually more immature and childlike when he left the show than when it started. And it was starting to wear thin. Gary Burghoff himself had had enough. The second half of his career on M*A*S*H, besides being marked by Radar’s slow regression towards childhood, was a long drawn-out goodbye, to which we turn our attention next. Back to M*A*S*H: A writer’s view

‘Ferret Face’

M*A*S*H: A writer’s view. #7 in the series.
When McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers left M*A*S*H, as I have discussed, they broke up two of the three double acts that made up the original cast. At the same time, quite unintentionally, they sealed the fate of the third. Frank Burns and ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan were still partners in crime after the departure of Henry and Trapper, but their crimes were never the same again. The arrival of Col. Potter started a process that led to Frank’s complete disintegration as a character, so that there was no option but to release Larry Linville from the show when his contract was up. This did not arise from any shortcoming of Linville’s as a performer. The decline and fall of Frank Burns was purely a matter of errors in writing; and for this reason I want to examine it in some detail. Linville, by every account I have read or heard, was a consummate professional and a thoroughly good sport. He knew he was there to play a comically inept villain, and applied all his considerable talents wholeheartedly to the job. The character’s nickname, ‘Ferret Face’, was actually a gift from the actor: that was Linville’s own nickname as an unfortunate boy. Linville had a marvellous capacity to extract laughs from the most unpromising material. He was a comedy Rumpelstiltskin, spinning gold from the straw of the lame comebacks that the writers gave him: ‘Nerts to you!’ or ‘Snot! Snot! Snot!’ or ‘I don’t chew my cabbage twice.’ (A Burns speciality, that line.) He was capable of stealing a scene, or at least capping it, with the hapless retort, ‘You… guys!’ He had the silent film actor’s ability to get laughs by facial expression alone. In one of the character’s best running gags, Frank and Hot Lips would turn up in Col. Blake’s office with a complaint (usually about the Swampmen’s unmilitary behaviour). Henry would address all his questions to Frank, but Hot Lips would give all the answers while Frank remained stony-faced and silent. This behaviour did not go unremarked by the colonel. ‘You’re in fine voice today,’ he said drily on one occasion; and on another, if memory serves, he threatened to subject Frank to an autopsy if he did not speak up on his own behalf. This ability to milk laughter from limited material was all the more remarkable because Linville, before joining the cast of M*A*S*H, did not have a reputation as a comedian. He had been a capable but largely unsung character actor, mostly playing heavies in TV dramas. On one occasion, he played something like a traditional Linville villain role even on M*A*S*H. In an episode called ‘The Bus’, the four surgeons and Radar are stranded on a back road whilst returning from a medical conference in Seoul. A wounded North Korean surrenders to them (and eventually repairs the bus). Frank, equipped with a rifle and (useless) walkie-talkie, takes it upon himself to frighten the prisoner out of his wits, pretending to be a tough, heartless combat officer with an itchy trigger finger. Linville plays the part to the hilt; he would be convincingly scary, if we did not know that it was only Frank talking. His performance is undercut by the ridiculous things he does in passing (giving his position over the radio by saying he is directly under the brightest star), but still more by the fact that the prisoner speaks not one word of English. Frank’s posturing is wasted on everyone but himself. But it is the context that makes him ridiculous, not Linville’s performance – in this instance. It is significant that Hot Lips does not appear in ‘The Bus’. She and Frank were still an item, the last of the original double acts; but the arrival of Col. Potter had deprived them of half their raison d’être, and the long half at that. For three years, Frank had been the loudly squawking voice of the hated U. S. Army: the endless regulations, the bureaucracy, the stupidity and inhumanity, all boiled down into one intolerable caricature. But Potter, the Regular Army man, took that role away from him, and made it impossible to treat the Army merely as a laughing matter. The damage to the character is shown in two different uses made of what was essentially the same joke. In an early episode, Henry Blake leaves the camp on Army business, leaving Major Burns in temporary command. One of Frank’s first official acts is to order that all the stones in the compound (placed there to mark the edges of the road) be painted white. Hot Lips, who actually is a career officer rather than just playing at it, tells him sotto voce that this is against air-raid regulations, because it makes the road clearly visible from the air by night. Frank tells the incredulous private who is dutifully painting the stones: ‘Just paint the top halves and, uh, turn them over every night.’ Later, when Col. Potter’s absence puts Frank in charge again, he tries the same silly stunt; but this time Radar takes away the bucket of whitewash, telling the major, ‘He said no.’ The presence of a competent and soldierly commander takes away half of Frank’s scope for idiocy. The other half, sad to say, makes Frank pathetic rather than villainous. He is still a foil for the Swampmen, an inept surgeon, and there is still humour to be mined from his doomed love-affair with Hot Lips; but he is no longer a credible threat. In the earlier years, the pranks played upon him, the insults thrown in his face, had been just revenge for his abuse of his authority over the other doctors. Now he is effectively emasculated, and the pranks and insults are merely cruel. Instead of laughing at Frank and with the Swampmen, we find ourselves having a kind of shamefaced and wincing sympathy for him. Greenbaum and Fritzell actually exploit this sympathy in an episode called ‘Der Tag’, in which Potter orders the Swampmen to make friends with Frank while Margaret is away. He cleans them out at poker, gets riotously drunk, makes a pass at Nurse Kellye, and passes out in the officers’ club. Before the end of the show, he has mysteriously turned up on the front lines at a battalion aid station, out cold and wearing a toe tag labelled, ‘Emotionally exhausted and morally bankrupt.’ It is a good bit of writing in itself, and a funny episode; but it points up a serious structural weakness in the show, arising from Frank’s characterization. I have mentioned that the three double acts were broken up by the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. The World tempted McLean Stevenson to leave the show for greener pastures; the Flesh tempted Alan Alda to throw his considerable weight behind a scheme to make Trapper’s replacement a poster child for family values and marital fidelity. Now came the Devil’s turn. He did not tempt Linville, but rather the writers and producers; and the temptation was to push Frank’s character too far, to make him a mere cartoon, and then take away his colours so that nothing was left but an empty outline. The trouble was that Frank Burns, unlike the rest of the cast, was not conceived as a character from the outset, but a caricature. As I mentioned earlier, this goes back to the composite character that Robert Altman created for the film version of M*A*S*H. The combination of self-righteous martinet and shameless philanderer made Frank uniquely easy to hate. Gelbart and Reynolds, and the writers working for them, took great care not to contaminate him with any redeeming qualities. He was pusillanimous, childish, incompetent as a surgeon, and to top it off, a colossally inept schemer, as sure to be hoist on his own petard as Wile E. Coyote. His presence guaranteed that the show could not completely abandon the element of farce that had been so pronounced in the early years. This was not a bad thing in itself, but as the show began to change in tone, Frank came to clash rather badly with his surroundings. The change of tone was not an error on the writers’ part; but their failure to change Frank – the fact that he had been invented as a caricature incapable of change – was a glaring error, and glared all the more with the passage of time. In reality, Frank Burns was not a human being at all, but a flag. Like a flag, he was a symbol, standing for authority, patriotism, military discipline. But he was a flag in an anti-war comedy with its roots in the 1960s counterculture; and in that milieu, the principal function of a flag was to be desecrated. One of the most iconic visuals from the Vietnam era, after all, is the image of protesters setting fire to the Stars and Stripes. In effect, the character’s last name is not a proper noun, but a verb. Like the flag for which he stands, Frank burns. And once the Vietnam War ended, and the Army itself was no longer portrayed as the enemy on the show, there was nothing left for Frank to burn for. The final stage of Frank’s disintegration, however, happened after another major change of personnel. This time, it was not the cast that changed. After four years, Larry Gelbart decided that he had said all he had to say, and left the show he had created. He seems to have seen the writing on the wall sooner than anyone else. Every successful TV show, if continued long enough, eventually degenerates into repetition and formula, and finally into self-parody. In the fourth season, despite the transfusion of new talent in the persons of Mike Farrell and Harry Morgan, Gelbart felt that M*A*S*H was approaching that point; and so he got out. At the same time, Gene Reynolds kicked himself upstairs to become executive producer (a position that had not previously existed on M*A*S*H). He was replaced as producer by a three-headed monster: Allan Katz, Don Reo, and Burt Metcalfe. Katz and Reo were both up-and-coming young writer-producers, who had cut their teeth on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, and would go on to have distinguished careers in film and television. Metcalfe can perhaps be described as a consummate technician. He had been the show’s associate producer for the first four years, responsible for all the busywork and KP-pushing that keeps a Hollywood production rolling. All three were capable, but they lacked the stature of the men they were replacing. Metcalfe, in particular, seems to have had a real knack for managing and massaging actors’ egos, as well as dealing with the nuts and bolts of production; but the corollary is that he was a less forceful and more self-effacing personality than Reynolds. In 1979, he in his turn took the title of executive producer; not, as Reynolds had done, to make his exit from the daily responsibilities of running the show, but merely to make room on the credits for talented subordinates. Metcalfe has said, somewhere or other, that he took the ostensible promotion because Jim Mulligan and John Rappaport wanted to be credited as producers. This was a fine and generous thing to do, and speaks well of his ability to manage people; but perhaps it also bespeaks a certain lack of steel, an unwillingness to face down the naked egos of his subordinates. At all events, his promotion marks an epoch in the slow transformation of the show from Larry Gelbart’s M*A*S*H to ‘The Alan Alda Show’. As with the cast changes of 1975, the crew changes of 1976 were helped along by the expert writing team of Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum. The fifth season begins with their very funny hour-long episode, ‘Bug Out’, which, incidentally, shows Frank in his best form. He throws his insignificant weight around, forbidding Radar to transport his animals, or Klinger his dresses, on official U. S. Army trucks; but he is reduced to whingeing ineffectuality when Col. Potter confiscates his whistle. The illusion is perfectly preserved that this is business as usual for M*A*S*H. But it is only an illusion, and Frank’s position will be completely destroyed in the very next episode: ‘Margaret’s Engagement’. I do not know who came up with the idea of having Margaret Houlihan get engaged to the (mostly offscreen) West Point he-man, Col. Donald Penobscot. Whoever it was, he deserves the blame, or credit, for killing Frank Burns. Once his affair with Hot Lips ended, Frank was left utterly friendless at the 4077th, betrayed by the one person whom he had counted on from the beginning. Even at that point, it would have been possible to rescue Frank; we had learnt enough about him to form the makings of an actual human being. All that was lacking was the will. There is a sort of false dawn at the end of ‘Margaret’s Engagement’. Frank kicks against the pricks, giving Margaret a dose of her own medicine and even palling up with the Swampmen for a moment:

          FRANK Listen, Pierce, why don’t you and I go out on the town tonight, hmm?

          HAWKEYE Well, this is so sudden, Frank. I don’t have a thing to wear.

          FRANK Well, I mean, get a couple of nurses. Go over to Rosie’s Bar, have a little fun.

          HAWKEYE      (puzzled but not disapproving) Sounds good to me.

          FRANK There’s this little redheaded nurse who’s had her eye on me. Tonight her wish will come true.      (laughs)

          MARGARET You mean that new girl with the freckles on her nose?

          FRANK Yes, that’s the one.

          MARGARET      (smirking) She’s a little young for you, isn’t she, Major Burns?

          FRANK Well, I don’t know. I think a little youth might be nice for a change.

But the writers chose to let that opportunity go by. The humanized Frank Burns, who has real motives of his own and can at least occasionally give as good as he gets, really exists, or is adumbrated, only in this and a few other isolated scenes. For the rest of that season, his last one on the show, Frank gradually spirals down into pathetic ineffectuality, and finally into insanity. When last we hear of him, he has been arrested in Seoul for accosting a general’s wife – nude in a bath with her husband! – under the wildly mistaken impression that she was the honeymooning Margaret. He is rotated Stateside, and (in a characteristic touch of military folly) kicked upstairs, promoted out of harm’s way. He ends up as a lieutenant colonel in charge of a veterans’ hospital in Indiana. But by that time Larry Linville was already gone. When last we see him on the show, he is standing all by himself on the chopper pad from which Hot Lips and her new husband have just taken off, saying to the empty sky: ‘Goodbye, Margaret.’ It was not just a goodbye for Frank Burns. For Margaret, too, though she did not leave the 4077th, this marked the end of the line. Loretta Swit continued to be a regular cast member until the end of the series’ run; but from the moment when she said ‘I do’, she ceased once and for all to be ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan, hard-nosed Army nurse and habitual groupie to senior brass. She would spend the next six years playing a very different character, who happened, by not much more than coincidence, to have the same name. And that, once again, is a story for another time. Back to M*A*S*H: A writer’s view

‘Abyssinia’

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. The duo’s first script also marked the first appearance of Harry Morgan on the show. The third season premiere was a lighthearted episode called ‘The General Flipped at Dawn’, in which Morgan played the loony Gen. Bartford Hamilton Steele (‘Three E’s, not all in a row’). Steele tried to court-martial Hawkeye, but sabotaged himself by asking his first witness, a black chopper pilot, to perform a musical number: ‘It’s in your blood, boy. Just let it out!’ Steele then danced out of the tent singing ‘Mississippi Mud’, officially ending the hearing. This sounds like an invention from the remotest fringes of fantasy, but it is actually based on a disciplinary hearing that Greenbaum personally witnessed during his Navy service in the Second World War. That episode was an instant classic, fully justifying the decision to bring the new writers aboard; they wrote five more episodes that season, and about two dozen over the four years that they worked on the show. Their next important assignment was to write the season finale, ‘Abyssinia, Henry,’ containing an event that sent a seismic shock through the sitcom business: the death of Henry Blake. At this point we introduce the first of the three classic tempters: the World. The original cast of M*A*S*H took their roles on the understanding that it would be a show with a true ensemble cast, and for the first season, that promise was largely kept – though even then, Alan Alda was clearly more equal than the rest. The show narrowly avoided cancellation after that year, and CBS seems to have insisted on various changes as the price of renewal. One was the elimination of minor characters like Nurse Cutler and Ugly John. Another was an increased emphasis on Alda’s character, as he was the one actor on the show whom the network considered genuinely bankable. Alda took an increasing role behind the scenes as well. He was the first cast member to write a script for the show, a bit of comic fluff called ‘The Longjohn Flap’; in the third season he began directing episodes, and by the sixth he had largely taken over creative control. Alda’s increasing pre-eminence chafed the other regulars to various degrees, to say nothing of the crew. Jackie Cooper, for instance, the former child star, directed a good many episodes of M*A*S*H in the first two seasons, but then left the series. By the time he left, according to his memoirs, he was barely on speaking terms with Alda, whom he saw as filled with barely concealed anger and hostility. Wayne Rogers, though he was (and at the time of this writing, still remains) close friends with Alda, was unhappy at being turned from an equal co-star into a definite second banana, and also, perhaps, at being denied the opportunities that Alda was receiving behind the camera. In an interview given some years later, he said approximately (I am quoting from memory): ‘I felt that I was giving a hundred percent of my time and thirty percent of my creativity.’ But it was McLean Stevenson who was unhappiest, and who provoked the first crisis that led to a change of cast. Stevenson, who played Col. Henry Blake, had originally auditioned for the role of Hawkeye Pierce; we may suppose that he was less than happy when the network decreed that the part was reserved solely for Alda. An experienced comedy writer (he had written for the famous 1960s sketch comedy show, That Was the Week That Was), he was accorded one or two opportunities to write for M*A*S*H, but he came to resent his position as third on the bill behind Alda and Rogers. Now the World made its move. Various people in Hollywood whispered in his ear that he had the makings of a star; that he could have his own TV series, and it would surely be as big a hit as M*A*S*H. In the show’s third year, he demanded to be released from his contract, and after a lengthy squabble with Twentieth Century Fox and CBS, they reluctantly complied. As it turned out, each of the shows in which Stevenson starred thereafter was a flop, and the World did not live up to its promise; but its work was done – the temptation had been accepted. Once you have sold your soul, you cannot repossess it for non-payment. By this time, M*A*S*H was a fixture among the top ten shows on American television. There was no question of cancelling it merely because Col. Blake was leaving. Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart decided, since they could not persuade Stevenson to stay, that they would make the best possible use of his departure. They commissioned Greenbaum and Fritzell to write a script in which Henry Blake would receive his orders and be shipped home, and after a full goodbye, part celebratory, part tearful— Well, nobody knew the ending at the time except the writers, the producers, and (significantly enough) Alan Alda. McLean Stevenson was not told; nor were the rest of the cast. On the last day of shooting for the third season, the actors were given a new page of script for the tag scene of ‘Abyssinia, Henry’. The shock and grief you see on film in the finished episode were not acted; they were completely genuine. (One of the extras was surprised enough to drop a surgical instrument on the floor with a loud clang. Gelbart liked that touch well enough to leave it in the final cut.) Everyone who remembers M*A*S*H at all recalls the impact of that last scene:

INT. OPERATING ROOM

RADAR enters, overcome with grief.

          TRAPPER      (off camera) Radar, put a mask on!

          HAWKEYE      (off camera) If that’s my discharge, give it to me straight, I can take it.

          RADAR      (choked with emotion, pausing frequently) I have a message. Lieutenant Colonel… Henry Blake’s plane… was shot down… over the Sea of Japan. It spun in.… There were no survivors.

When the scene was shot, McLean Stevenson was standing in the wings, watching. That was how he learned that his character had been killed off. Reportedly, he was so upset that he shut himself in his dressing room and did not attend the end-of-season cast and crew party, at which he was meant to be the guest of honour. He was convinced that either Fox or CBS had ordered Blake to be killed out of pure spite, so that he could never play the character on another series. The truth was that Gelbart and Reynolds had wanted to use this moment, this opportunity, to give the audience an unforgettable example of the bitter cost of war. They had been justified in keeping the secret from the actors until the last moment, because they wanted their reaction to be genuine, and still more because they wanted the previous days of shooting to be happy and festive, without any inadvertent foreshadowing that might diminish the shock. But they blundered in not making some effort to prepare Stevenson himself, who was not in that final scene, and deserved to find out his character’s fate in a less distressing way. Those of us who write for print have no need for such subterfuges, no actors’ reactions to manipulate or egos to massage. For us, the death of Henry Blake can serve as a fine example of how to kill a major character for maximum surprise. The value is not only in shock; it also creates a dramatic new plot problem in a state of high tension. At such a time, the reader positively aches to find out what happes next. How will the other characters get by, now that one of them is dead? Who, if anyone, will step up and fill the dead person’s shoes? It is essential that we play fair with the reader: the character must stay dead. This is why character deaths in fantasy stories, and to a lesser degree in other genres, seldom have this powerful effect: it is too easy for the writer to wave his magic wand and bring them back. Even Sherlock Holmes was brought back to life after going over the Reichenbach falls; and the resurrection of Gandalf was felt to be a flaw by many readers, and even by J. R. R. Tolkien himself. Great caution is called for; and if there is any mechanism by which a character might be brought back to life, we need to close off that option in advance of the death, so that our readers will fully understand that we mean it. M*A*S*H, however, did not have this problem. It was set in a war in which well over a million people died, and they were all real deaths. When the Grim Reaper calls on the 4077th, he does not go back on his word. Gelbart and Reynolds’ next task was to replace Henry Blake as commanding officer of the 4077th. It would not do – it would undercut the whole point of Henry’s death – to replace him with an equivalent character. A more radical form of surgery was called for. The new C.O. had to be a character in his own right, with a different personality and style, and he had to relate to the other characters in his own way. What Gelbart and Reynolds came up with was, in itself, an excellent idea; but it had unforeseen knock-on effects on the rest of the cast, and, I believe, created an impasse from which the show’s creators could not discover a way out, and contributed directly to their eventual departure from their own series. The new commander was a full colonel, a Regular Army surgeon who had been in the service since the First World War and knew every angle. Col. Sherman T. Potter quickly put his stamp on the unit. This was no lovable but bumbling civilian doctor; this was an experienced leader who knew when to let his subordinates have their head, but also when to tighten the reins and ride them hard. (As Potter was an ex-cavalryman, the metaphor inevitably suggests itself.) The first casualty of Potter’s competence was Klinger, who was quickly disabused of any notion that his new commander would grant him the Section Eight discharge that Col. Blake had so long denied him. (It was during this fourth season that Jamie Farr officially became a series regular, having his name added to the end of the opening credits.) Klinger puts on his best evening gown, Japanese fan in hand, and marches into Potter’s office to try his luck with the new man:

          KLINGER      (salutes) Colonel Potter, sir! Corporal Klinger. I’m Section Eight, head to toe. I’m wearing a Warner bra. I play with dolls. My last wish is to be buried in my mother’s wedding gown. I’m nuts! I should be out.

          COL. POTTER      (returns salute) Horse hockey!

Luckily for Klinger, he was a thoroughly competent corpsman, devoted to his duties and completely reliable, except for his dress sense and the odd escape attempt. Potter soon came to appreciate his value and humour his foibles. On occasion, he even pretended to offer him the longed-for Section Eight, only to snatch it away when Klinger slipped up and showed untimely signs of sanity. The second tempter is the Flesh; and in this case, as fairly often happens, the temptation takes the inverted form of a misplaced puritanism. Of the original six regulars, four were surgeons, three of them married; but all four were womanizers to varying degrees. This was perfectly true to the facts of the Korean War (and wars generally), but offensive to Alan Alda. Alda is a frank atheist and a thoroughgoing East Coast American liberal; which is to say, he rejects most of the Judaeo-Christian moral code that he was brought up in, but attaches an exaggerated and even perverse importance to the bits that he retains. Besides being a pacifist, Alda was an absolutely faithful family man – a striking oddity in Hollywood. (It helped, perhaps, that his wife remained in New Jersey with the children, and Alda flew home every weekend to be with his family.) Stevenson and Rogers were unhappy because the character of Hawkeye upstaged them; Alda was unhappy with Hawkeye himself. It pained Alda – still does, by his own account – that people thought he himself was like Hawkeye; in particular, that he was a skirt-chaser. He took a strong moral stand against the constant womanizing that Hawkeye and Trapper indulged in during the first three seasons. This had several odd effects in later years: while Hawkeye’s lecherous nature was too well established to be changed, Alda at least turned him into a failed lecher. We often see him seducing nurses in the early years; later on, we almost always see him striking out, frequently in a public and humiliating fashion. But it was not enough to show Hawkeye reaping the consequences of his own misdeeds. Alda wanted a counterexample: an faithful family man like himself, hopelessly in love with his wife, but tragically, without the safety valve of being able to fly home weekends. In effect, Alan Alda wanted someone to play Alan Alda; and since he was already playing Hawkeye, someone else had to be given the part. So B. J. Hunnicutt was born, and stepped into the shoes vacated by Trapper John. For Wayne Rogers, too, three seasons in Alda’s shadow was enough. He was tired of giving thirty percent of his creativity, and felt that Trapper John had not been developed as a character. He reported for work Monday morning, said his lines, cracked his jokes, got his (canned) laughs, and went home Friday night. With the rest of his time and attention, he took up a lucrative second career as an investor; he made his fortune on the stock market, and by the time the breach came, he no longer needed his income from acting. ‘You’ll never work in this town again’ was, to him, an empty threat. He could not be bullied into doing the studio’s will. Rogers’ exit from M*A*S*H was messy, and would have been litigious, had not the legal department at Twentieth Century Fox been inexcusably lax. Rogers was hired on the basis of a memorandum of agreement, which made all kinds of promises about working conditions, most of which were not kept. Those promises were not actually written into the final contract between Rogers and Fox – but Rogers never signed the contract. He had worked for three years simply on the strength of the original memo. When he quit the series, the studio tried to sue him for breach of contract; but it turned out that there was no contract. Rogers got away scot-free. By this time, the series was in hiatus, and there was no chance of writing an ‘Abyssinia’ for Trapper John; so he was quietly written out of the show, and replaced by Mike Farrell. Mike Farrell is, in my estimation at least, a lesser actor than Rogers, and certainly a less funny one. It was an act of high chutzpah, when he joined the cast in 1975, to lay down the law and insist that he not play a kind of Trapper John, Mark II; but he had Alan Alda on his side, and could get away with it. He himself was even more liberal than Alda, an activist for all kinds of fashionable Hollywood Leftist causes, from the Equal Rights Amendment to Castroism. He is less strident in his M*A*S*H role, but he admirably performs the task that was set him: to serve as Alda’s alter ego in the fictional world of the 4077th. In later years, his pining for his beloved wife Peg, and his paroxysms of grief and rage at missing the babyhood of his daughter Erin, attained the dimensions of melodrama and bathos; but in those first years he was a welcome voice of reason and sanity amidst the craziness of the war. Where Trapper was clownish, B. J. was quietly witty. Both men were practical jokers, but where Trapper was theatrical, B. J. set up his pranks anonymously, and let others do the laughing. B. J. is like the second movement of a sonata: andante to Trapper’s allegro. But his fundamental nature is dictated by Alan Alda’s reaction against the show’s (entirely realistic) portrayal of marital infidelity as an integral part of wartime life. All these changes of cast were ably handled by the duo of Fritzell and Greenbaum. After the tour de force of ‘Abyssinia, Henry’, they co-wrote (along with Larry Gelbart) ‘Welcome to Korea’, in which B. J. makes his first appearance, and Trapper’s disappearance is finessed away. (Hawkeye returns from leave to hear that Trapper has been sent home, and races after him to Seoul, only to miss Trapper’s flight by ten minutes.) They followed that up with ‘Change of Command’, in which Col. Potter takes over, putting an end to Frank Burns’s last ignominious interval in charge of the 4077th. They would eventually finish off Frank’s decline and fall with ‘Margaret’s Marriage’, the last episode of the fifth season, and write him out of the series with ‘Fade Out, Fade In’, the first episode of the sixth. The replacement characters are steeped in the crucible of Fritzell and Greenbaum’s style; for the manner of their arrival contributes greatly to the strength and variety that Potter and Hunnicutt bring to the series, and (in due course) Charles Emerson Winchester III. If you want a series of case studies in how to introduce a major new character in the middle of a story, seamlessly and stylishly, you could hardly do better than to study those particular episodes of M*A*S*H. Unfortunately, they did not stay on to oversee the eventual fate of their creations, and the show was carried on by lesser talents. But that is a story for another time; along with the story of our third tempter, the Devil, doing some of his subtlest work on the hapless carcase of Frank Burns. Back to M*A*S*H: A writer’s view

‘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. ‘Deal Me Out’ is built round an ingenious unifying device: an all-night poker game in the Swamp. Since it is more or less an open game, the various cast members and guest stars need no special excuse to come and go as the plot requires. This device frames the episode, and ties together three story lines, which I shall refer to as A, B, and C. A: Radar, returning from a night out, runs over a Korean with his jeep. B: A wounded Army counterintelligence man nearly dies in the O.R. because regulations forbid him to be anaesthetized unless there is another CID man present. C: A patient, tried beyond endurance by Frank Burns’s callous bullying, blows his top and tries to kill Frank. The three stories are carefully interlaced, scene by scene; the technique is worth studying.
Here, then, is a scene-by-scene breakdown of ‘Deal Me Out’. The storyline pertaining to each scene is indicated by letter, with P to indicate the poker game. 1. (P) VIP tent. Major Sidney Freedman (Allan Arbus) checks in for a ‘medical conference’ to commence at 1800 hours. Radar unpacks his bags and offers him the hospitality of the 4077th: ‘Compliments of Colonel Blake, Scotch, gin, vodka… and for your convenience, all in the same bottle.’ 2. (P) Another tent. Captain Sam Pak (Pat Morita) arrives for the conference, giving Radar orders for a wakeup call: ‘Have a nurse wake me… a little at a time.’ 3. (P) The shower tent. Radar tells Hawkeye and Trapper that everyone has arrived for the conference. They rib him about his height and glasses; he takes his revenge by walking out with their bathrobes. 4. (P, A) Col. Blake’s tent. Radar reports that all is ready. He asks to borrow a jeep for a visit to a local night spot. Henry gives him the keys, but does not think much of the venue: ‘Oh, Radar! The Purple Dragon is a Lockheed bomber packing crate they emptied, and stuck in a jukebox and a bunch of B-girls on rollerskates.’ 5. (P) The Swamp. Sidney Freedman calls for the ‘conference’ to begin. It turns out to be nothing more than a marathon poker game. Hawkeye, Trapper, Henry, and Sam are also playing. Klinger, in drag, brings sandwiches from the mess tent and joins the game. Sidney tells Klinger to be more creative in angling for a Section Eight: ‘I had a young man who claimed to be reincarnated. Said he was with Washington at Valley Forge, and therefore he’d already done his military service.’ Sam is merely critical of Klinger’s dress sense: ‘Earrings with a sweater?!’ At this point we are five minutes into the show. Except for the brief mention of Radar’s trip to the Purple Dragon, all the action has been concerned with the frame story. Every player in the poker game has had a chance to establish his character, usually with a one-liner that signals his role in the story whilst also getting a laugh. This is good, economical writing; but now it is time to pick up the pace. 6. (B) The O.R. Frank Burns comes in while the nurses and anaesthesiologist are prepping a patient, Lt. Rogers (Tom Dever), for surgery, and tells them to stop. Rogers is a CID man, and can’t be anaesthetized without another CID man present. One is on his way from headquarters. Frank tries to reassure Rogers: ‘I guarantee you you’re absolutely in no danger… I think.’ 7. (P, A) The Swamp. Radar interrupts the poker game, urgently requesting to talk to Henry. Henry doesn’t want to be interrupted: ‘Whatever it is, sign it, cancel it, or order five more.’ Radar insists that it’s important – and private. Henry tells the others to deal him out. 8. (A) Ext., the compound. Radar tells Henry that on the way back to camp, he ran over a Korean, who is now in the hospital. Radar apologizes for taking Henry away from the game. Henry: ‘Oh, Radar, don’t you think you mean more to me than a pair of deuces?’ 9. (P) The Swamp. A bit of by-play at the game, inserted chiefly for pacing. 10. (A) Post-op. Henry examines the injured Korean (Jarry Fujikawa), who is not bleeding but seems to be stiff and in severe pain. He orders X-rays and returns to the game. 11. (P, B) The Swamp. Frank walks in on the game and exchanges insults with the players. Klinger tells how he tried to dodge the draft by hiding in a train station pay toilet: ‘It cost them four dollars in nickels to get me out!’ Frank is not amused: ‘Officers laughing at a draft-dodger while a real soldier lies bleeding in O.R.’ Hawkeye and Trapper demand to know what Frank is talking about. When he tells them, they take matters into their own hands and leave to treat Rogers immediately. 12. (B) O.R. Hawkeye and Trapper operate on Rogers. 13. (A, C, B) Post-op. Frank is examining an uncooperative patient, Private Carter (John Ritter). Henry tells Radar that the Korean has no broken bones; his trouble is psychosomatic. ‘Trauma-induced hysterical paralysis. It’s a classic, Radar. His mind’s raising hell with his body for getting him in an accident. So it just says, “You just lay there for a while and be rigid, and that’ll teach you.” It’s all said in Korean, of course.’ A nurse brings a tray of food for Carter, who politely refuses it. Frank grabs the tray and shoves it at him; Carter knocks it away. Carter says he doesn’t want to go back to the line. Frank doesn’t care: ‘There’s nothing wrong with you, see? It’s all in your head. But don’t get the idea it’s psychological!’ He threatens to ship Carter out immediately if he doesn’t shut up. Hawkeye and Trapper enter and razz Frank about his poor bedside manner: ‘What’s up, Frank? Fort Sumter been fired upon?’ Frank tells them they’re in deep trouble for operating on the CID man. 14. (P) The Swamp. More byplay at the game. Hawkeye: ‘Everybody freeze. One of the sandwiches just moved.’ 15. (B, C) Post-op. Captain Halloran, CID (Edward Winter), has arrived to check on Rogers. He orders an MP to watch Rogers and write down anything he says, and tells Frank to take him to the surgeons who performed the operation. Turning back at the exit, Frank shouts at Carter: ‘Lights out, soldier!’ Carter throws a cup at him. Halloran: ‘What the hell is that?’ Frank: ‘Oh, he’s just pretending to be violent.’ Halloran: ‘Great imitation.’ 16. (P, B) The Swamp. Frank and Halloran enter. Halloran announces that Hawkeye and Trapper are under arrest. Henry objects: ‘Nobody arrests them without telling me the whys and wherefores or the reason thereofs.’ Halloran questions Hawkeye and Trapper. Finding out that Rogers said nothing at all under sedation, he snaps at Frank: ‘I split a gut getting down here.’ Trapper invites him to join the game. Frank leaves in a huff. 17. (P, A, C) The Swamp, some time later. Radar comes in and tells Henry that the Korean patient has demanded $50 not to report the accident. Sam recognizes an M.O.: ‘Corporal, is this a little guy about five foot nothing, anywhere between 50 and 200 years old? He looks like he fell off a charm bracelet?… You know who you got here, Henry: the famous Whiplash Hwang.’ Hwang is a professional accident victim, but in reality, a victim of the war: ‘He was a farmer before the war, and then he had to hit the road – literally.’ The players take up a collection for Radar. After Radar leaves, we hear gunfire coming from the compound. Radar comes back in and tells Henry that Carter ‘blew his cork’. Halloran offers to stop him with a bullet, but the surgeons won’t hear of it. Then we hear Frank’s voice. Carter has trapped him in the shower. 18. (C) The shower tent/The compound. Carter is pointing a pistol in Frank’s face. He refuses to go back to the line. From outside, Henry asks Frank if he is OK, and Sidney tries to talk Carter out of shooting him. Trapper sneaks round the back of the tent and lifts the pegs to crawl inside and grab Carter from behind. Carter gets off a wild shot but drops the gun. The doctors rush in. Sidney leads Carter away. 19. (A) The compound. Radar is driving an ambulance into camp. We hear a loud thump, and see Whiplash Hwang lying on the ground, crying out in pain and clutching his leg. Hawkeye and Trapper carry him into the hospital again: ‘Come on, Whiplash, you’ve had a busy day.’ 20. (P) The Swamp, next morning. The players are in varying states of exhaustion and unconsciousness. They agree to end the game – and then figure out whose deal it is, and carry on playing.
As a unifying device, the poker game is a stroke of genius. It not only provides comic relief, but allows the various characters to come and go as required, to exchange information at strategic moments, and lets them (and the viewer) switch their attention seamlessly from one plot to another. The plots are introduced and resolved in order of increasing seriousness. The ‘Whiplash Hwang’ plot is fundamentally lighthearted, since Hwang is never actually injured; the comedy arises from his overacting and Radar’s remorseful gullibility. What tension there is in these scenes depends upon neither Radar nor Henry knowing that they are being shaken down. The resolution is supplied by Sam Pak, who knows Hwang by reputation and tells them how to deal with him. Hwang’s backstory provides a contrasting note of pathos, and illuminates the waste and cruelty of war without any of the heavy-handed moralizing that the writers so often brought to later seasons of M*A*S*H. The CID plot is more serious, since Rogers’ life is genuinely in danger, and Hawkeye and Trapper are taking a real risk by breaking regulations to save him. Fortunately, Halloran has enough sense to realize that the operation was necessary and security was not compromised. Once again, the subplot has to develop without giving Halloran the opportunity to find out all the facts, and it is resolved at the poker game, when he has the opportunity to interrogate the two surgeons in person. The Carter plot is the most serious, though it is kept within the realm of comedy by Frank’s imbecilic mishandling of the situation. He begins by bullying his patient in post-op, and ends by desperately sucking up to him in the shower. Frank is a gung-ho armchair warrior; he is tough and callous about the war, as long as it is going on somewhere else. The moment a gun is trained on him, he turns to jelly. Once again, the resolution comes through the medium of the poker game. Trapper provides the physical force, Sidney Freedman the moral force (or at least distraction), that disarm Carter and save Frank from the consequences of his own stupidity. The three plot lines blend well thematically. We see in turn the cost of war to the noncombatants, the cost of military stupidity to the combatants, and the cost of getting out of the war – the damage that a man may inflict to save his own skin. Carter’s scenes make up the middle act of a tragedy, though played as farce: he only wants to get away from the killing, but finds himself turning into a killer to do it. This is bitter medicine, made palatable by a sugar coating of humour. We never go more than a few seconds without a laugh; but the shadow of death is never absent. This perfect balance, this tension between comedy and real-life horror, is maintained through all three plot lines. ‘Deal Me Out’ is a tour de force of screenwriting, a textbook study in the handling of multiple storylines, and withal, one of the best M*A*S*H episodes ever produced. Back to M*A*S*H: A writer’s view

‘Chief Surgeon Who?’

M*A*S*H: A writer’s view. #3 in the series.
In the 1970s, American TV networks still jealously guarded their right (honoured by time but by nobody else) to broadcast episodes of shows in whatever order they pleased. Sometimes show-runners used this tradition in their own favour, working with the network to reserve a show already in the can and run it at a more dramatically appropriate time in the season. ‘Henry, Please Come Home’, though the second episode of M*A*S*H to be filmed, was the ninth one broadcast. This gave the characters time to establish themselves with the viewing public, and increased the surprise when Frank Burns was abruptly put in command of the 4077th. Next, the M*A*S*H crew turned out several run-of-the-mill sitcom episodes. Hawkeye taps Frank for a pint of blood in his sleep; Hawkeye and Trapper trade Henry’s antique desk on the black market for medical supplies; Hawkeye does a hammy turn as a private eye. These stories could just as well have taken place in any of the old-fashioned military comedies that M*A*S*H was supposed to be in such strong reaction against – Sgt. Bilko or Gomer Pyle. Only the recurring O.R. scenes reminded us that the war was going on and people were dying. It is said that Alan Alda’s contract required at least one O.R. scene in every episode. He had been reluctant to sign on (though CBS had made him their first and only choice for the role of Hawkeye), because he feared that the show would inevitably devolve into yet another routine sitcom about hijinks in the service. It nearly happened. A march to the rear was called for: M*A*S*H needed to reconnect with its roots. Larry Gelbart achieved this in fine style with another script adapted from an incident in the novel (and the film): ‘Chief Surgeon Who?’ The intervening episodes had allowed the actors to settle into their roles; now, for the first time, we see the structure of the cast – the three double acts – in full bloom. This episode marks several important milestones for the series all at once. Hawkeye definitely takes over as the lead character, giving the lie to the original idea that this was to be a show with an ensemble cast. The writers say their final farewell to MASH, the novel: this is the last script drawn from Richard Hooker’s book, except for a single scene five years later. It also marks the first appearance of a breakout character, later to become the first series regular not taken from the book or movie: the unforgettable Maxwell Q. Klinger. For all these reasons, ‘Chief Surgeon Who?’ is worth studying in detail. The show opens in the Swamp, with Trapper soaking his sore feet (in two bedpans) while Frank types a self-aggrandizing newsletter for his patients back in Indiana. Hawkeye responds to Frank’s needling with an outburst, the first and shortest of what will, over the years, become a traditional element of the show: the patented Hawkeye Humorous Rant. (In later years, the humorous rant would be largely supplanted by the Hawkeye Serious Anti-War Rant, much to the disappointment of the audience.)

          HAWKEYE      (to Trapper) Fix you a martini?

          FRANK Haven’t you two anything better to do when you’re off duty than to lie around and swill gin?

          HAWKEYE      (theatrically indignant) Swill gin?! Sir, I have sipped, lapped, and taken gin intravenously, but I have never swilled!

HAWKEYE goes to the still to pour TRAPPER a drink.

          HAWKEYE Actually, I’m pursuing my lifelong quest for the perfect, the absolutely driest martini to be found in this or any other world. And I think I may have hit upon the perfect formula.

          TRAPPER Five to one?

          HAWKEYE Not quite. You pour six jiggers of gin, and you drink it while staring at a picture of Lorenzo Schwartz, the inventor of vermouth.

Hawkeye takes a look at Frank’s letter home, mocking him for exaggerating his exploits. Frank replies with dudgeon:

          FRANK I was building a pretty good practice for myself when I got called up, and I’ll be darned if I’ll let those people forget me while I’m over here.

          TRAPPER Well, maybe you could bring the plague back home, Frank, just to get things started again.

          HAWKEYE Or you could introduce jungle rot to Indiana.

          FRANK You’re both jealous. I was in practice only three years, and I already had a $35,000 house and two cars!

Enter RADAR, running up to the outside of The Swamp.

          RADAR      (through the mosquito netting) Choppers!

          TRAPPER How many?

          RADAR Too many!

          TRAPPER We just got through with two days of casualties.

          RADAR Speak to the enemy, sir!

One of the most effective ways to keep a story moving quickly is to interrupt scenes before their natural conclusion. Cut the characters off in the middle of whatever they are doing, force them to go straight on to the next scene, and you can get rid of a lot of transitional fluff. In this case, Radar provides the interruption, followed by a quick cut to the operating room. In later episodes, the cut will be accomplished with still greater economy, a technique I hope to discuss another time. Meanwhile, the surgeons are having another gruelling O.R. session. Frank’s stuffiness and ineptitude (and the Swampmen’s insensitivity) are on full display. Trapper refuses Frank’s help with a patient, insisting that he will wait for Hawkeye. Hawkeye compares Frank to a tree surgeon. Spearchucker Jones inadvertently piles on the last straw:

          SPEARCHUCKER I’ve got a bad pancreatic injury here. Anything outside the skull, I’m dead.

          FRANK Drain—

          HAWKEYE      (talking over Frank) Resect it!

          SPEARCHUCKER Thanks, Hawkeye.

          FRANK The book says drain it! Always!

          HAWKEYE If you were a proctologist, I’d tell you what to do with that book. You’re a year behind on your journals.

The next cut takes us to Radar and Henry in the colonel’s office for a moment of plain comic relief. This duo operates very straightforwardly: Radar is always a step ahead of events, and Henry is generally two or three steps behind. After a bit of banter, Radar hands some paper to Henry.

          HENRY Where do I sign?

          RADAR Sir, I’d read that very carefully. It’s from Major Burns, he’s right outside in the hall.

          HENRY Well, tell him I’m not in.

          RADAR Yes, sir.

HENRY turns his back to the entrance and starts reading. RADAR heads for the door, but stops as FRANK comes in. RADAR and FRANK approach the desk behind HENRY’S back.

          RADAR Sir?

          HENRY      (still reading) Frank Burns has to be the biggest horse’s patoot on this post.

          FRANK You think so?

Burns has a long list of charges that he wants to press against Hawkeye: He’s insubordinate. He never salutes. He calls superior officers by their first name (‘Not allowed, Henry’, he says, breaking the rule himself). Worst of all, in the O.R., everybody looks to Pierce, a mere captain, for advice, instead of Major Burns. Henry calls for Radar, telling him to send for Captain Pierce – inevitably, at the exact moment when Hawkeye strolls in, wearing skivvies and a bathrobe.

          HENRY Burns says the operating room is becoming impossible.

          HAWKEYE He’s right, I agree. All that blood and everything, and those sick people? It’s terrible.

          BURNS You know what I’m talking about, you’re trying to take over! You answer every question, call every shot.

          HAWKEYE Well, you do it, I don’t care.

          BURNS They don’t ask me the questions!

          HAWKEYE Gee, I can’t understand that. You’ve got a $35,000 car and two houses.

Note the running gag about the price of Frank’s house. Frank and Hawkeye continue to bicker. Finally, Henry has had enough. He decides to appoint a Chief Surgeon.

          FRANK Now you’re talking.

          HENRY He’ll be in charge of all surgical situations. In addition to his own work, he’ll assist each shift to help out with the really tough cases. The job’ll be a killer.

          FRANK I can adjust.

          HENRY I hope you can. I’m giving it to Pierce.

          HAWKEYE Oh. Thanks.

          FRANK What? You can’t! I won’t stand for it!

          HENRY Frank, the one thing that’ll get you nowhere with me is impersonating my wife!

          FRANK Well, what about rank?

          HAWKEYE Can I help it if I’m not as rank as you?

Burns threatens to go over Henry’s head, and storms out. Next we see him in Hot Lips’ tent:

          FRANK Margaret, something just awful has happened.

          MARGARET And?

          FRANK Colonel Blake’s appointed Pierce Chief Surgeon over me!

          MARGARET He can’t! It’s against regulations! Doesn’t he know that?

          FRANK He did! It is! And he does!

As Burns breaks down sobbing in his paramour’s arms, we cut to the mess tent, and preparations for the party to celebrate Hawkeye’s appointment. The route for Hawkeye’s triumphant entrance is being roped off with toilet paper. To the strains of an Elgar march on the gramophone, Hawkeye enters, crowned with a cowboy hat and robed in a red and blue cape, waving to the adoring crowd while Radar throws confetti. Mock pageantry will become a recurring joke with the Hawkeye–Trapper duo, and later with Hawkeye and B. J. Hunnicutt. This scene is an early example. Note how tension is maintained by intercutting the party scene with Frank and Hot Lips’ revenge:

          HAWKEYE Thank you, thank you! You may all kiss my ring.

CUT TO: MARGARET’S tent. FRANK is typing a letter while MARGARET stands behind him, rubbing his shoulders.

          FRANK They’re gonna get theirs, boy!

          MARGARET Type, Frank. Type.

CUT TO: The mess tent.

          SEVERAL VOICES Speech! Speech!

          HAWKEYE Some men are born to greatness, others have it thrust upon them. And then there are those of us who got it both ways.

The VOICES cheer.

          HAWKEYE Keep those crowds back behind the toilet paper!

CUT TO: MARGARET’S tent. MARGARET is reading the first page of FRANK’S letter.

          MARGARET Dear General Barker: I think I should call your attention, da de da de da. My qualifications as a doctor… $35,000!

That comedy writer’s standby, the Rule of Three, has been fulfilled; the running gag is complete. We will hear no more about Frank‘s house hereafter.

          FRANK Hmm?

MARGARET embraces FRANK from behind while he continues typing.

          MARGARET      (amorously) Type. Type.

          FRANK Margaret, when you touch me like that, I—

          MARGARET Type. Type.

Frank and Hot Lips start making out, knocking the typewriter off the table and smashing it. Since they cannot finish the letter, they go to Colonel Blake’s office and call General Barker personally. Frank tries without success to persuade Barker that the situation is serious, then Hot Lips takes the phone. It appears that she knows the general rather intimately, and quickly talks him into coming to the 4077th ‘to take a good look at your new Chief Surgeon’. At that moment, the Chief Surgeon is enthroned in the mess tent, carrying his orb (a volleyball) and sceptre (a toilet plunger). The second act opens with the arrival of General Barker. The general is short, rotund, and self-important – played by Sorrell Booke, better known as Boss Hogg from The Dukes of Hazzard. Hot Lips greets him as he climbs out of his jeep, but their mutual come-ons are rather spoilt by the presence of Major Burns. Burns reports that there is a badly wounded patient lying in O.R., waiting to be operated on, and the new Chief Surgeon refuses to do anything with him.

          BARKER Now, then. Just where, may I ask, is Chief Surgeon Pierce, with a patient waiting in surgery?

          FRANK Well, sir… You wouldn’t believe this.

CUT TO: The Swamp. Close angle on HAWKEYE, frowning and looking worried.

          HAWKEYE I don’t like this at all. No, sir.

HAWKEYE picks up his poker hand as the camera ZOOMS OUT slowly to reveal TRAPPER, UGLY JOHN, and CPT. KAPLAN sitting with him around a card table.
The sight gag is followed up with a bit of by-play over the poker game – another frequent topic of humour for the Hawkeye–Trapper duo. Hawkeye deals the next hand just as the general comes into the tent.

          HAWKEYE Ace bets a dollar blind.

TRAPPER, UGLY JOHN, and KAPLAN stand to attention and salute BARKER.

          HAWKEYE That’s a lot of respect for one ace.

While the other players return to their game, Barker demands to know why Pierce isn’t operating on his patient.

          HAWKEYE General, the man came in with a chest wound. I put a tube in him, and I’m watching him very carefully—

          BARKER You call this watching?

          HAWKEYE I get a bulletin every quarter hour from a nurse who is very devoted and a great kisser.

          BARKER Well, just when do you intend to operate?

          HAWKEYE Hopefully, never. But if I have to, I figure around 3 a.m. By that time he will have been given his blood, and his pulse and his pressure should be stabilized.

          BARKER And until then, you’re going to do nothing.

          HAWKEYE Don’t be ridiculous. Of course I’m going to do something. I’m going to meet his five dollars and raise two more.

          BARKER You’re not talking to some idiot desk jockey, Captain! I’m a doctor myself.

          HAWKEYE Well, if you want to operate now, be my guest. I get the same pay whether I work or not.

          TRAPPER Your two and two more.

          BARKER      (bending down to look HAWKEYE right in the eye) Pierce, you’re in very deep trouble.

          HAWKEYE I don’t think so. I can beat a pair of twos.

          UGLY JOHN Fold that.

          BARKER      (drawing himself up) This conduct is intolerable as a Chief Surgeon. I order you to begin that operation!

          HAWKEYE General, either take the case yourself or join me at three o’clock. You’re making it impossible for me to concentrate on my poker, and if I don’t win this pot, I’ll never be able to send my sister a new truss.      (to the other players, ignoring BARKER) The last raise is mine.

          BARKER You haven’t heard the last of this.

          HAWKEYE I wasn’t listening to the first of it.

          BARKER We’ll just wait until we hear what Colonel Blake has to say about it all!

The general storms out, falling over a trash can (never before or since seen outside the Swamp) for an extra laugh along the way. The last scene further established Burns as a sanctimonious barrack-room lawyer, and Hot Lips as a lascivious suck-up. This scene gives full vent to Hawkeye’s contempt for military authority, on a scale that would land him in front of a court martial if he were anyone but a gifted surgeon. The fact that the others (after their initial brace and salute) ignore the general and continue their poker game is the key to the scene. Not only does it show that they share Hawkeye’s contempt (if not his bravado), it provides a continuous comic interplay between Barker’s threats and the even tenor of the game. Now General Barker is treated to a lunatic nighttime tour of the 4077th. In rapid succession, he encounters a soldier with a nurse concealed under his poncho; Radar (still the slick operator and delinquent) in Henry’s office, drinking the colonel’s brandy and smoking the colonel’s cigars; and the first appearance of a new character, a one-joke walk-on part that somehow turned into thirteen years of steady work for Jamie Farr of Toledo, Ohio. The general is stopped by a corpsman on sentry duty – wearing the uniform of a WAC!

          KLINGER Halt! Friend or foe?

          BARKER I’m General Barker!

          KLINGER How do I know you’re not one of them with a clever makeup job?

          BARKER Corporal Klinger, isn’t it?

          KLINGER Right.

          BARKER Still trying to get out on a psycho, eh, Klinger? Well, I can tell you, it’ll take a lot more than this.

          KLINGER Then I’ll just have to keep trying, Mary!

KLINGER turns and skips away.
This short scene marks the beginning of one career on M*A*S*H, and the sudden end of another. Gelbart wrote Klinger’s part with the intention that it should be played straight – a brillliantly original idea. Until then, men in dresses on television had been either in disguise, transvestites, or comedians playing female parts for slapstick comic effect – like Milton Berle or the members of Monty Python. Klinger was something new: a perfectly ordinary, masculine guy, a competent soldier, who just happened to be wearing a dress as part of a failed scam. The only thing crazy about Klinger was his consistent belief that his cross-dressing would make the Army think he was crazy. The director, however, had other ideas. This was E. W. Swackhamer, a storied veteran of film and television. He read the scene conventionally, interpreting Klinger as a stock comedy transvestite, and told Jamie Farr to play it that way. They filmed the scene with Farr doing his best to act ‘swish’. It is said that Gelbart exploded when he saw the dailies. Not only was this interpretation contrary to his intentions, the scene as filmed just didn’t work. Gelbart set Swackhamer straight, and they were forced to reshoot the scene in pickup. At the time, Jamie Farr was straightforwardly pleased. Instead of one day’s work, he was paid for two: an unexpected blessing for an obscure actor living from hand to mouth. He never imagined that his scene would turn out to be a show-stealer. When the episode aired, the viewing audience went crazy for Klinger. He was the most popular character in that week’s show, as the fan mail demonstrated. Gelbart and Reynolds were no fools. They took a part in another episode, written for a random corpsman, and assigned it to Klinger, and before the season was over they had worked in several more guest appearances for Jamie Farr. Eventually Farr became one of the regular cast, and Klinger found a place in television history. E. W. Swackhamer, on the other hand, never worked on M*A*S*H again. After that epochal encounter, General Barker walks into a tent where Spearchucker and Lt. Ginger Bayliss are playing strip dominoes. Ginger (a recurring character at the time, played by Odessa Cleveland) delivers one of the iconic lines of the series:

          BARKER Nurse, is everybody around here crazy?

          GINGER Everybody who’s sane is, sir.

Spearchucker directs Barker to Colonel Blake’s tent. En route, he blunders into Burns and Hot Lips, sneaking out of her tent. Burns is appropriately embarrassed:

          FRANK Bet this looks funny.

          BARKER Bet it doesn’t.

Finally the general finds Henry, who has just returned to his tent with a can of fresh-dug earthworms for fishing. He orders Henry to come with him and confront Hawkeye back at the Swamp, but by the time they get there, the Chief Surgeon is scrubbing up for surgery. Henry and Barker join him in the O.R. to observe. This time, the scene ends with a straightforward cut to the aftermath of the operation, as soon as the characters have had their say.

          HAWKEYE Okay, General, now I’m going to sandbag you. You think we’re ready to get out of this chest yet?

          BARKER Obviously you don’t.

          HAWKEYE Give the man a cigar.

          TRAPPER The general or the patient?

          HAWKEYE See, Dad, we haven’t found any small holes in the lung yet, only large ones. I think he’s got one in his lingula that we won’t find unless we look for it. I’ve seen some bubbles I can’t account for.      (to the scrub nurse) Give me some – gimme some suction.

HAWKEYE gropes around in the patient’s chest cavity (just out of angle).

          HAWKEYE There it is.

          BARKER I’m impressed.

          HAWKEYE So am I. Let’s oversew the lung.

CUT TO: Exterior, the compound outside the O.R. door. HAWKEYE, HENRY and BARKER are coming out of the hospital.

          HENRY Well, sir. What do you think of my Chief Surgeon now?

          BARKER You know, I’m not very good at apologies, Pierce, but – forgive a rusty old doctor.

          HAWKEYE I think you‘re very good at apologies, General.

HAWKEYE and BARKER shake hands.

          HENRY Sir, Major Burns is probably going to continue to complain to you about the promotion.

          BARKER May I make a suggestion about Major Burns?

          HENRY Yes, sir.

          BARKER Give him a high colonic and send him on a ten-mile hike.

          TRAPPER With full pack.

          BARKER Good touch.

The order of things is restored: the orchestra finishes the passage, so to speak, back on the tonic note. General Barker now sees eye to eye with the Swampmen, and recognizes Burns for the officious whiner that he is. But since this is M*A*S*H, we can’t finish the act quite so harmoniously. A certain loony corporal makes one more appearance to end with a laugh.

          KLINGER Halt!

          HENRY Klinger!

          KLINGER Who goes there?

          BARKER The man’s naked!

          HAWKEYE Aw, come on, Klinger, put on a dress or something.

          TRAPPER At least a slip.

In the tag, we are back in the O.R., where Burns humbles himself to ask Hawkeye for a hand with a resection.

          HAWKEYE I’m ready, Doctor. We’ll split the fee, right?

          FRANK Right!

If you want an instructive case study in the difference of style between the TV series and the film, watch this episode back to back with the corresponding scene from the movie, in which Trapper John is named Chief Surgeon. Robert Altman had every advantage: an all-star cast, more supporting actors, a bigger budget, and (by no means least) the freedom of the large screen, where he could do almost anything he liked without running afoul of a TV network’s Pecksniffian wowsers. Altman makes a major production out of the mock coronation, with the nurses singing an obscene parody of ‘Hail to the Chief’ while corpsmen carry Trapper around the tent on his throne. He demands tribute from his new subjects in the form of sex, singling out the scandalized Hot Lips. The scene is wilder, more Bacchanalian, truer to the book – and a great deal less funny. This is so, I believe, because the movie does not do Gelbart’s superb job of supporting the comedy with serious conflict. Humour, at bottom, is often a form of rebellion against excessive solemnity; an answer to pain. The pain in Altman’s scene is offscreen, and the letter typed by Frank and Hot Lips never bears fruit in action. The action is swift and direct in Gelbart’s version, in the form of General Barker, who may be short and roly-poly, but is a real threat because of his exalted rank. Instead of letting the Swampmen have their way, the Army pushes back – hard – and makes them earn their fun. In the process, we get a good sound helping of medical technique, not in the form of an extraneous infodump, but well harnessed in the service of the story. (Walter Dishell, the show’s medical consultant, earned every penny of his pay for this episode.) For the first time in the series, the comedy is perfectly integrated with the serious wartime drama of wounded men and surgical heroics. M*A*S*H at its best is a sort of trick circus rider, standing bareback on the galloping horses of comedy and drama, riding them both in beautiful and precise synchronization. Inferior episodes tended to let one horse fall behind the other, or have them run off in different directions, with woeful effects for the rider. Some of the early episodes have the rider on the comedy horse alone, with the other running alongside merely for show; in later years, the show had the opposite fault. But the seamless and apparently effortless joining of drama and comedy is what makes M*A*S*H memorable and endlessly re-watchable, and we will seldom see it done better than in ‘Chief Surgeon Who?’ Back to M*A*S*H: A writer’s view

‘Henry, Please Come Home’

M*A*S*H: A writer’s view. #2 in the series.
‘M*A*S*H: The Pilot’ had a successful screening, and the show was duly picked up by CBS for the 1972–73 season. When the cast and crew reconvened to begin filming the first season proper, they began with an establishing script, ‘Henry, Please Come Home’, written by Laurence Marks. Marks was an old hand at comedy writing: he and Larry Gelbart had worked together on scripts for Jack Paar and Bob Hope in the 1940s. Among many other credits, Marks went on to write no less than 68 episodes of Hogan’s Heroes. He would eventually receive a writing credit on 28 M*A*S*H scripts, second only to Gelbart himself. ‘Henry, Please Come Home’ laid important groundwork for the series. It was the first of several episodes to put Frank Burns in temporary command of the 4077th, fuelling and justifying the long feud between him and the other Swampmen. At ordinary times, Pierce and McIntyre took no notice of Burns’s superior rank, and noticed Burns himself only to insult him, abuse him, heckle him, and (on one memorable occasion) crate him to be shipped out of the country. As cartoonish as Burns was, this was a heavy weight of misbehaviour for the official Good Guys of the series to bear. Gelbart and his writing staff made amply certain that Burns’s actions as temporary C.O. fully justified the Swampmen’s retaliation. He gave as bad as he got. On this particular occasion, one of his first actions is to have an M.P. confiscate Hawkeye and Trapper’s distillery at gunpoint. This drives the other surgeons (still including ‘Spearchucker’ Jones at this point) to the brink of insurrection. I reconstruct the relevant bits of the script, going by the finished episode. (My apologies for the formatting: HTML was not designed to display screenplays.) This is not only good television writing, and good comedy writing; it is good writing, period, and displays a number of techniques useful even to those of us who write solely for print. I shall go into those a bit later. Meanwhile, the script, from the point at which the surgeons rebel:

          HAWKEYE Gentlemen, that man has got to go. It’s either him or us. That’s final.

          TRAPPER How we gonna do it? Shoot him?

          SPEARCHUCKER Stab him!

          TRAPPER Poison him!

          HAWKEYE No, no! We gotta think this over. We have to give it careful, considered, intelligent thought.

          TRAPPER Okay.

          HAWKEYE Then we’ll shoot him, stab him, or poison him!

They do none of the above, of course, but conspire with Radar to bring Col. Blake back from his new assignment in Tokyo. Radar, at this point, is still the unshaven schemer and borderline delinquent that Gary Burghoff played in the Robert Altman film. Hearing that Hawkeye’s scheme requires two passes to Tokyo, Radar pulls a sheaf of official papers out of his pocket:

          RADAR Okay, let’s see what we got. Hardship leave, sister pregnant—

          HAWKEYE You don’t see many of those anymore.

          RADAR —transfer to Germany—

          TRAPPER Hey, you got a bacon, lettuce, and tomato on rye, hold the mayo?

          RADAR Very funny.      (smirks) Two passes to Tokyo. Should have looked under T in the first place.

Armed with the forged passes, the Swampmen set their trap for Henry. Radar fakes a serious illness, and Lt. Leslie Scorch calls Henry in Tokyo, by arrangement, to see that Henry accidentally-on-purpose hears the news. He hands the phone to Hawkeye, and Leslie hands hers to Radar:

          RADAR Hi! This is the call you wanted, right, where I got one foot in the grave and the other one on a banana peel?

          HAWKEYE      (concerned) Oh, yeah?

          RADAR Listen, I hope I don’t have to come up with any fake symptoms. You know, I got a weak stomach.

          HAWKEYE Oh, the white count’s up, huh?

          RADAR We had S.O.S. again for lunch.

          HAWKEYE All right. Yeah, he can’t hold food down.

          RADAR Just missed the four o’clock barf.

          HAWKEYE Look, tell Spearchucker to get some blood chemistries and start him on I.V. We’ll be right there. Okay.      (hangs up) Get your shoes on, we gotta go back. We got a tough case, Henry. Diagnostic problem.

          HENRY Uh huh?

          HAWKEYE Abdominal pain, elevated white count. I can’t nail it down.

          TRAPPER White count’s up?

          HAWKEYE Yeah, it’s bad.

          TRAPPER That’s all right. Radar’s strong.

          HAWKEYE You dummy, can’t you keep your mouth shut?

          HENRY Radar?

Henry falls for it, hook, line, and sinker. He insists on returning to the 4077th to treat Radar himself. After examining his patient, he announces that he will be doing exploratory surgery right away. The Swampmen try to talk him out of it: this is carrying a joke too far.

          HENRY Look, this kid’s got severe abdominal pain with rigidity. Now, it could be a perforated ulcer. I’m going in. Who wants to assist?

          TRAPPER Henry, I think you’d better slow down, huh?

          HENRY Look, I’ll know the story five minutes after I open him up.

          RADAR      (alarmed, but still faking delirium) He’s gonna open me.

          HAWKEYE      (to Radar) You’ll be fine, son.

HENRY leaves Radar’s side and heads towards the O.R. The other surgeons hurry after him.

          HENRY Now, let’s get on the stick. Who’s going to scrub with me?

          TRAPPER Henry, look—

          FRANK Henry, I’m in command here, and nobody does an exploratory without my O.K.!

          HENRY I’ll explore anybody I want to.

          FRANK You back off! This happens to be my responsibility.

          HENRY Stay out of my way, Frank, or I’ll have you busted down to male nurse.

HENRY shoulders past FRANK and heads for the other exit.

          HAWKEYE Oh, come on, fellas—

          FRANK Now, this is my outfit, and I make the decisions.

          HENRY Your outfit? I built this outfit with my own hands. When we first came over that hill, we didn’t even have a bedpan to our names.

          FRANK Well, there’s not going to be any operation, and if you don’t like it, you can call General Hammond!

          HENRY I might just do that.

          RADAR      (sitting up in bed) You want me to get General Hammond for you, sir?

          HENRY Yeah, do that!

RADAR gets out of bed and goes to the phone to place the call. HENRY and FRANK continue arguing as they head back towards the phone.

          HENRY See if Ugly John is available. Even if he isn’t, pull him away from whatever or whoever he’s doing, and tell him that I’ve got a…

HENRY falls silent. He and FRANK do a slow take and stare at RADAR, who is doing his job with no sign of sickness or distress. RADAR looks over his shoulder at them, realizes his mistake, and sinks into the nearest chair, crestfallen.

          RADAR Oh! The pain…

          FRANK Look at that! He was goldbricking, I told you so.      (stifles a giggle)

          HENRY Radar, are you sick?

          RADAR Well, I feel a lot better than I did.

          HAWKEYE Now I don’t feel so good.

          TRAPPER Now let’s get some air.

HAWKEYE and TRAPPER turn to sneak out.

          HENRY Hold it! Nobody move! Now what is going on here? Pierce? McIntyre? Jones? Somebody talk to me!

          HAWKEYE Okay, Attila the Hun was pushing us around playing soldier, so we tried to get you back in the front office.

          HENRY By making Radar fake an illness?

          HAWKEYE Yeah, well, it was intended to make you feel needed. It’s all very psychiatric.

          HENRY The word is ‘crazy’!

          FRANK I’ll get the M.P.s.      (Picks up the phone) Then you can try being psychiatric in the stockade.

          HAWKEYE Oh, fine, then after we’re gone you can roller-skate from table to table and do all the surgery by yourself.

          HENRY He’s right. Put the phone down.

          FRANK Henry, as commanding officer I—

          HENRY Correction, you were the commanding officer. I’m taking over as of now!

Mission accomplished, for the Swampmen and the show. I quote these scenes at such length because they provide a fine example of Laurence Marks’s writing style, as well as the working methods of Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart. Like Robert Altman, they strove hard for naturalistic effects in acting and dialogue, but their approach was completely different. In the film, Altman used Ring Lardner, Jr.’s script as a rough treatment, and encouraged his actors to talk over each other, to mumble and hem and haw, and to ad-lib whatever lines they thought would put across the point of each scene. This so infuriated Lardner that he later disowned the movie – too late, however, to have his name removed from the credits. M*A*S*H, the TV series, was not like that. The law, as brought down from Mt. Sinai by Moses and Larry Gelbart, was that every actor had to deliver every line exactly as written. There was no ad-libbing, and even the hems and haws were carefully scripted and rehearsed. If an actor disliked a line as written, or wished to suggest an improvement, the time and place to do that was at the initial read-through on Monday. Any changes were sent out to be re-typed and copied for the whole cast. Once shooting started on Tuesday, the script was set in stone. If a line or a scene positively would not work as written, Gelbart would work with the writer to fix it, and they would do pickup takes of the revision later. This method had important advantages over Altman’s for all concerned. It guaranteed a steady rate of progress in shooting, which was vital in a medium where twenty-five minutes of film had to be put in the can every week without fail. It prevented the sort of bloopers and blunders that could get a show-runner in trouble with the network censors. It gave each actor the freedom to work on the best delivery of his own lines, not having to worry about reacting to something unexpected. And it gave the writers a degree of respect and freedom rare in American television, bringing them much closer to the final product than the usual procedure in which everyone from the producer’s wife to the star’s dog’s hairdresser leaves their sticky fingerprints on the script. The consistent quality of work done on M*A*S*H, I believe, would not have been possible without it. It also has a side benefit, entirely unintended by Gelbart and Reynolds (and Moses), I am sure. It makes M*A*S*H a much more profitable thing to study for those of us who write stories for print. In written fiction there is no ad-libbing, because there are no actors. If the reader is even marginally sane, he will read the words that we have written, and if he is not sane, all bets are off; we cannot count on him to be insane in the right direction. To a surprising extent, the characterization in M*A*S*H is conveyed by the actual words of the screenplays. Even without blocking or camera instructions, the bare dialogue I quoted above leaves little doubt about the intent and effect of the scenes. Of course, the effect was heightened by the vocal delivery and body language of the actors, and by the various tricks of the director’s and cameraman’s trades. But the effect is there to be heightened, and that, for our different purpose, is almost enough. It is possible to fill a written story with stage-directions and ‘business’; and it is easy to overdo it. If the emotional meaning of the dialogue is clear, a scene can be written with hardly any blocking or dialogue tags. (This is the real meaning of the stricture, often exaggerated into a commandment, against adverbial tags or ‘said-bookisms’.) A little goes a long way. Along with the dialogue above, I inserted just the bare minimum of directions about who was talking specifically to whom, and when the characters made serious moves towards the exits or the phone. The minor details of body language and vocal expression, the screenwriter leaves for the director; the writer for print can usually leave these to the imagination of the reader. An unusual dialogue tag, or a bit of physical description, may be helpful to establish a new character, or to signalize that somebody is behaving in a different way than we have previously come to expect. But once the characters are vividly drawn and firm in the reader’s mind, we have little need to keep reminding our audience of how our dramatis personae move, or what their voices sound like. Their emotional state should usually be guessable from their words alone. In short, there is little need for all the flashing of eyes, throwing-up of hands, lighting of cigarettes, stamping across rooms, and other verbal rubbish with which novice writers are sadly encouraged to fill up their scenes. There ought to be action as well as talk in a scene, or it will come across as static and undramatic: this, by the way, is a fault that M*A*S*H frequently committed in later years, when the original writing staff had left. But we should not need the action merely to help us make sense of the talk. In the Star Wars prequels, George Lucas repeatedly committed a terrible directorial sin: he shot scene after scene with two or three characters standing and talking, or walking and talking, in front of a green screen, giving them nothing to actually do. But he would not have been a better director if he had told them to gesticulate and ‘emote’ in front of the same green screen. In Ralph Bakshi’s abortive film of The Lord of the Rings, when Gandalf is explaining the nature of the Ring to Frodo, Bakshi makes him get up and walk about the room, put his hands up in the air and clench and unclench his fists – a gesture that drama students are taught to laugh at, and call ‘milking the giant cow’. It puts movement of a kind into an otherwise static scene, but it is ludicrous movement and the effect of the scene is ruined. Stage business for its own sake is generally a waste, and you will find very little of it in the early seasons of M*A*S*H. A point worth noting is the indirection of the best M*A*S*H scripts. Laurence Marks trusts his audience’s intelligence (a tolerably rare thing in Hollywood). Instead of spelling out every detail of the characters’ actions and motivations in dialogue, he lets them talk evasively, often at cross purposes, and reveal half of the story by what they don’t say. The third excerpt quoted above is a fine example. Hawkeye is putting on a show for Henry’s benefit, pretending to be the concerned surgeon inquiring about a critical patient. Radar, back at the 4077th where Henry cannot hear, is talking about the scam and making sure he has his own role down pat. In the fourth scene, Henry is talking about what he believes to be a necessary operation; Hawkeye and Trapper are trying to talk him out of it without letting the truth slip out; Frank is blowing hard about regulations and insisting on his prerogatives as commanding officer, with no concern for medical matters at all. Their lines hardly intersect, except in point of time. But each character follows his own motivations precisely where the story needs him to go, and the audience follows it all without any trouble. Everett Greenbaum and Jim Fritzell exploit this technique to brilliant comic effect in their third-season script, ‘Life With Father’. Colonel Blake suspects that his wife is having an affair back in the States, and goes to Father Mulcahy to unburden himself. Mulcahy, meanwhile, is distraught because his sister, the nun, wants to renounce her vows and start a family. Each one talks entirely about his own problem without listening to a word the other one says, yet both go away satisfied. ‘It certainly helps to talk about these things to someone who’s sympathetic,’ says Henry. And so it does; even if the sympathetic someone isn’t listening. With this very strong episode in the can, M*A*S*H, the series, was off to a flying start. What is more, it had already begun to move beyond the range of its source material. None of the incidents in ‘Henry, Please Come Home’ are taken from Hooker’s novel. In its very first week of regular production, the series has found a voice of its own: sure, confident, quick-moving, and marvellously funny. Marks’s first script sets a high bar, and more often than not, the series will live up to it for years to come. The foundations have been well built; the structure is sound. Now comes the fun of putting Larry Gelbart’s three double acts through their paces. Back to M*A*S*H: A writer’s view

‘Par is a live patient’

M*A*S*H: A writer’s view. First in a series.
The Korean War is still not a hundred years in the past, though it is long enough now that the surviving veterans of that war are becoming rather thin on the ground. But even in 1972, when M*A*S*H went on the air, the series format for storytelling was much older than a hundred years. Before television, there was radio; before radio, there were the newspapers and magazines, and the ‘penny dreadfuls’ that kept every literate child supplied with lurid adventure. If you go back far enough, you can trace the roots of the form all the way to the Odyssey; which, come to think of it, would make a fine TV series in its own right.  
KOREA, 1950: A hundred years ago

Opening titles, ‘M*A*S*H: The Pilot’

  The smash TV series, so to speak, of 1836 was The Pickwick Papers: Mr. Pickwick and his comic manservant, Sam Weller, were the talk of England for a year and a half, and soon after in every country where their serialized adventures were reprinted or translated. Their creator, Charles Dickens, went on to become the acknowledged giant of Victorian letters, and single-handedly created a kind of literary celebrity that has had none but pale imitations since; though some of Dickens’ inventions, like the author’s reading, plague us still. Nowadays, after its century-long detour through the mass media, the serial story is having something of a revival in print. With the rise of ebooks, the length of publishable stories is no longer limited by the demands of commercial printing. It takes a certain length of story to fill enough pages to justify the cost of printing book covers, and above another certain length, the book becomes too thick for the binding to hold together without inordinate expense. The serial, in its revived form, can transgress both those limits. Individual episodes can be as short as short stories, yet be profitable to sell individually. A whole series can be as long as the ‘binge reader’ likes and the author can supply. There was no end to the old tales and ballads about Robin Hood; The Count of Monte Cristo, by Dickens’ great French counterpart, runs a tidy half-million words or so. Pickwick itself makes a long book, but it is a book of short episodes; not a picaresque, as it is sometimes called by blinkered literary critics, but an episodic series – in fact, a situation comedy. There is no reason why situation comedy (or any other kind of story) should be restricted to one medium. Some of the best work in that field was done by P. G. Wodehouse, whose most famous creations, Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, appeared in print, in short story and novel form, over a span of nearly sixty years. Some stories, it is true, are suited for one particular medium. Visual spectacle, whether in the grand form of colossal special effects or the modest form of slapstick, requires a visual medium – film or television. Close introspection, the detailed examination of a character’s thoughts and emotions, lends itself better to written work: which has led some misguided souls to suppose that only the solemn psychological novel is worthy of being regarded as literature. But there is a wide range of stories that can be told in written or dramatic form, according to taste and budget. The story of character need not be the soul-searching or navel-gazing of a single protagonist; it can as easily arise from the interactions between several more or less fleshed-out characters. And that kind of story can often be told equally well in whatever medium one prefers. M*A*S*H is just that kind of story; or rather, that kind of story cycle. It had a vigorous life in print, where it began as a stand-alone novel, MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, by Richard Hooker. ‘Hooker’ was the pseudonym of W. C. Heinz, a professional writer, and Richard Hornberger, an American surgeon who had served at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in Korea. Together they wrote a tall-tale reminiscence of the (mostly off-duty) antics Hornberger and his fellow surgeons indulged in to keep their sanity alive in an insane situation. Hornberger has said frankly that most of the doctors who served in Korea were too young for their jobs. The U.S. Army, like every army in history, prefers young and malleable recruits. For the medical corps, that meant taking newly qualified surgeons straight out of residency if possible; which meant that men with very little medical experience were immediately thrown into combat conditions, where they were expected to do the most difficult and demanding kinds of surgery under intense pressure. Under that pressure, says Hornberger, ‘A few flipped their lids, but most just raised hell in a variety of ways and degrees.’
Richard Hornberger at the original Swamp 8055th MASH, Korea

Richard Hornberger at the original Swamp
8055th MASH, Korea

MASH, considered purely as a novel, is not very good. It is picaresque and plotless, written from the worm’s-eye viewpoint made fashionable by memoirs of the First World War, such as All Quiet on the Western Front. Many of the incidents recounted are implausible, most tasteless, some obscene; not in a pornographic way, but in a way that routinely disgusts the sensibilities of politically correct moderns. The episode of the ‘epileptic whore’, for instance, is one of the most sordid things in modern fiction outside of Henry Miller, played strictly for cheap laughs. The centrepiece of the novel, as of the movie that followed it, was the attempted (and thwarted) suicide of Cpt. Walter Waldowski, ‘the Painless Pole’, an Army dentist who thought his life was over because his infamously large penis would no longer respond to the charms of the nurses, convincing him that he was turning into a homosexual. Some situations are too ludicrous for burlesque; but Hornberger insisted upon writing a burlesque treatment of the Painless Pole’s predicament, one of many instances in which he showed a tin ear for his material. The novel was written about 1960, made the usual rounds of publishers, and did not find a buyer. It remained unpublished until 1968, when the rising fashion of disaffection with the Vietnam War made an offbeat story from another Far Eastern war seem like a commercial property. Publishers, like bad generals, have an obstinate habit of trying to fight the last war; in the 1960s, New York was looking out for the next Catch-22, and Morrow may have published MASH with some such notion in mind. In fact Catch-22 and MASH have little in common, except for being comedies set in wartime. The humour in Catch-22 is much bleaker; nearly all the sympathetic characters are killed, and the antihero, Yossarian, ends by fleeing for his life from the bureaucratic time-servers and deranged martinets who remain. Almost the only people who die in MASH are the patients; the low camp of the comedy plays against the grim backdrop of the war, but does not subject it to any fundamental comment or criticism. Hornberger was politically conservative, understood the tragic inevitability of war, and seems to have adapted tolerably to military life even whilst rebelling against the obvious stupiditiies that it entailed. Hornberger wrote two sequels, M*A*S*H Goes to Maine (1972) and M*A*S*H Mania (1977), which took up the civilian lives of the principal characters after the war. In between, William E. Butterworth, a capable and prolific hack, churned out a large number of increasingly slapsticky and implausible ‘M*A*S*H Goes to…’ books, about which the less said, the better. The series ultimately petered out, and in fact there was no good reason (except for money) why any sequels should have been written. If the principal effect of Hornberger’s novel had been to spawn books like M*A*S*H Goes to Morocco, it would be deservedly forgotten. Meanwhile the original story, the only one worth preserving, became a film, and so became immortal. The movie M*A*S*H (the asterisks seem to have entered the title in the process of designing promotional posters), though a commercial success, in some ways stands as a textbook example of how not to adapt a book into a film. The story remains episodic and plotless, wandering from ‘meatball surgery’ at the fictitious 4077th MASH to the bizarre non-climax of a football game between the 4077th and another hospital unit. Some of the more tasteless incidents, like the ‘epileptic whore’ and Trapper John’s imitation of the crucified Jesus, were left out of the film altogether; some characters disappeared entirely, whilst others, like the hardboiled nurse ‘Knocko’ McCarthy, became mere names and faces in the background. The three cutup surgeons of the original novel were transformed into medical nihilists, brimful of contempt for the war, patriotism, religion, and in general, everything but their professional duties. They were brilliant technical surgeons and amateur human beings, one hop ahead of the military police and one slip away from Leavenworth. The screenplay was written with great care and fidelity to the original by Ring Lardner, Jr., and then handed over to the director, Robert Altman, who promptly and cheerfully abandoned it. The scene-by-scene structure remained intact, but Altman used Lardner’s text as an extended treatment rather than a script. He encouraged his actors, after the initial reading, to ad-lib their lines, interrupt one another, talk over one another, and generally indulge themselves in the kind of ‘naturalistic’ and fractured dialogue that was en vogue at the time. Such was the strength of the story (and of the visuals, particularly in the operating-room scenes) that it survived this cavalier handling and became something of a cult favourite. The tenor of the times was a help. The liberal section of America, and Hollywood in particular, was in full vocal (though not practical) rebellion against the Vietnam War, and Altman quite openly turned Hornberger’s story into a roman à clef about Vietnam. That meant pretending that the Korean conflict was needless, useless, a mere random atrocity perpetrated by the wicked American military-industrial machine. That was not the truth about the war, and it was not the truth about the novel, but it was an easy gospel to sell to the counterculture: cheap subversion for the punters. One of the most subversive touches in the whole film, perhaps accidentally, came from one of the time-honoured techniques of adaptation: the combining of minor characters. Many a novel is cluttered with unimportant personages who play a part in only one chapter or scene, never to appear again. Often, a filmmaker will find that the work is strengthened by combining two or three of these into a single character, more memorable and hence more important. When Peter Jackson adapted The Lord of the Rings, he cut out the character of Glorfindel, the Elf-lord who rescued Frodo from the Nazgûl and brought him to Rivendell, and gave his part in the story to Arwen. This strengthened Arwen’s character and, vitally, gave her something tangible to do on the screen. Without that memorable introduction, she might have been a cipher in the films, as she almost is in the book. Indeed, writers are often advised to use this technique, not only in adaptation, but in developing their own stories ab initio. In the original Star Wars, Luke Skywalker’s father was a separate character from the villainous Darth Vader. It was only in the process of redrafting The Empire Strikes Back that Lucas hit upon the brilliant idea of combining the two, which became the vital plot point in all of the sequels. The fact that they were such different men made the combination inherently dramatic; it introduced a conflict of identity at the heart of the combined character, and made him instantly the most important and memorable person in the entire series. This is a technique worth emulating; but it does have its pitfalls. Lardner and Altman used it in M*A*S*H, as I said, with profoundly subversive effect. One of the very minor characters in the novel is a Major Hobson, the original tentmate of Hawkeye Pierce and Duke Forrest, who annoys them by his habit of praying aloud at all hours and seasons. They demand that Colonel Blake get ‘that sky pilot’ out of their tent, after which he disappears from the story. Later on we meet a Captain Burns, another draftee doctor, an incompetent surgeon who carries on an illicit affair with the chief nurse, ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan. Captain Burns is bad enough. But in the film, his character is combined with Major Hobson to produce Major Frank Burns, who is not only an adulterer and a quack, but a sanctimonious Bible-thumper. The blatant hypocrisy of his position makes him the obvious villain of the piece, at least until the point where he tries to beat Hawkeye to a pulp and is sent away in a straitjacket. It is vital to the tone of Altman’s film that there be an essential connection between the two sides of Burns’s character. In their topsy-turvy version of the Army, a patriot, a disciplined soldier, or a religious believer, is necessarily also a cad and a hypocrite. The hippies in the audience, and the Leftist critics in the media, ate this up with relish. Even with such excisions and compressions, the cast of Altman’s M*A*S*H is too large for a two-hour movie; far too large for a half-hour television series, which was the next stage of adaptation. No fewer than twenty-six actors are listed by name, or rather gabbled, by the PA announcer (an uncredited twenty-seventh) at the end of the film. When Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds took up the task of reimagining M*A*S*H for the small screen, a far more radical form of surgery would be needed. In the TV pilot, which Gelbart wrote and Reynolds produced and directed, Hawkeye Pierce remarks in a letter home: ‘We work fast and we’re not dainty, because a lot of these kids who can stand two hours on the table just can’t stand one second more. We try to play par surgery on this course. Par is a live patient.’ In cutting down M*A*S*H for television, par was a live story. Each episode had a maximum of twenty-six minutes of film, less opening titles and closing credits. The pressure of time was as severe for the production staff as it was for the surgeons. Furthermore, the permanent cast had to be small enough that all of them could be kept happy with regular screen time in every episode. I have elsewhere suggested, as a writing exercise, taking a story and recasting it according to the standards of Greek drama, where only three actors (plus the chorus) were ever on the stage at one time. Gelbart’s adaptation subjected M*A*S*H to a less extreme form of the same discipline, to wonderful effect. ‘M*A*S*H: The Pilot’, like the Altman movie, ends with the uncredited PA announcer listing the principal actors, but this time there are only twelve, and he does not have to recite the names at auctioneer’s speed. Of those twelve, only six were identified as series regulars in the opening titles. The selection of those six sheds much light on the process of adaptation, and on the brilliance of Larry Gelbart as a writer. Hornberger’s novel does not tell us much, except by allusion, about the organization of a MASH unit. The Mobile Army Surgical Hospital was a new experiment in Korea, and it worked well enough to be repeated in Vietnam and the two Gulf wars. The idea was to give wounded men surgical treatment (not just first aid) as close to the line as possible, dramatically increasing their odds of survival. It also dramatically increased the odds of burnout, battle fatigue, and general mental breakdowns among the medical staff: the struggle against which is the chief burthen of the story. The specifications for the original MASH unit were written in 1948, by a team that included Dr. Michael DeBakey, since world-famous as the surgeon who performed the world’s first heart transplant. They called for a 60-bed facility that could be loaded on trucks and moved in a few hours, with
... a headquarters and headquarters detachment, a preoperative and shock treatment section, an operating section, a postoperative section, a pharmacy, an x-ray section, and a holding ward. Fourteen medical officers, twelve nurses, two Medical Service Corps officers, one warrant officer, and ninety-seven enlisted men formed the complement. One medical officer commanded; one was a radiologist; two were anesthesiologists; one was an internist; four were general duty medical officers; and five were surgeons.

(U.S. Dept. of the Army, U.S. Army in the Korean War: The Medics’ War, pp. 69–70.)

If the Painless Pole is anything to go by, the ‘general-duty medical officers’ would normally have included a dental surgeon – useful for men with head wounds, who might need teeth extracted or jaws wired. But we never hear of most of these people in Gelbart’s stripped-down version of a MASH unit, except as a general cloud of extras in olive drab, doing unspecified work in the background. Even when the whole unit was shown falling in for inspection or parade, there were generally only about forty people lined up, despite repeated references to the unit as a company, and the occasional mention of a complement of a hundred to two hundred. (The numbers listed above, by the way, seem not to include the ambulance drivers and chopper pilots, who were permanently attached to the unit, but listed under a separate table of organization.) On television, we hear only of the five surgeons, including the commanding officer himself, one anaesthesiologist, and occasional references to a dentist. The Painless Pole is mentioned by name (though never seen) in the pilot episode, a dentist named Kaplan shows up later in the first season, and a dentist named Cardozo appears in one episode of the second; nothing thereafter. In fact, the absence of a dentist from the 4077th becomes a specific plot point late in the series, when Major Winchester is subjected to a surprise visit from a D.D.S. for an abscessed tooth that he has stubbornly refused to treat. Likewise, we never see a radiologist, only a variety of nurses and NCOs doing duty in the X-ray room; we never hear of the internist or the Medical Service Corps, and to my recollection, the only warrant officer attached to the 4077th during the series’ eleven-year run was a helicopter pilot. Likewise, the 60 beds were reduced to ten, all that could be conveniently fitted into the post-op set on the Twentieth Century Fox sound stage. With such a reduced cast, some of the chief characters from the novel and movie had to be left out. The book was subtitled ‘A Novel About Three Army Doctors’, but one of the three, Duke Forrest, did not even exist in the TV pilot. Three was one too many for television. I have not read or heard any remarks by Larry Gelbart explaining why this was done; but the reason can, I think, be reconstructed from the evidence of the show itself, and from some first principles of comedy writing. The website ‘TV Tropes’ contains articles on several of the classic or recurring dramatic casts: the Seven Samurai, the Five-Man Band, and so on. Trios are popular in drama and melodrama, the Three Musketeers being perhaps the most famous example; and Hornberger’s surgeons could be seen as the Three Musketeers with scalpels instead of swords. Comedy writing, however, requires a stricter economy: one of the reasons why comedy is the most difficult thing to write. One of the basic building blocks, accordingly, is the double act. Various kinds of double acts have been a staple of the comedy stage at least since the Roman Republic, when Plautus wrote about his ‘Miles Gloriosus’ and his manservant. Usually a double act will share top billing: Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, or for that matter, Tom and Jerry or Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. Sometimes a story will feature one double act as protagonists and another pair as the villains; Robert Holmes wrote several scripts on this pattern for the original Doctor Who. But M*A*S*H, so far as I know, is the only famous example of a comedy based solidly on three double acts. The most frequent types of double acts are the master and servant, the star-crossed and mismatched lovers (who, ideally, have no idea that they are star-crossed, and think their match was made in Heaven), and the simple comic duo, whether conceived as a top banana and sidekick or as two approximate equals. Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller, Wooster and Jeeves, the miles gloriosus and Artotrogus, are famous examples of the first type. The second type is a staple of the movies, sometimes with a happy ending as the lovers work out their differences, sometimes with a more wry and realistic treatment. The best sustained example in television, perhaps, was the duo of Sam Malone and Diane Chambers on Cheers, who conducted a torrid on-again, off-again love affair for five whole years without ever realizing that they were hopelessly wrong for each other. (The Odd Couple featured the same type of double act, with an original twist: the two leads were not romantically involved with one another.) The third type, having no set roles for the participants, is more varied. Laurel and Hardy, Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton, and Tom and Jerry are fairly representative examples. I don’t know whether Larry Gelbart set out deliberately to whittle down the enormous cast of M*A*S*H to three comedy duos, but that is precisely what he did. The master-servant duo is represented by Colonel Henry Blake, a good surgeon but an ineffectual commander and bumbling administrator, and his myopic but capable clerk, ‘Radar’ O’Reilly. The comedy of a master-servant act nearly always arises from the fact that the servant, in all but social status, is superior to his master. Jeeves and Sam Weller, in their different ways, are perfect débrouillards: they excel at finding ways to do whatever the plot requires, to get their masters out of scrapes, and generally unknot all the knots that their ostensible betters have tied. Radar keeps the 4077th MASH running. At one point, the bemused Blake frankly asks him about the endless Army paperwork: ‘Do you understand any of this?’ Radar replies: ‘I try not to, sir. It slows up the work.’ Radar’s apparent powers of precognition keep him a step ahead of everyone else, but he is generally three steps ahead of Blake. The star-crossed lovers of M*A*S*H, taken with little change from the movie, are the two majors, Frank Burns and Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan. In Gelbart’s original conception, Frank Burns is taken over virtually unchanged from Altman’s version, but Hot Lips, besides being a hard-nosed Regular Army nurse and full-time martinet, is also a promiscuous man-eater with brass stars in her eyes. She has romanced, or at least towsed, a bewildering variety of colonels, generals, and at least one warrant officer, and Burns, who knows this, is transported into frothing fits of jealousy whenever a high-ranking visitor shows up at camp. (‘I could never love anyone who didn’t outrank me,’ says Hot Lips at one point, frankly giving the lie to her year-long affair with a mere major.) The idea that religion was necessarily hypocritical or stupid would not fly with the network censors in 1972, so Burns’s sanctimony is downplayed after the first few episodes, whilst Hot Lips becomes his equal partner in hypocrisy. In their very first appearance in the pilot, we see them sitting at a table together, he reading the Bible and she an Army manual, while under the table they are playing footsies. The most radical change occurred with the surgeons in ‘The Swamp’ – named after the actual tent at the 8055th MASH where Richard Hornberger lived during his hitch in Korea. In the book and film, Duke Forrest, a stereotypical Southerner, and Hawkeye Pierce, a cut-up from small-town Maine, are eventually joined by Trapper John McIntyre, a chest cutter from Boston with a dry wit, a wide streak of irreverence, and superb medical qualifications. It is Trapper, in both the book and the movie, who is made Chief Surgeon in response to Frank Burns’s complaints about disorder in the O.R. Gelbart put all three surgeons’ DNA in a blender and used them to make his third and most important double act. Duke disappears; Trapper becomes a general surgeon, practical joker, and all-round cut-up; and Hawkeye, who was originally a stand-in for Hornberger himself, becomes the nosegay of all surgical virtues and the sump of all military vices. It is Hawkeye now, not Trapper, who is qualified in chest surgery and becomes Chief Surgeon, and Hawkeye who gets the best one-liners, with a pronounced tendency to develop into comic monologues (or very un-comic anti-war rants) as the series progresses. The fourth denizen of the Swamp, in all three versions, was a black neurosurgeon, ‘Spearchucker’ Jones – the obvious racial slur being redeemed, in this instance, because Jones was an all-round athlete in college, not only a football player but a track star who specialized in the javelin. This is made explicit in the novel, alluded to in the movie, and left rather embarrassingly unmentioned in the series, in the short time before Jones was simply written out of the show. (This reduced the unit’s complement still further, to four surgeons including the C.O.) Various conflicting reasons have been offered why Spearchucker disappeared, but in fact he was simply unnecessary, and his character could not be developed without taking away necessary screen time from the other cast members. Duke Forrest would undoubtedly have suffered the same fate, if Gelbart had not had the artistic courage to cut him out from the beginning. In the first season, the television series featured a number of minor characters, some carried over from the earlier versions, some original: ‘Ugly John’ the anaesthesiologist; General Hammond, Col. Blake’s superior at headquarters in Seoul; a corpsman named Boone; and a parcel of nurses including Blake’s love interest, Leslie Scorch, Hawkeye and Trapper’s occasional girlfriend, Lt. Cutler, and the ‘completely edible’ Lt. Dish. All these characters were written out of the series, at the network’s insistence, after the first season, except for the chaplain, Father Mulcahy, who eventually became a series regular. It is probably true that there were too many minor characters for a half-hour show; it could be rather a chore for a viewer to keep them all straight. I believe, however, that Gelbart was wise to include them. They gave a semblance of depth to the organization; they diffused some of the limelight away from Hawkeye and the other regulars, and made the 4077th seem more like a fully rounded hospital and less like a highly artificial stage show with a cast of six. These were important virtues, and in later years the show would suffer from their absence. But it is the three double acts that carry the show for its first three seasons. Gelbart’s cast, supported by his writing and story-editing, was magic. All the crew had to do was put one of those pairs together on the screen, and the comedy happened of its own accord. It was hardly even necessary to write jokes; the humour arose naturally out of the relationships within each pair, and among the three of them. This is the finest and most natural kind of comedy writing. Left to themselves, those six characters could have carried on almost indefinitely; but they were not left to themselves. Gelbart’s M*A*S*H was torn apart by outside forces; but that is a story for another time. Back to M*A*S*H: A writer’s view