‘Operation Friendship’

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

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

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

‘Goodbye, Radar’, Part 1

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

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

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

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

‘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.
[Read more…]


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Deal Me Out’

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

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

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

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

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

‘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. [Read more…]

‘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:

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

How we gonna do it? Shoot him?

Stab him!

Poison him!

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


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

[Read more…]

‘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. [Read more…]