Monday, June 19, 2006

M*A*S*H P*O*V

My partner, David Isaacs and I wrote 19 episodes of MASH. I’m often asked which is my favorite and the answer is easy. POINT OF VIEW. It was from the 7th season when we were the show’s head writers.

We wanted to simulate the experience of being in a MASH unit as seen through the eyes of a wounded soldier. The viewer would be the soldier. We would see him get hit, transported by chopper, rushed to OR, recuperating in Post Op, mingling with the doctors and nurses, etc. The actors would talk directly into the camera.

We pitched the idea to our producer, Burt Melcalfe, telling him it would either be the best show of the season or a colossal embarrassment. But we wanted to shake things up. Larry Gelbart had so brilliantly done that a few years before with “The Interview”. We wanted our opportunity to tell a story a different way. To Burt’s credit, he gave us the okay. And this was back in the day when the creative staff of a series decided the show’s stories and direction, not the studio or network. (Allow me a moment of wistful reflection)

First off, though, we needed a story. On the surface it was simple. A soldier is injured, treated and saved by those lovable medicos at the 4077th. But what’s his injury? Where’s the suspense? And more importantly, how does he connect with our central characters?

We heard of a 1947 movie that used this first-person device called LADY IN THE LAKE. It was a Raymond Chandler mystery with Robert Montgomery as detective Philip Marlowe. Or, more accurately, Robert Montgomery’s voice. So we screened the movie. Holy shit! What we found was that when someone talked to Marlowe it was fine, but when Marlowe spoke the other actors had nothing to do but stare uncomfortably into the camera and try to react (this was not Jayne Meadow’s best work). It was sooooo dicey. Not to mention static, boring, and…well, downright creepy.

It seemed to us the key to making this device work was not having the soldier talk. And that sparked our story. What if the patient is hit in the throat? He can’t speak. He must undergo a series of tricky operations (the suspense) until finally he is able to utter only two words –

“Thank…you”.

Now the story laid out pretty easily. We created a B story where Potter forgets his anniversary and the patient informs Hawkeye which leads to the resolution. That way the soldier is directly involved in the story. One of the show’s highlights for me was how masterful Harry Morgan played the scene in which he confided in the young soldier. Not a dry seat in the house!

We wanted to really utilize the visual, give the viewer a different perspective whenever possible. What did it look like actually being in the chopper, gazing down at the camp, being on a stretcher during the insanity of triage, being wheeled into OR? So much credit for the success of the episode goes to director, Charles Dubin. And remember, he had only three days to film this, not three weeks…or months. And this was 1978, before steady cams. I think D. W. Griffith used this camera to shoot BIRTH OF A NATION. It couldn’t have been heavier or more unwieldy.

The cast was marvelous, really rising to the occasion. It’s hard enough to relate to fellow actors, but to play highly emotional scenes looking directly into a camera has to be nearly impossible. Additionally, scenes all had to play out in one take. We couldn’t cut back and forth between characters and angles and takes. To this day I marvel at their skill.

Trivia note: We gave the patient the name Bobby Rich. Bobby is one of my dearest friends, currently hosting a morning radio show in Tucson.

When the show was completed we watched the finished product in a screening room. I was horrified. There was Radar’s giant head filling this huge screen, addressing all of us tiny ants in the theater. AAAAAAGH!!! As I sat in the dark, contemplating my next career, I wondered how I could reconcile the fact that I personally had destroyed MASH. How’s THAT going to look on my resume?

The show aired on a Monday night during November sweeps. I almost didn’t watch it. When it began I cringed. A few moments into it Radar appeared. And a strange thing happened. The show suddenly worked.

Seeing Radar’s head on a TV screen, the comparable size of most human beings (Only Barry Bonds has a head the size of Radar’s on the silver screen.) the audience was able to buy the conceit. I can’t tell you how relieved I was. By the act break I cancelled my 11 PM flight to Antarctica.

I look back at that show today with great pride. We were allowed to take risks. Encouraged to take risks. And even if the show had been the “GLEN OR GLENDA of television” that it appeared to be that dark day in the screening room, I would still be proud to be a part of it. To the cast and crew and everyone involved in POINT OF VIEW, all I can say is –

“Thank you”.

******

Tomorrow: the opening scene from POV.

21 comments:

Phil said...

Damn, I clearly remember that episode. Huzzahs and thanks to you and David too.

Tom Dougherty said...

One of my favorites of that series. You're right about Morgan, too. He was fantastic. He could really bring on the waterworks. Thanks for your amazing work.

Anonymous said...

It's a wonderful episode, Ken. And, if the IMDB is correct, you wrote it when you were only 28. Wow.

By the way, did you have anything to do with the DREAMS episode? It blew me away when I first saw it. A sitcom having the guts to be that gravely serious is still shocking.

Paul Duca said...

Imagine...there's one degree of separation between M*A*S*H and THE TURKEY HOUR.

Cafrine said...

I saw this episode on rerun when I was in primary school. Didn't understand then what was going on, but I entralled. Wonderful epidode.

Anonymous said...

This has always been my favorite episode, it is still very powerful. I loved how you gave all the characters, or rather their portrayers, a chance to shine individually. Particularly seeing Margaret and Charles as they reacted normally and kindly to the patient. A marked difference from their usual caustic manner when relating to Hawkeye and BJ. By the way, love your blog.

Anonymous said...

I rememember that episode and it was great. But I always wondered what happened to the show over the years. It was so sharp and so irreverent and so hysterical and then the characters lost all their edges, it got all sanctimonious, everyone from Nurse Kelly to Potter semed saddled with the same glib dialog. In reruns, the oldies stand out, the early Radar, sharp, cigar-smoking and subversive, Hot Lips all tousled and real... as the show rolled along, the Burns character began to look out of place but that Linville was a comic genuis, for my money he was in place and the rest of the show went off the rails in increasing spasms of earnestness. FWIW as good as that episode was, IMO it doesn't hold a candle to the Captain Tuttle ep from the early days, that was pure comic genius, great blog, thx.

The Master said...

That was truely an unforgettable episode. One of the greatest half-hours of episodic TV.
There's a Hitchcock episode or Tales From the Crypt or some such that uses the device for horror, in fact at least two since I recall a black and white one with 50s actors (Van Heflin?), and a color one with Tony Goldwyn and Beau Bridges, where the first person perspective is someone believed dead, and the viewer hears their thoughts as they try to communicate they're alive before they are buried or autopsied. But yours was a very moving show. I haven't seen it in maybe 15 years, yet I can remember line readings, it's so vivid.
And Harry Morgan is so underrated. For decades such a great actor.

Anonymous said...

As much as I liked this MASH episode, it still reminded me of this advice you gave in another of your columns...

Don’t view the show from the perspective of a fly. I once read a WINGS spec as seen by a buzzing fly. I offer this as the first example because I know so many young writers fall into this same trap.

Not exactly a buzzing fly, but a character who cant move and cant talk, not much different.

I guess when one is an established writer on an established show, some of the conventional wisdom no longer applies... ;-)

Dave Williams said...

If all the characters addressed the fly it could work. If you cared about the fly.

I think the lesson to be learned here is essentially the same lesson we all learn in our chosen careers: first you learn all the rules of your craft, then you learn how and why you can break the rules.

We should be paying for this stuff, Ken.

Robert Hogan said...

Hands down my favorite episode of MASH and possibly my favorite episode of anything. I first saw this during my impressionable younger years and I remember rushing out with my grandfather's 8mm and trying to recreate the shots of the show.

benson said...

Have fond memories of that episode, too. But your story regarding Bobby Rich was cool. I remember listening to him as one of the Rich Brothers on "KFM...BFM...San Diego's FM" Always loved that legal ID.

Also, Ken...as many others have posted before me...Thanks for the blog. I can't count the number of times I laugh outloud hard. And in this day and age, there's not enough of that in our lives. Thanks!

The Minstrel Boy said...

i absolutely remember that episode. it was brilliant. morgan superb, alan alda doing the "groucho rounds" hilarious and touching. mad props.

andrew said...

I remember watching that episode when i was a kid and thought it was so unique. I work as a tv writer here in Singapore, and everytime i feel like I need an adrenaline shot in the writing muscle, or I feel an attack of cynicism come on regarding the industry, I watch Mash, and particularly episodes like the POV, and I would feel greatly inspired and recharged.

thanks for writing such a great blog.

Keep writing about your experiences in Mash and cheers and frasier, especially with regard to story telling.

nuggets like these can't be found in any writing books!

thanks again!
andrew

Jutratest said...

Wow, I remember M*A*S*H* in syndication weekday afternoons on my living room floor.

I remember this episode very well.

You are like some sort of ancient prophet from my childhood returned in blog form.

Anonymous said...

Ditto. We should be paying for this. Thank you Ken...this is truly a gift.

I remember when that episode aired. And Potter's confession...Today when I watch the back to back Mash's I simply marvel at Harry Morgan's A-to-Z acting. He can turn a crumb into a catering truck.

And for the previous mention re: Dreams? That one leveled me.

Ken: You rock.

Mark

andrew said...

Hi Ken

can i ask something about writing craft? You mentioned SUSPENSE in your writing of POV. I was wondering, is that something you always ask yourself when you break a story?

Also, are there any rules you follow when you try and make a premise CREDIBLE in a sitcom episode.

do you recall any episode you wrote which was particularly difficult in finding a way to break into the story, like how you mentioned making the soldier get wounded in the throat?

Beth Ciotta said...

I remember that episode very well. Powerful and moving, clever. I found this post inspiring on many levels. Thank you for sharing, Ken, and for writing so many wonderful scripts.

Jenius said...

Not a dry....SEAT in the house?

I don't recall it being a piss-your-pants funny episode.

:)

shera323 said...

POV is a great episode. My father used to teach film history. He always referenced this episode to try to get his students POV.

I also always admired the episode with the clock in the bottom corner and no laugh track. It was quite an eye opener.

I'm watching MASH right now. I continue to enjoy the show. Thanks for your great work, Ken.

The Dreamer said...

Ken,
I have to thank you. M*A*S*H* has been such a big part of my life since I can remember. I grew up in Washington DC and when my parents decided to move to California (in the early 80's), they would only move to an area that M*A*S*H* aired at 11pm. We ended up in Mission Viejo, CA. To this day, M*A*S*H* is the last thing I see before I close my eyes at night. I bet I have seen every episode at least twice. Thank you for this show.