Monday, December 03, 2007

The story of POV

Thanks for your interest in POV. It's a story I've told before but always love telling again.

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.

The episode was our idea. 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 Metcalfe, 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 wacky 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 canceled 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”.

30 comments :

Anonymous said...

That is my second favorite episode of MASH behind the mystery practical joker when Sidney writes his letter to Sigmund Freud.

Tim W. said...

Great story. I'm guessing that something like that would never be done today. Too bad. Perhaps the studios and networks may not have noticed that the best television was when they stayed out of it.

Nevin ":-)" said...

Coincidentally, this is the episode being shown on FX right now.

RAC said...

And now Radar's head is even smaller on YouTube, so I forgot to look for his receding hairline.

blogward said...

People pay thousands for less writing insight than you just gave there, Ken. Thank YOU.

John Pearley Huffman said...

Like virtually everyone else here, this is one of my favorite MASH episodes.

But what impressed me on looking back at the clip you posted earlier is how efficiently you introduced all the characters and their situation. Sure, by the seventh season all Radar, Hawkeye, B.J., Margaret, Potter, Klinger and Father Mulcahy were all familiar to anyone who watcherd the series. But if someone had never seen a single episode of MASH before, those eight-or-so minutes do an incredible job of explaining virtually everything that's going on in the camp.

I'm pretty sure that a real-life Pvt. Rich wouldn't have been treated to such a tidy introduction into his strange-new-hospital. But I wish more TV shows and movie could be blitz through their set-ups that quickly and entertainingly.

a. buck short said...

Is there a POV story in being carried out of a studio or network executive’s office on a stretcher?

Haven’t seen a Reader’s Digest in years (talk about a sweet writing gig, you just cut an article out of another magazine and send it into them). Have they done “Laughter in Uniform” with any recent war zone? (This just in: British teacher Gillian Gibbons escapes the lash, pardoned for Islamic insult in the Sudan. Yet somewhere in Baluchistan a teddy bear is beheaded. To add insult to injury, POV headless bear is then blown to smithereens by suicide Barbie? Oh, check that, a headless POV?)

The Crutnacker said...

Ken, are you the luckiest/most talented guy on the planet? (Okay, second, after David Issacs).

I imagine that when Ken gets to heaven, God's going to take one look at his resume and let him in immediately so he can get back to work.

The sad thing here is that people like Ken are sitting idle while we wait for a strike to end.

We need to honk some more to end this thing.

Anonymous said...

BEEEEEEEEEPPPPPPPP.......

jen said...

This is great. I've been thinking a lot about the use of POV in sitcoms (and considering focusing on this for my dissertation), so this was the perfect thing to read.

I'd love to hear what you think about how PEEP SHOW has taken this formula to the extreme.

Captain Obvious said...

The story of POINT OF VIEW seems, to me, to be a story about simple pleasures. A creator and his creation. The careful, doting, and timid approach to the craft. The sense of accomplishment when it works. The heartfelt admiration for all those that worked hard to make it happen.

Rinaldo said...

Thank you so much for this. When discussions of "What's your favorite MASH episode?" come up (and they do, from time to time), I never have any hesitation in naming "Point of View." It's just so very fine, from start to finish; and although I'm generally not the tearful type when watching TV, this episode always leaves me a happy wet-eyed sap at the end. Bravo.

CM said...

Great story, thank you. I will have to go back and watch that episode.

Not a dry seat in the house, eh? Must have been a frightening speech!

rob! said...

POV is a great episode. Harry Morgan as Potter...did he ever win an emmy for that? If not, he damn well should have, he was so good and funny and warm in that part.

in fact, everytime an episode comes up where Potter makes some reference to his colorful past ("i should've shot my foot and stayed in Honolulu", "i knew a pilot who used to throw grenades out his helicopter at the enemy") i think someone could probably do a Young Sherman Potter show, kinda like Young Indiana Jones Chronicles except not sucking.

Anonymous said...

"steady cam" is one thing, but "Melcalfe"? Is this your general inability to spell, or do you really hate the guy that much?

Anonymous said...

Ken,
I always liked nurse Kelly, I think she was on for the entire run of the show. I remember only one show she was featured prominently in,it had to due with Hawkeye trying to pick her up after he struck out with everyone else.
Enjoy all your postings.
Joe

Gail Renard said...

That's why MASH was so great for so long. You always tried to push the boundaries and top your own superb work. And you did it! Respect.

Anonymous said...

Harry Morgan could take a little crumb and turn it into a catering truck.

That monologue goes from A to Z. And it wasn't the first or the last time.

Harry rocks.

Mark B.

Michael Zand said...

Ken,

Re your response yesterday about who made the "Incoming.." announcement -- the actors name was Sal Viscuso, not Visculo. We knew each other way back when I was an actor. Nice guy.

John said...

What's wonderful about this -- and most of the M*A*S*H episodes from seasons 4-7, is the underplaying of the roles by the characters. What the show started out as, and what Gelbart wanted it to become, were two different things, and M*A*S*H's success at moving from a broad military sitcom with the original cast to more of a "dramedy" is a tribute to the actors, writers, directors and producers between 1972 and 1980 (it's hard to imagine McLane Stevenson pulling off the same type of role that Morgan was able to do as Potter, because the show as developed in '72 called for a weak, semi-buffoonish leader; by 1975, Gelbart could develop a stronger replacement who could still do comedy, but make the dramatic scenes believable).

That said, at the same time it's a good thing you got the show in during Season 7; by midway through Season 8, something just started to go wrong with the balance between the comedy and drama, along with the natural flow of the show's banter (which may be due to the change in the show's head writers after Season 7). Had "POV" come down in Season 9 or 10 with the same story line, I doubt it would have had the same impact.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

Anyone familiar with GLEN OR GLENDA? is okay in my book. No, I'm not a crossdresser, just a fan of really bad movies.

Anonymous said...

so the first time you saw it on a tv screen was during its broadcast?
shit, I'd heard that people who work on TV consider the medium to be inferior to film, but I didn't think it was _that_ bad...

Polly said...

I remember there be episodes by Alan Alda and I think other cast members. I know the Alda episodes ofcourse focused on Hawkeye.

Did you and the writers appreciate the actors coming up with stories? Or should I ask were there any that you got and thought, this situation is not believable for the character?

The Crutnacker said...

Ken,

Saw your little story in Rolling Stone. Is that the Golden Girls on the cover?

Question for you.... I saw the MASH reunion a few years back and wondered about Harry Morgan. Do you know if he wasn't doing well at the time it was filmed?

Mike Barer said...

I remember that show. It was great

Robert Hogan said...

When I was a kid I learned filmmaking by trying to emulate stuff I saw in movies and television. This episode of MASH became my obsession for months. One of my favorite television experiences of all time. Thanks for sharing the story.

Anonymous said...

Someone may have said this before while commenting on other MASH items, but to me the foremost reason to be grateful for MASH was that it gave us several years of Harry Morgan as Sherman Potter. Without this, Morgan's reputation for most people would have been formed by the years he spent trying to keep up with acting chops of Jack Webb on Dragnet.
"Just one more thing."
"What's that, Joe?"
"I'm not very good."

Captain Obvious said...

Three cheers for Harry Morgan...

Rick said...

This is one of my favorite episodes of MASH. One question. Who did the voice over at the end where the solider says "Thank You"?

MitchJ said...

POV is one of my favorites as well. Thanks for sharing the rest of the story.