Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Technical advisers

Hello from Chicago where's there's supposed to be a big snowstorm. Thanks for the great response to yesterday's post. And since we're all kind of in a MASH mood...
A lot of shows use technical advisers. It’s hard enough to write a good autopsy scene without also having to know anatomy. Sure, writers spent a lot of their high school nights at home alone (while Ben Silverman went to his prom) but we didn’t spend the time learning forensics. While others were taking pre-med courses in college we were working towards our completely-bullshit “Communications” major.

So when we’re asked to write lawyer/cop/doctor/dance shows we need a little help. On MASH we had three technical advisors. Dr. Walt Dishell who was our medical expert. We also had a trained nurse on the set to make sure the actors weren’t picking up scalpels from the wrong end. (The extras who played the patients in the operating scenes used their own organs, by the way. There were no guts-doubles.)

Additionally, we had a military adviser. When you hear Radar rattle off a list of incomprehensible army directives some are actually legit. And who needs to make up insane military procedures when all you have to do is use the real thing?

A Colonel from the Public Information Office of the army was assigned to us. When we first spoke to him he was very by-the-book, very wary of what we show business personnel were going to do with the information he was asked to provide. He also was new to the assignment, having only recently been transferred to Los Angeles. He had been overseas for two years.

We would ask him a simple question. He would call back with a long excruciatingly detailed answer that would include no less than five directives, four regulations, and seven procedures.

Now flash forward a year.

We call him for clarification on where death certificates were sent and he says, “Yeah yeah, sweetie, I’ll get to that. But first, I’ve got a great idea for a pilot. Okay, now picture this: establishing shot…” And he goes on to describe this stupefying idea. And all the while I'm thinking:

Sweetie? Establishing shot??

From then on we called him very rarely. Making stuff up was better than hearing his latest movie/pilot/mini series idea. And how do you complain to his superiors that we wanted a different adviser because this highly decorated war hero Colonel had gone too Hollywood?

So the next time you see a TV doctor or lawyer spouting authentic dialog just know there is a technical advisor somewhere, who spent years in law school or medical school, making an appointment for a Botox treatment.

20 comments:

RAC said...

Gone "too" Hollywood?

Is that even possible? As in "she's too excessively pregnant," it seems like a redundant adjunct adverbial modifier… or whatever.

I always thought anyone who goes Hollywood couldn't possibly get any more Hollywood. Except in Hollywood itself, it seems.

I believe I've gone too insane.

Michael Brownlee said...

Welcome to Chicago, Ken! I hope you brought snow shoes.

Bitter Animator said...

I've often wondered about the technical advisors and their roles in the stories. In some shows, like ER, it sometimes seems like the writers would never be able to come up with certain stories without knowing certain conditions and treatments exist.

That left me wondering if, like your military adivisor, the advisors actually pitch story ideas.

The Crutnacker said...

I just read a book on statistics where the writer name drops a technical advisor for House and gives HIS suggestions for a script.

But Ken, if you ARE looking for ideas, I have this brilliant series that follows the exploits of the M*A*S*H gang in the decades leading up to Korea called PreM*A*S*H.

If that doesn't work, I have a show about Sgt Rizzo coming back from the war to start his own line of Bourbon in Kentucky. It's called SourM*A*S*H.

Anonymous said...

Sort of on the flip side to that, have you ever run across people who seem to get medical/legal/other type advice from something they saw on TV?

Some folks decide to lead a "rent strike" because the landlord isn't fixing a garbage disposal. That may be all good and legal in somewhere like CA or NY, but in a bunch of other states, you can get evicted for not paying, regardless.

The Crutnacker said...

Has anyone read the extensive Wikipedia entries on M*A*S*H? WHere do people get the time?

Bill Aitken said...

First of love your blog. I just stumbled on it by chance.

Did you ever have people point out supposed "mistakes" even when what you did was approved or suggested by the technical advisors?

I just recently saw a stage production of Cops by Terry Curtis Fox and a couple of the reviews slammed things that the Cop's in the play did even though they were suggested and approved by police officers who had advised on the show.

Dr. Mom said...

My husband is a physician and MASH was probably the last medical show he enjoyed. It drives him crazy that there are so many mistakes. Why are x-rays always backwards, or as we saw on some show recently, upside down? Every knows the heart is on the left, don't they? I say it must be a Hollywood in-joke because it's so consistent. Is there any reason for that this?

Dwacon® said...

Ken.

Sweetie.

Bubbie!

A shot of Jack Daniels gets me established.

Bitter Animator said...

fsoDr.Mom, didn't Scrubs eventually correct their backwards X-ray at the beginning of every show? Took them about five seasons to do it but at least they got around to it eventually.

Kathy Maughan said...

My dad and sister are doctors, and it's a joy to watch ER and House with them. "That's wrong." "That's ridiculous." "How'd they make THAT leap?" "This is stupid." Them leaving in a huff is my favorite part. And they LOVE it when I turn to them to be MY technical advisor (and I run the finished copy by them to make sure things didn't get lost in translation).

Tim W. said...

Speaking of technical advisors, an acquaintance of mine (friend of a friend) has an extremely impressive background in military intelligence, and due to circumstances looking for employment that would make use of his background, but is having difficulty. I suggested being a technical advisor for film or television, but I'm not quite sure how to give him an direction on that. Can anyone help me on that? (I live in Vancouver- as does he).

Matthew Dessem said...

At least you guys used some of your technical advisor's knowledge before he went Hollywood. I love films and TV shows where it's clear that the technical advisor had no impact at all. The crown jewel of this kind of work is Armageddon, and I highly recommend the technical advisor commentary track on the Criterion DVD. It's basically two very knowledgable guys saying, again and again, "I told Michael Bay that this scene was laughably inaccurate, but he wouldn't listen."

Tom Quigley said...

I once came up with an idea for a show called M*A*S*H*E*D, in which four cast members of a long-running hit comedy series all decide to quit -- and are never heard from again.... People told me that the idea was completely out of touch with reality...

jbryant said...

When my writing partner and I wrote an episode of the Disney Channel's one-season wonder "In a Heartbeat" (which was about teen EMTs), we got oodles of great technical advice on smoke inhalation, rabies and (my favorite) the near-drowning of a baby in a bucket of soapy water. But because some details were deemed too intense for the targeted kids and "tweens," the world was deprived of seeing a puppet baby flailing in suds.

p.s. to matthew dessem - I love your Criterion Collection reviews!

Alaskaray said...

The Crutnacker said...
"But Ken, if you ARE looking for ideas, I have this brilliant series that follows the exploits of the M*A*S*H gang in the decades leading up to Korea called PreM*A*S*H.

If that doesn't work, I have a show about Sgt Rizzo coming back from the war to start his own line of Bourbon in Kentucky. It's called SourM*A*S*H."

Let's not forget my brilliant idea for a horror anthology series. I call it MonsterM*A*S*H. And on that note you should ask Ken about when we interviewed Bobby "Boris" Pickett.

Some of today's medical shows need better medical advisers. I'm not talking about hedges required to move the plot along or simplify some complex medical issue. These are out and out FUBARs. I can rarely watch medical shows like House and Gray's Anatomy because I'm so distracted by all the huge medical errors. I like CSI and they rarely make mistakes, but both the NY and Miami spinoffs are getting more and more difficult to watch because of the ever increasing frequency of major medical errors.

St. Elsewhere and ER were 2 of my favorites because both shows tried very hard to be accurate, but M*A*S*H has to be the gold standard for medical accuracy. They weren't perfect, but they were damn good. Whenever a patient asks me what it's really like in the OR when they're asleep I always say, "Do you remember MASH?".

Harley Davidson said...

This reminds me of an idea I had a few years ago for a made for TV movie that would reunite the cast of M*A*S*H, playing their characters 20 or more years later as technical advisers for a television or motion picture about their exploits in Korea. If you don't like that one, I have an idea to turn the film "Titanic" into a weekly series. I'm serious about that one. I need an agent.

Anonymous said...

If you need the guy from Millitary Intelligence to be your technical advicer, pick up the phone and call your Mom. He'll be at your house in 15 minutes.

ajmilner said...

I read somewhere that the military adviser on the old SGT. BILKO series in the 1950s was a young George Kennedy -- he'd done some performing as a kid, then went into the service, and the BILKO experience inspired him to return to showbiz fulltime.

Anonymous said...

Kennedy was, in fact, tech advisor/military liaison on "Bilko." He does some commentary in the DVD box set (where, by the way, is Vol. 2?)