Every so often I’ll read an article or term paper or passage in a book that references a MASH episode my partner and I wrote. The piece is most always complimentary; sometimes overly so. But invariably the authors will analyze the episode. They’ll identify the symbolism, how when Hawkeye hangs up his laundry he’s really representing the Anti-Christ, and they’ll find all kinds of mythological parallel, subliminal messages, and odes to other works of literature. They’ll compare Klinger to Jane Austin, find significance in jeep license plate numbers, and detect hidden codes in Radar’s dialogue.
I’d like to be able to shrug my shoulders and say yes, all of that is in there. David and I write on many levels. Our scripts are challenging intellectual puzzles to be solved by only the most advanced sophisticated minds. Thanks for noticing.
I’d like to say that but it’s all bullshit! There’s no symbolism in our MASH scripts. There’s no attempt to send covert messages in Hawkeye’s Groucho routine. Sorry, we’re not that deep. We were just trying to write a funny show with substance and heart. Our goal was to entertain. Period. Even the Viet Nam comparisons to Korea – we never pointed to that. We didn’t have to.
There are series that do consciously employ symbolism. LOST for example. MAD MEN for another. Pay attention because every detail has added importance. I love both of those shows. And I’m always thrilled when I catch one of these symbolic nuggets. But don’t go looking for them in MASH, at least in our years. They’re just not there, folks. We used names of ballplayers, former girlfriends, and my family dog, but that’s about it.
People have deemed MASH a television classic and I’m humbled and grateful but at the time we were making the show we never for a moment thought we were writing a “classic”. We probably would have been paralyzed if we had. Or, at the very least, pretentious as hell.
And it makes me wonder -- all through school our teachers have analyzed and interpreted the crap out of great works of literature. We’re tested on intent and correct meaning. Well, what if the teacher has no fucking clue what she’s talking about? What if she has no idea what the author was trying to say? Or worse yet, has grossly misinterpreted it? If my personal experience has taught me anything it’s that books and plays and scripts and Billy Joel records may in fact be just what they seem.
I imagine if you asked Shakespeare about the ambiguity of HAMLET he might say, “Yeah, about that. I was really slammed for time. I figured I’d just clarify during rehearsals but something came up. The Globe needed some repairs and I had to interview a few contractors. Jesus, those guys will soak you. But people seem okay with the play as it is, so what the hell? Plus, I’m working on my next and that bad boy just does not want to fall into place.”
The next time you watch one of our MASH’s, trust me, I will be more than pleased if you just laugh at the jokes and enjoy the story. There’s something wrong when the viewer spends more time analyzing a script than the writer.
Update: Check out the comments section. There's a lively discussion on whether writers include symbolism even when they don't realize it.
Update 2: Now included in the comments is a note from John Rappaport who oversaw the writing of MASH for the last four seasons.