Today’s Friday question is one I get frequently (usually from my agent).
How come you left MASH?
We had just completed the 7th season. From the time David Isaacs and I became head writers we pretty much wrote or re-wrote every script. We had a very small staff.
Most of the stories came from the research that we, and before us, Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart conducted with doctors, nurses, and soldiers who served in Korea. Usually we had two, maybe three story lines in every episode that would dovetail and eventually connect with each other.. The plotting was very intricate. And our shooting schedule was so demanding (an entire episode was shot in only three days; today a half-hour single camera show takes five or six days to complete) that we had no time to fix stories once they were on the stage. So we really had to get them right beforehand. On multi-camera shows sometimes you go to the stage with a script that’s still a little undercooked but you figure you have a week of production to shore it up. We had no such luxury.
Once we broke the stories David and I wrote every outline, even for the freelance writers we hired.
We made 25 episodes a year so that’s somewhere between 50-70 stories a season. And by year seven we had pretty much picked the bones of all that research. Plus, we were locked into the time and place. It’s not like other shows where characters can marry, have kids, get new apartments, new jobs. Our conceit was the entire run of the series took place over the span of roughly one year.
So by the end of year seven we had done every hot show, cold show, every visiting general, everyone had slept with everyone else, Klinger had worn every dress, we had done every practical joke, everyone had been caught naked in the shower, every activity had been interrupted by choppers, they raised money for every good charity, they performed every tricky operation, they endured every shortage, and everyone had written four letters home.
And worse for us as writers, the characters no longer surprised us. They were so established that by this time we knew exactly what they would say and how they’d react in every situation. (I can’t explain why exactly, but I never felt that way about CHEERS.)
Anyway, we were a little fried and figured it was time. We were offered a big development deal and pilot commitment from NBC so the timing just felt right.
Looking back, I think we could have squeezed out one more year. But then we’d be in the same situation. The show lasted 3 1/2 seasons after we had left. No way could we have done another 90 episodes without winding up in post op ourselves. Once we left they got smart and expanded the staff and I thought the new regime did a great job.
All that said…MASH was an incredible experience. I can’t tell you how proud I am of the work David and I did on the show. And we are forever grateful to Gene Reynolds, Burt Metcalfe, and Alan Alda for giving a couple of kids in their 20s such an extraordinary opportunity.
What’s your question?