Thursday, March 04, 2010

Why did we leave MASH?

Today’s Friday question is one I get frequently (usually from my agent).

bevo asks:

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?

46 comments:

Anonymous said...

I've stopped asking questions, you never deem them worthy. Pretty soon I'm going to give up reading, too.

Baylink said...

My question is: when do you open reg for SitRoom IV? :-)

Anonymous said...

Hate to be a bitch, but I concur with the first post, minus the part about stopping reading.

KEN LEVINE said...

I try to get to as many questions as I can. But I do give priority to those who leave their names. Anonymous questions get put in the back.

Sitcom Room IV arrives after baseball season. Thanks for asking.

Sam said...

Wow really? Anonymous people demanding rights? That's crazy.

Michael R. said...

I used to leave my full name, but got weirded out when Googling my name brought up my arcane (and unanswered) TV questions. So I resorted to first name.

Mike said...

I've asked a couple questions before, and they've yet to be answered. Sure, it'd be nice if they were, but the questions Ken answers are almost always good questions, and his answers are informative and often tell me things I don't already know. I mean, geez, this is a service Ken provides, and it's not like he's making a living off this blog. Just chill out and enjoy the Friday questions. Even if yours doesn't get answered, they still make for good reading.

Mike

KEN LEVINE said...

Michael,

First names are fine. I'm not looking to start mailing lists. I just like people to leave names when leaving comments and questions. Blogmaster's prerogative. No big deal. Seriously.

Michael R. said...

Further to my last post, I'm fine without my questions answered -- one was answered anonymously, actually. The questions that do get answered are still entertaining. Just want to say why I stopped using my full name. I'm a freelancer (not in the arts) and I don't need my employers knowing my quirks and what goes through my head when I watch Cheers when they Google me up.

TIm W. said...

I ask questions all the time, and none of them have ever gotten answered. Although, are we supposed to actually write them out?

Ken, my dishwasher isn't cleaning the dishes very well. Can you tell me what's wrong?

Jeff said...

We are big Frasier fans, but we just watch whatever show comes on cable. I never read about Roz - although we like her character a lot. Any stories there?

Con't Anonymously said...

Anonymous # 1 here: I used to leave my name (or whatever one I decided to use that day), but now having been ignored and my questions unanswered, I figure what's the point, especially after seeing questions answered that seemed painfully obvious to me?

My questions tended to be more pointed, more along the lines of why this or why that in a particular comic writing situation, though sometimes I wondered and inquired other stuff.

Larry said...

What is going on here? Ken has this wonderful inside knowledge and all these great stories. If he wants to answer an occasional question, fine, but it's not his job. If you're unhappy, I suggest you demand your money back.

rockfish said...

Ok, here's my attempt at a question - i promise not to kvetch if it never gets answered (because its probably been asked a dozen or so times before)... Being in both writing and sports, do you know why sports has rarely translated into a successfully popular TV show? Sitcom or dramedy, I'd guess that whether pitched as 'big boy returns to small town roots and gets his comeuppance' or 'rightwing talkshow host gets busted, ends up doing play-by-play for single-A minor team' could be mined for gold by someone.

Kenji said...

Anyhoo, Ken, I think I can answer your observation as to, "why, exactly, [you] never felt that way about CHEERS."

Unlike most shows, all the Cheersies had lives that flowed on, unseen, outside the central location. That meant that, even without new faces showing up, there was always the wild-card possibility that our enjoyably mismatched friends would be changed by something that happened offscreen, and then they would react to it (or not) in the familiar spot -- a veritable crucible for human comedy, if you will.

Jerry's apt. on 'Seinfeld' was a little like that, I guess, but it was only four people and they had that pesky commitment to never learn or grow.

You may now resume normal broadcasting.

Jim Stickford said...

Ken,

As a longtime radio guy, did any of your experiences make it into Frasier?

Anonymous said...

Hi Ken! I have a question about internships. I am a development intern at a major studio in L.A. I was wondering if you ever interned, and what do you think about the concept in general?

Thanks!

Anonymous said...

One more thing-- this is his blog, not a democracy. I like reading his posts, so please stop bitching because I don't want him to stop blogging!

Philip said...

I was a regular viewer of MASH here in the UK. On a later trip to the US, I was pretty shocked to hear a canned laughter track on the episode I was watching. This was always completely stripped out by the BBC - a positive move, in my opinion.

Ken, I'd be interested to know if you're pro or con the laughter track when it comes to MASH.

Jim said...

You've never had questions answered? Funnily enough I've had mine answered even when I didn't realise I was leaving a question. Just leave the Boss Man a little wiggle room to slide in a joke or two and you're there. Or include a link to some new and unseen hot Natalie Wood photo. Or you want an answer within an hour, guaranteed? Be even blunter. Go off and find a couple of photos of Natalie and ask "Which of these photos do you like the best?"

BigTed said...

Philip... Ken definitely has an opinion about the "MASH" laugh track. Do a site search for the headline "Can the Canned Laughter."

l.a.guy said...

Or click here Can Canned Laughter

I'm not sure how to ask this, but one convention of some of the classic sit-coms that always bugged me was the lovable idiot character. For example on the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" it was Georgette, on "Cheers" it was Coach and then Woody. "Wings " it was Lowell, etc. I guess they've always been around but it seemed to be a staple of MTM and later Charles-Burrows-Charles shows. On the other hand I can't think of one on "MASH", "Seinfeld" or "Friends"

Did you like writing for the "lovable idiot" characters and would you include one if you were developing a sit-com today?

Roger Owen Green said...

Ken- I loved M*A*S*H, but I realize that while I watched all of the first seven seasons twice, I watched the last 3.5 seasons only once because I found the story lines often to be repetitive. One that comes to mind: B.J. falls off the fidelity wagon in season 4 or 5 (which was GREAT), B.J. considers falling off the fidelity wagon again in season 9 or 10 (which was BORING).

And I would be distracted by specific references to a specific year (Christmas 1951 in a later season.

While there were gems in the latter period, mostly written by Alda, I think, the show should have ended when Radar went home.

(And to the nagging comments that Ken hasn't answered your queries, Stop it already. It's a blog. It's a personal blog. It's a FREE blog. Yeesh.)

Michael Tassone said...

Maybe your question sucked.

benson said...

@l.a.guy: On the other hand I can't think of one on "MASH", "Seinfeld" or "Friends"

George Costanza and Joey weren't lovable idiots?

bevo said...

Thanks for answering this question and other questions I have posted. Given all your terrific stories and wonderful memories of the show, I wondered why you left.

Trinity Moses said...

The lovable idiot character definitely existed prior to the MTM shows. This character is a prime reason why I have trouble watching detective movies from the 1930s and 1940s--there was an inviolable rule then that the brilliant detective had to be balanced by a dimwitted sidekick who did nothing but slow the story down (the Nigel Bruce version of Dr. Watson, Charlie Chan's sons, the various useless policemen who tagged along with the Falcon, etc.).

As for why there have been so few successful series built around sports: Maybe it is because a major part of the excitement of sports is the possibility that anything might happen, whereas in drama of course what happens is what best serves the plot. Your favorite team will probably lose a good percentage of the time, but in a movie or tv show the good guys always win. Also, the casting in these shows tends to be unconvincing--you get a lot of 150-pound football players and 6-foot-tall basketball players (and well into the 1980s, Hollywood insisted on representing professional sports as a mostly white business, with no more than one token black player per team).

Holt Murray said...

Wow, I love the life that grows within the comments section... beiginning with the two Anonymous question gripers! Hilarious that it's so about them :)!

Maybe you could just have a link to all the Anonymous questions and let readers judge which two should be answered -- you have to be inundated every week.

I never thought about how limiting the parameters could be in regards to MASH's setting: seems moreso than any sitcom I can think of.

Anywho, question on this great post: What was the pilot NBC promised you and Mr. Isaacs?

Michael said...

As I remember the story about MASH, as time went on, the cast members agreed that they would meet each year and decide whether to continue. After the 10th season, the vote was 4-3 again, Justices Morgan, Farr, and Christopher dissenting--apparently, Stiers was the switched vote. CBS got them all to agree to one more year by offering the final episode as a movie, which would give them a lot more time to work with.

I felt MASH was running on fumes for the last two seasons, but that it still was better than anything else on television at that time and, in most cases, since. Actually, Radar's departure reinvigorated them a bit, in my opinion, because it let Klinger do something different and all of them had to adjust. Then came the two-part episode in which Klinger is accused of stealing a camera, which may have been the low point in the series.

I also noticed in the last couple of years an increasing reliance on Rizzo, whom G.W. Bailey played wonderfully, but it made you wonder.

Anonymous said...

@ l.a. guy - good question. Would love to hear Ken's take. On a related note...

I'm curious about the evolution of Roz on Frasier. Was she originally intended to be the "lovable idiot?" I remember watching the premier and much was made of her dim psychic abilities. As the season transpired there were fewer and fewer mentions of this skill set until entire seasons pass without referencing any psychic ability (though brought back marvelously with the dragon statue). When/how did the writers/producers realize that Roz's psychic abilities were non-essential?

Thank you,
~Liam

P.S I'd say Joey and Kramer are lovable idiots, no?

olucy said...

Liam, Roz was Frasier's producer at the radio station. You're thinking of Daphne.

David (not Isaacs) said...

OK, total Ken-bait here (and an excuse for many, many lovely pictures):

Who's the most beautiful actress you`ve written for as (a) a series regular and (b) a recurring character?

(Note: if the answer to (b) is not Bebe Neuwirth then you are obviously insane)

Rutgers Theatre Alumni Network West Coast said...

Good sir Mr. Levine, thought you might like to see I gave you full credit on my own blog:

http://thiswaytotheegress.wordpress.com/2010/03/05/tgi-friday-questions/

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

I still maintain Daphne's psychic powers were just a set up for Lilith's first appearance ("I shook that woman's hand and lost all feeling in me arm") One of my favorite Frasier bits ever.

I think Woody and Coach were fare more than lovable idiots. I especially loved the occasional reveals of darkness in Woody ('wish I'd thought of it before... The Incident')

Mary Stella said...

Anonymous said...
I've stopped asking questions, you never deem them worthy. Pretty soon I'm going to give up reading, too.


Since you're anonymous we'll never notice.

Anonymous said...

How come most sitcom writers seem to write female characters in only two ways: As a bitch or as a ditz.

Steve said...

The discussion of leaving MASH raises a question: While I absolutely loved MASH for most of its run, the last few seasons got pretty bad overall, sometimes horribly so. Some of it was because the well may have run dry, but part of it was how some of the edge just left as various characters, most glaringly Margaret, just got so preachy and even saintly at times, it got increasingly boring and more unrealistic.

So, my question to you is this: Did this occur because of different writers, or did some of the actors push for this for their characters, or what? I don't think attributing it to their characters growing or getting more mature could plausibly account for this.

Kirk Jusko said...

You said the whole series took place in a single year. In that case, maybe there should have been a 12th season. That way a single season could have taken place in a single month. Instead, one has to divide all 11 season into 12 months, meaning each season is one month, two days, 8 hours, 21 minutes, if I'm doing my math right. That's just an estimate as some months have 31 days while other's have 30. And, of course, February has 28 days, unless MASH took place in 1952, which was a leap year.

Then again, maybe it's not something you should take all that seriously.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Anonymous said... How come most sitcom writers seem to write female characters in only two ways: As a bitch or as a ditz.

Mommy issues, of course. It's why they grew up to be comedy writers.

Mary Richards? Rhoda? Two-thirds of the female Friends? Elaine? Grace, (of Will and)? Emily Hartley?

I'll give you Edith Bunker, that bitch.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Sister Bertrille? She was neither. AND she could fly.

rita said...

Anonymous Anonymous said...

How come most sitcom writers seem to write female characters in only two ways: As a bitch or as a ditz.


margaret houlihan was neither.

Dan Brown said...

Ken, what kind of priority was reality in your scripts? How much emphasis was there in keeping things plausible? My biggest pet peeve now with sitcoms is that even some good shows, such as The Office, defy believability. The other night, Dwight punched out Pam's window and tore up the house with a sledgehammer when asked to retrieve an iPod. Uh, sure.) Even in comedy, shouldn't writers ask themselves: Would this really happen?

Charles H. Bryan said...

Samantha Stevens was a witch, but not a bitch, nor even a ditz.

But, actually, I know what anonymous means. My eyes roll whenever I see a character from the Midwest portrayed as a hayseed xenophobe, and I tend to forget any other characters that run counter to the stereotype. The first counterexample that springs to mind is, um, Arthur Fonzarelli? Hmm. Oh! Mary Richards and Robert Hartley! OK, I feel better now.

My advice to anonymous -- don't take Two and Half Men so stinking seriously.

M. Shawn said...

What exactly is the job of a Television Producer? I know what a Director & Writer does, but I'm ignorant to what a Producer does.

Mic said...

l.a.guy said, On the other hand I can't think of one on "MASH", "Seinfeld" or "Friends"

Hmmm... MASH is my favorite show ever, Seinfeld came around after I'd pretty much stopped watching TV altogether so I've only seen a few episodes... though I can still answer that, and I tell people that Friends is the reason I stopped watching TV altogether (though it's not really).

MASH: Major Frank Burns. He's more subtle than the "lovable idiot" in other shows, but it's still him. In fact, the reason the other characters hate him so much is BECAUSE he's an idiot, in a job and place where stupidity causes people to die.

Seinfeld: George. (Which I find highly amusing since the actor who plays him is one of the smartest in TV.)

Friends: I can see your confusion. There's no contrast to help you pick out the "lovable idiot" because the answer to your question is, "all of them." It's a show ABOUT lovable (or not-so lovable, in my opinion) idiotS.

Mic said...

"How come most sitcom writers seem to write female characters in only two ways: As a bitch or as a ditz."

Believability.







OH!!
Just kidding, I swear. I just couldn't resist.