Thursday, April 26, 2012

The speech that launched our career

My writing partner and I were bouncing around trying to get freelance assignments early in our career. We were pitching and writing any show we could get. We got hired to write a back-up script for a pilot that didn’t go. We did two episodes of a series that was canceled in five weeks. But then we lucked out and got a MASH assignment. It was the episode where a gas heater blows up and Hawkeye is temporarily blind. I know: hilarity can't help but ensue!  As part o the episode, we wanted Hawkeye to convey what it was like for him to experience blindness. To better understand her predicament we consulted someone who worked with the blind. To simulate the experience she blindfolded us and had us try to walk up Beverly Glen Canyon with cars whizzing by.  I can't say how many times we were almost killed because I couldn't see the cars.  But judging by screeching brakes and horn blasts -- fifteen. 

The end result is we wrote Hawkeye a big speech. We didn’t know whether the producers even wanted a monologue. It wasn’t in the outline. But we felt (a) it was a good character moment, and (b) showed initiative on our part.

The only problem is: it took us FOREVER to write it. Literally three days. We just kept revising and revising, looking for better examples and imagery, trying to be heartfelt and touching without being maudlin and cliché’d, and if possible, work in a small laugh. At times it was too long. Other times it was too short. We just kept going around and around until we were finally happy. I remember saying to David, “How does Paddy Chayefsky bang these out like they were fortune cookies?” (I now say that about Aaron Sorkin.)

We turned in the script. Gene Reynolds, the showrunner, loved it – especially the speech. From then on he kept giving us assignments and that first script, as our new writing sample when our agent submitted us for things, was our golden ticket.

I do believe that speech was the turning point in our career. Please consider that when you’re writing your spec. Not saying you need to include a poignant monologue (especially if you’re writing a WHITNEY), but you do need to put in the effort, time, and diligence necessary to make your script just that much better than whatever else is out there. Wait. Let me amend that. Do everything necessary except blindfolding yourself and walking up Beverly Glenn. You’re not going to get a lot of job offers if you’re dead.  Even Chayesfksy's phone no longer rings. 

Here is that “speech”. It’s from the episode “Out of Sight/Out of Mind”, season five. Hawkeye has been rather manic and BJ tries to get him to settle down.

BJ: Listen. Why don’t you just settle down for five minutes? I know what you’re trying to do, and I know how you feel.


HAWKEYE: I don’t think so.

BJ: You don’t want to think about what might happen to you. So you keep running…


HAWKEYE: That’s not it. Look, when Dr. Overman walks in tomorrow and unwraps my pacage, I hope to God I’ll have my sight back. But in the meantime, something fascinating has happened to me.

BJ: How’s that, Hawk?


HAWKEYE: One part of the world closed down for me, but another part opened up. Sure, I’ve been seeing myself sitting on a corner with a tin cup selling thermometers. But, I’m going through something here I didn’t expect. This morning I spent two incredible hours listening to a rainstorm. I didn’t just hear it, I was part of it. I’ll bet you never realized that rain hitting the ground makes the same noise as steaks when they barbecue, or that thunder seems to echo forever. And you can’t believe how funny it is to hear someone slip and fall in the mud. Had to be Burns. Beej, it’s full of trapdoors, but I think there may almost be some advantage to this. I’ve never spent a more conscious day in my life.

29 comments:

Ray Morton said...

I saw this episode when it first aired and loved this speech. It's a tremendous piece of work already, but the "had to be Burns" part is what put it over the top for me, because it was so specific to the show, to the camp, to the characters. And it also gave us a perfect Frank Burns moment in an offhand way without us ever having to see it. That and everything else about the speech is writing at its best. Bravo.

Helena said...

I really love this episode, and that speech. I think it's one of my favorites.

But what I don't like is how shows these days think it's mandatory with an episode in which the lead character goes temporarily blind. It's been done enough times now...

Joe Menta said...

No lie, I never forgot that rain/steak observation since watching that episode when it originally aired decades ago, and it routinely occurs to me during rainstorms to this day.

Johnny Walker said...

Wow. Great speech!

Rock Golf said...

I don't think I've seen that episode or heard that speech since the year it was first on TV, closing in on forty years ago.
But I knew exactly what speech you were talking about from the picture alone.
Three days well spent, sir.

Zappa the Unholy said...

After seeing that episode the first time, I made a conscious effort to keep my eyes closed during a storm once. The rain / barbecue analogy is SPOT ON and I'd never noticed it before. Well done sir! no pun intended.

Michael said...

I love that speech and that episode. Add in how beautifully and brilliantly Alda delivers it.

David Schwartz said...

It's not only a great speech, it's also written perfectly for the actor's character. You hear Alan Alda's voice as you read it. And the words feel organic and real. It reads like a perfect marriage between the words and the characterization.

McAlvie said...

That was a great episode, and I remember that speech well. In fact, the whole show was probably the pinacle of what a sitcom can be. So much great dialog, great actors, characters and character actors. How many other shows not only survived so much cast turnover, but got even better for it? You know it's a great show because it takes place at a specific time and place in history, and yet it's also timeless and will likely live on in syndication for yet another generation to discover. And if they tried to do that show today, the networks would cancel it for lack of nudity, profanity, and gratuitous potty humor. It's much to smart and smartly written for the networks to comprehend today.

Darren said...

Tremendous episode, Ken and David. Thanks for the back story.

Jeffrey Mark said...

I watched the show from the very first season and through the years I felt like I got to know Hawk pretty well...I just related to him in some ways, although I never rattled off the great quips and comedic lines that he did. Over the years it was so brilliant how the writers let his character grow as a fully-fleshed out human being...letting him just not only have one laugh line after another, but rather, having us Hawk fans see him as a deeply compassionate and loving human being. Alda was just so damn perfect for the role, and the growth the character had over the years was a perfect thing.

Always will remember your wonderful episode - one of my all time fave-raves of the show. Dialogue perfection...acting perfection...you got us to truly FEEL what Hawk was going through, feeling the pain mentally and physically that he was going through. The blending of pathos and that patented Hawk humor was perfect. We didn't always have to get laughs from Hawk, and that's what made him so very real...so very human, and loving for all of us fans.

Quickly...if I may...since we're talking about brilliant scenes with dead-on perfect dialogue on MASH...and every budding writer out there working on a new series take note. Go find the episode - in season 2 or 3, I believe - where Hawk's best friend, the chopper pilot dies on the operating table and Hawk is completely devastated because there was nothing he could do to save him. Henry had to tell Hawk to leave the OR because he was too emotionally involved. Just that scene...shivers up the spine...Hawk in shock...frozen on the spot, looking down on his friend. And then the beautiful scene outside the OR with Henry. Hawk's in tears, pouring his heart out to Henry about the misery of war and the senseless loss of his good friend. Best lines Mclean Stevenson probably ever delivered was telling Hawk about what they told him at commander school before taking command of the 4077th...I can't remember word for word, but they way Henry said it to Hawk, not really knowing the answer himself why people have to die in war, and the fact that we as doctors just try and do the best we can with the equipment we have, and that, sad as it is, people die and we cannot save them all of the time. Such brilliant pathos and heartbreak in that scene...every word coming out of Hawk's and Henry's mouth perfect. Both being...very real. The new breed of writers...you know who you are...take heed...watch Ken's scene and that scene over and over and over and ov...

Another Mac said...

Add me to the list of fans who saw the episode when it first aired and to this day think about barbecued steaks in a rainstorm. Thank you for that.

Larry said...

Decades later and I still remember that speech.

RCP said...

Thanks for the backstory on this episode, which I remember well. In fact, a blindfolded Hawkeye is one of the key visuals I associate with MASH.

"And you can’t believe how funny it is to hear someone slip and fall in the mud." In context, this line just jumps out at you.

"Do everything necessary except blindfolding yourself and walking up Beverly Glenn." Too late.

Kev said...

What a wonderful monologue.

Question: When you're micro-editing something like this monologue, how much attention do you pay on things like cadence, or words getting repeated? Personally, it always sounds weird to me when two consecutive sentences end with the same word (unless done purposely), so I was wondering if there's anything you look for specifically in terms of how the actual speech "sounds to the ear"... if that makes sense.

Jack said...

That line about hearing the thunder forever stayed with me from the moment I saw the episode air originally. The very next time there was a storm, I stopped and really listened. You words had impact and staying power. Every time I hear a thunderstorm I also hear your (Hawkeye's) words. Thanks, Ken!

LouOCNY said...

Jeffery:

Blake: The one thing that they did teach me (at Command School) was this: Rule 1 - In a war, soldiers die. Rule 2 - Doctors can't do anything about Rule 1...


The episode was "Sometimes You Hear the Bullet.", and Hawkeye's friend was a journalist who joined the army as a regular grunt to experience the war up close, and sadly, too personal. Ron (then Ronnie) Howard was a guest star as a 16 year old who joined the army under his older brother's name to impress his girl.

And yes, that is one of THE classic MASH episodes. I particularly liked the bit about how they got back at Burns, who been cheating on baseball bets.

Tim W. said...

remember that episode quite clearly, even though I haven't seen it in more than 20 years.

Completely off topic and a random question that has been bugging me recently. Now this has absolutely nothing to do with writing or any of the shows you have worked on, but my question is why do so many male actors wear a noticeable amount of eyeliner. I have been re-watching Gilmore Girls and the character Luke is quite obviously wearing eyeliner. It's distracting. And I'm not watching it in hi-def. I also notice George Clooney wearing it in most of his movies. But they aren't the only ones. Don't the makeup artists/directors/actors realize that it's obvious and distracting?

If ANYONE can answer this question, I'd appreciate it.

Brian said...

Ken,

I've always loved that speech and it makes it all the better knowing that you and David launched your careers with it. Adding the line about Frank falling in the mud was a perfect way to bring some levity to the proceedings without overreaching for a laugh. Kudos, sir!

Kati said...

I like to think that writers who really love it, when given the time, can't help but kill themselves making their words as great as possible :)

I've never even seen MASH, but what I like about the raining/steaks simile is that it's rooted in more every day, American, masculine identity. It's not only great imagery but it's authentic to the character and to most of the viewers too (I imagine).

The extra awareness/opened doors a blind person may experience reminds me of Motes in Flannery O'Conner's Wise Blood. He blinds himself with lye to shut out the world, "truly see", and get closer to God. Much more Gothic xD

Prakash said...

I was 9 and watching that show cos my dad found it on tv in india and really liked it. I remember not really caring or understanding what was happening, just laughing a little at the silliness which I understood at the time. But when that speech happened, it had such a huge effect on me that it lasts till this day. And it remains one of my favourite episodes, and is the reason I got into MASH in the first place. Just wanted to let you know, that speech was also incredibly influential to someone half way around the world.

Kirk said...

Along with so many others here, I, too recall the steak/rain comparison.

Michael said...

Reading the other comments, I am reminded of one of the most important things about comedy writing: writing in character. That is not only a great speech, but it's Hawkeye. No other character on MASH would have made that speech, or made it in the same way. And it does indeed reflect the classic MASH mix of reality--I don't like to say drama--and comedy or levity.

When I realized that Ken and David had written that episode, I thought, ah, Ken indulging his baseball broadcasting fantasies! There's an episode--I don't know whether it's that one--where a baseball broadcast is piped in, and I could SWEAR it's Connie Desmond, who did the Brooklyn Dodger broadcasts with Red Barber and, as Red called him, Young Scully.

Jango said...

I think why this speech resonates with a lot of people, is that it is based on a fundamental truth: that in order to experience the subtle vibrations of the universe, we have to shut down our senses and thoughts.

Chris said...

Any thoughts on "Don't Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23"? It's just another show about how tough New York life is, but I loved the pilot and Krysten Ritter can be really funny.

Jim said...

As you keep pointing out, character is everything. The humor, the drama, the audience's buy-in to the series, all stem from character. The script for this show is one of the best examples of that tenet, and it is no accident that this script launched your career.

HogsAteMySister said...

Two ironies here for me. First, back when I wanted to be a sitcom writer, I had an idea for a M*A*S*H episode where Hawkeye goes blind. Somewhere there is even a cassette tape of me trying to get it down. But it didn't happen. 25 years later, I found myself running Comms at the Foundation of the Blind in New Zealand. Go figger.

Mark said...

Just read this on an evening when I really needed a shot of sitcom writing inspiration.

Thanks so much Ken.

Hope to return the favor.

Mark

Steve Bailey said...

I always loved this episode. And it contrasts so vividly with a "Happy Days" episode from 1978, where Fonzie is blinded & the show does everything it can to make it a maudlin episode. As soon as I saw that show, I thought of yours.