Sunday, February 10, 2013

M*I*S*H M*A*S*H


By popular demand, more MASH stuff. (I never get this kind of reaction to my pitches for my book) Here are some random questions and thoughts:

How did we get the medical jargon? We had a consultant on staff, Dr. Walter Dishell. When writing the script, David and I would just slug in medical nonsense.

HAWKEYE: I think his freebazzber is ruptured.

BJ: You might have to gumenford him and eeknonoogle his interior norgalflagle.


HAWKEYE: Nurse, zignuts. Stat!
 
Walt would send the script back replacing the zignuts. Eventually we became more proficient in operating procedures and by the end of our tenure we were taking a crack at the jargon ourselves, just calling him and running the scene by him. One of our proudest moments on the show was once writing an OR scene that required no changes. Of course the patient did die.

If you’re writing a spec script like a GREY'S ANATOMY that requires medical-speak, consult a doctor to get it right.

When breaking stories, we would often call Walt and say something like, “Here’s what we need -- a patient that comes in with a bad fever. He becomes delusional that night. The next day he’s better. But that night he dies.” An hour later Walt would call back with Hemorrhagic Fever or some other exotic disease.

At MASH we also had a nurse on stage who served as our technical adviser. That is why you never saw Hawkeye operate with a band saw.

A few people commented on the number of inconsistencies in the show. Yes, a show bible might have been nice. To me there were two GLARING inconsistencies: Harry Morgan initially appeared as an insane general (maybe the funniest MASH episode EVER – “The General Flipped at Dawn”) and then later as Colonel Potter. And the other – we’re supposed to believe that eleven years of stories, main characters coming and going, actors aging over a decade, etc. all took place in less than two years.

The theme song, taken from the movie, “Suicide is Painless” was never sung on the series.

The show was shot at Twentieth Century Fox on Stage 9, and on location in Malibu canyon. A later brush fire destroyed most of the exterior sets. The sets from the stage are in the Smithsonian in Washington. I didn’t steal any of the props. I’m an idiot.

It took four days to shoot an episode. One day to read and rehearse, and three to film. One of the three shooting days would be out on location. But only until the end of Daylight Savings Time. After that the days were too short. The final six or seven episodes were always filmed exclusively on the stage, even the exterior scenes.

For my money the best episodes were written by Larry Gelbart and the team of Everett Greenbaum & Jim Frizzell.


I was there for the creation of Charles Emerson Winchester. The idea was to replace Frank Burns with a character that was very much his opposite. We all wanted Charles to be smarter and more gifted as a surgeon than Hawkeye or B.J. and, as opposed to Frank, a worthy adversary.

There were no auditions for the part. Producer Burt Metcalfe had seen David Ogden Stiers guesting on an episode of the MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and thought he’d be perfect. It was only after David was hired that we learned he could do that slight Boston accent.

MASH tribute sites have trivia contests. I often can’t answer questions from episodes I wrote.

31 comments:

Johnny Walker said...

Didn't the actors famously complain about the facilities when on location? Were they really that bad? (One day a week doesn't sound that bad, either way, but I guess it could be annoying after a while of no improvement.)

Michael said...

As I recall, Alan Alda has said that he occasionally gets asked for medical advice. But he also went on to play the genius physicist Richard Feynmann, so now he may be off splitting atoms, for all we know.

Great stuff, and I remember reading (I believe it was you, Ken) that Stiers was asked if he could do a Boston accent. He did one and was asked if he could dial it back a little bit. He did, and that was the accent, and he never missed. I remember being shocked when I heard his regular speaking voice.

The other great inconsistency was that the Potters had at least three different wedding anniversaries during the series, including a 27th and a 38th.

orenmendez said...

I can't believe I didn't know about your book before. It could of helped me so much when I wrote my seminar paper about the 60's and television...

Stephen Robinson said...

Charles was one of my favorite characters, and watching his episodes taught me that you don't need "white hat" and "black hat" to create tension. People are different. Some of my favorite scenes involve Dr. Winchester -- the ending of the episode with the stuttering patient and his storyline in the final episode.

I thought all the cast replacements* were improvements. This is not a slight to the original actors, just a recognition of the more mature direction the show was taking.

I concede to having been one of those guys who would sneering say that the first three seasons of MASH were the "good ones." I do appreciate the freshness of those years but the first two BJ/Potter seasons and the next couple Winchester seasons are great, as well.

Regarding Frank Burns, I always enjoyed his last episode -- it was a great showcase for Linville's comedic and dramatic skills. His final words are really touching.

*If you consider Klinger a replacement for Radar, then I don't consider that an improvement.

DavidZ said...

I have a vivid memory of seeing a commercial for MASH action figures when I was young. They almost looked like Star Wars toys.

Do you have any details about those toys? Specifically, I've always been curious who could possibly have looked at this show and thought "you know, we really should start developing merchandise for all those six-year-old Korean War sitcom fans out there...)

Also, why did they make figures for everyone, even Klinger in a dress. But no Larry Gelbart!

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Well, here's a Friday question: how does Shonda Rhimes break so many rules of good writing and get away with it?

I'm talking about SCANDAL:

- Many of the characters all talk the same way;

- They seem more like shuffleboard pucks being rearranged than actual characters;

- They do things that are completely unrealistic;

- Many of them accordingly seem psychotic and impossible to identify with.

Is it *just* the pacing?

wg

Phillip B said...

A link to a video about the MASH action figures -

http://youtu.be/hievgfNFc08

Everything is on YouTube, absolutely everything....

Totty said...

My favourite/most annoying inconsistency: Klinger changes blood types. In an early episode (first couple of seasons I think) they had the usual dramatic "This patient needs [blood type] and we're all out". In this case it was B- and Klinger came to the rescue with "*I'm* B-".

Later in the series, they pulled the same thing, but with AB-, and again Klinger to the rescue.

Also, AB- can receive blood from any blood type, provided it has the same RH- factor so it's not such a big deal.

Michael said...

Stephen, one thing I will say for MASH is that they weren't writing characters out for the sake of storyline: the performers chose to leave. I thought Klinger's change was beneficial in the sense that they got some different storylines out of it, though Radar was Radar and we can't question how vital and what a wonderful character he was (and how wonderful Gary Burghoff was).

Frankly, I wasn't so big a fan of the early years, because, if anything, they tried to be too funny too often. That isn't to question the genius of Larry Gelbart (nobody should dare), but it also was partly, I think, that he and the others were exploring a lot of themes and approaches. I began to think of Henry's approach to command and the way Frank and Margaret went after him as becoming a little old. I also thought the most logical departure was Larry Linville because, as incredible as he was in that role--he didn't let Frank be a caricature, which could have been done--he made the point: where else could they go with him? He couldn't suddenly become a good surgeon (although you'll notice that in the early years, it wasn't that Frank was an incompetent surgeon--he just wasn't in the others' league).

John said...

The only inconsistency that really annoyed me was the Season 9 episode "A War for All Seasons". It wasn't so much a specific continuity break as the fact that the writers and show handlers decided to have the 4077 reminisce about the year 1951. If you're going to be accurate about the medical terminology, at least remember the Korean War ran from the Summer of 1950 to the Summer of 1953 and try to be just a tiny bit close on the timeline.

By sticking a Season 9 show into 1951, that meant everything that happened with Henry Blake, Frank Burns and Radar O'Reilly all supposedly happened in a five-month period of 1950. They could have used 1952 of course (you only really had two choices for the plot of the episode), but because someone really, really, really wanted to make the Giants' comeback over the Dodgers in the 1951 NL pennant race the comedy point of the show and as a result, pretty much took a wooden bat to the head of the show's timeline for the first eight seasons.

Jeffro said...

I M*I*S*S M*A*S*H.

And nowadays you wouldn't even need a medical adviser (at least live and present). You'd only need to go to WebMD.com.

Allie Illwaco said...

Curious, did you get to meet Dr. Richard Hooker?

Roger Owen Green said...

To John's point: Trapper and Hawkeye got brought up on charges and were in a military courtroom in 1952! So Winchester's 1951 Christmas REALLY irritated.

Carol said...

My own personal canon for M*A*S*H is that it exists in an alternate universe where the Korean war lasted 10 years.

Have you ever imagined what the characters did after they left Korea (aside from After M*A*S*H, of course)? I'm sure there's fanfic out there about that sort of thing, but I'd be interested to hear what you'd like to imagine happened to the characters in the future.

Kirk said...

I love these MASH posts. Keep 'em coming.

I like all the characters who appeared on the series. Personally, I would like Blake and Potter to jointly run the 4077, while Hawkeye, Trapper, and BJ play practical jokes on Frank and Charles. One great big, happy Korean War family!

John said...

Roger -- It's also worth noting that our blog host and his writing partner already did a show where the comedy part centered around baseball and betting, in their very first MASH script from Season 5. So they blew up the series' entire time continuity line in Season 9 for a baseball-related comedy bit that was nowhere near as funny as the one Ken and David did four years earlier.

Also, in reference to some other posts here about Seasons 1-2 having too much emphasis on humor -- which I agree with; though that may have been more do two what CBS expected from the show -- the opposite was true of Seasons 9-11. They have too much emphasis on the dramatic portions of the show, to the point they comedy parts of many of the shows come across as just an afterthought.

The final three seasons overall don't hold up well in re-runs, because the drama part of the 'dramedy' smothers the comedy, which is basically 1.) Hawkeye, BJ and Charles play practical jokes on each other; 2.) Klinger messes up something or complains about his work and 3.) Potter and Margaret yell their lines and the colonel spouts really forced homespun analogies that are supposed to be funny. If you want the best period of MASH, start when Harry Morgan arrives as the crazy general to start off Season 3 and go out when Radar goes home in Season 8.

Breadbaker said...

I remember Robert Altman complaining that although he never got a dime from the TV show, his son Mike, who wrote the never-used-on-TV lyrics to Suicide is Painless, made a killing in royalties.

Don K. said...

Getting worked up over inconsistencies makes me think of other shows doing the same thing.

For example, Two and a Half Men. I admit, I love the Sheen version. So sue me. Anyway, to play Walden's ex-wife they bring back actress Judy Greer, who had previously done a memorable turn as Herb's (Ryan Stiles) sister. Charlie and Herb's sister (whatever her name was, so okay not THAT memorable) had a brief 2-3 episodic fling centering around Judith and Herb's wedding. When Greer first appeared I thought hey, Walden married Herb's sister. But no, a completely different character.

Two and a Half also had the actress who played Chelsea play two different one night stands before she settled in as the fiancee. Charlie also flirted with a wacky character playe byJenna Elfman early on,and then after Charlie "died" (still not buying it), Elfman, as Dharma with Greg, looked at Charlie's house to buy.

Any other series play this game?

Anonymous said...

Column Request:

I'd like to read your take on "zombie shows," meaning television shows that won't accept they're dead, and why they're allowed to wander the neighborhood-or maybe you could comment the newest episode of the television show "Community."

Take your pick!

Zooey

Johnny Walker said...

Allie, as it turns out, "Dr Richard Hooker" was a pseudonym for two guys: H. Richard Hornberger, the guy who was actually a doctor in a M*A*S*H unit, and his ghostwriter/helper, W.C. Heinz.

Apparently the real-life doctor, Hornberger, wasn't a fan of Alan Alda, and never meant his original novel to be "anti-war". Make of that what you will :)

Still, I would love to know if Dr Hornberger ever met Ken or anyone else from the show.

Lee said...

Everett Greenbaum and Jim Fritzell are two of television's finest unsung comedy writers, and it's good to know that you admire their work on "M*A*S*H." They turned out some fine scripts for "The Andy Griffith Show," a well-written series rarely acknowledged as such. They also wrote "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken," which was a very cool movie when I was seven. ;)


Rob said...

Random observations:

Potter's male horse turned into a female.

Radar turned into a virgin who couldn't tolerate liquor.

Nurse Kellye had at least five different names.

In "Fade Out/Fade In" Jeff Maxwell speaks with Johnny Haymer's voice!

Frank's "Bye Margaret" was a much better ending for the character and episode than the useless tag scene.

Was Margaret's marriage always intended to fail?

Around 1977 there were a series of episodes where Loretta Swit appeared in only one scene and was absent from the rest of the show - even the OR scenes. Do you remember if she shot a bunch of random scenes in one day? In the mystery-novel show Nurse Bigelow had more screen time than Margaret!

Allie Illwaco redux said...

@Johnny Walker: thanks for the input. I'm aware of Hooker's pen-name/real name...I went w/Hooker for 2 reasons. 1) that's the name associated w/the novel M*A*S*H, & 2) who doesn't love a funny hooker? Secondly, WC Heinz was a real person, in fact, a very well known and rewarded reporter, sports writer and novelist. Here's a link to the NY Times obit:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/28/sports/28heinz.html?_r=0

I too read that Hooker didn't approve of Alda's portrayal of Hawkeye, that he preferred Donald Sutherland's. I, for one, saw the TV series long before I saw the movie, so I had the opposite feeling.

Always a pleasure!

DBenson said...

What was interesting as "MASH" rolled on past the Vietnam War -- what the show was really about -- the show was less about war per se than about stories that happened to be playing out during a war. Less "war is bad and crazy" than "this is what happens to these people in a war zone."

Mr. Levine can be as modest as he wants, but I enjoyed "AfterMASH". If it was a failure it was an honorable and ambitious one, unlike most attempts to continue a franchise ("Frasier" being the huge exception). I think it might have done better if it could have debuted a few years sooner when the issues were more front and center.

David said...

I saw this interesting blog post
arguing that Lena Dunham's frequent nudity on "Girls" is a comedy crutch:

http://notesfromahack.blogspot.com/2013/02/lena-dunhams-nudity-is-comedy-crutch.html

I was curious if you agree.

JonCow said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JonCow said...

The Harry Morgan "crazy general" had one of my favorite lines. Telling (if I remember correctly) Radar how to spell his name, he says "Steele with three e's. Not all in a row."

McAlvie said...

Late to the party, but ...

As I recall, during the early episodes Hawkeye is writing home to his father and says something about giving his love to his mother and sister. Then in later episodes it is established that Hawkeye is an only child and his father was widowed when Hawkeye was still a kid. That's one inconsistency that has always stood out for me.

But in the long run that show became the icon it is because (a) the great writing, and (b) it grew and adapted in an almost organic way. It actually got better in many ways after the first few seasons. The replacement characters for Trapper and Henry were all new characters that kept the dynamics of the show fresh. And when Radar went home and they gave Klinger more face time, the same thing happened.

Of course today the networks would complain that there wasn't enough vulgarity and the nurses weren't pretty enough. Which is probably by network sitcoms are generally lousy these days.

Nat Gerter (sitcom room veteran) said...

"Any other series play this game?"

Sure, its pretty common to reuse good actors. My favorite example is Steve Landesberg, who showed up as as motel bible thief before being cast as a regular on Barney Miller.

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K said...

I still quote CEW III on a regular basis:
"I do one thing at a time, I do it very well, and then I move on."

Thank you to whoever wrote that,