Sunday, March 16, 2014

How we plotted stories on MASH

MASH episodes tend to be complicated and I’m often asked how we plotted out stories. So here’s how we did it.

First off, we chose the best stories we could find – the most emotional, the most interesting the best possibilities for comedy. Plotting is worthless if you have a bad story. Chekov would pull out his hair trying to make “B.J.’s Depression” work. (Side note: stories where your lead character is depressed generally don’t work in comedy. Moping around is not conducive to laughs. Better to make them angry, frustrated, lovesick, impatient, hurt – anything but depressed… or worse, happy. Happy is comedy death.)

We got a lot of our stories from research – transcribed interviews of doctors, nurses, patients, and others who lived through the experience. But again, the key was to find some hook that would connect one of our characters to these real life incidents.

Some of these anecdotes were so outrageous we either couldn’t use them or had to tone them down because no one would believe them.

For each episode we had two and sometimes three stories. If we had a very dramatic story we would pair it with something lighter. The very first MASH we wrote, Hawkeye was temporally blind and Hawk & Beej pulled a sting on Frank.

We would try to mix and match these story fragments so that they could dovetail or hopefully come together at the end.

All that stuff you probably knew. What you didn’t know is this:

We broke the show down into two acts and a tag. Each act would have five scenes. Brief transition scenes didn’t count. But go back through some episodes. Five main scenes in the first act and five in the second. As best we could we would try to advance both of our stories in the same scenes. But each story is different and we tried to avoid being predictable.

Usually, we wrapped up the heavy story last. That’s the one you cared most about.

The tag would callback something from the body of the show, generally drawing from the funny story.

And then we had a rather major restriction: We could only shoot outside at the Malibu ranch for one day each episode. So no more than 8 pages (approximately a third of the show). And that was in the summer when there was the most light. By September and October we could devote 6 pages to exteriors. And once Daylight Savings was over that was it for the ranch for the season. All exteriors were shot on the stage. So if we wanted to do a show where the camp is overrun by oxen we better schedule it for very early in the summer. Those 20th guards never let oxen onto the lot without proper ID.

If possible we tried to do at least one O.R. scene a show. We wanted to constantly remind the audience that above all else this was a show about war.

We always feared that a sameness would creep into the storytelling so every season we would veer completely away from our game plan for several episodes just to shake things up and keep you off the scent. That’s how all format-breaking shows like POINT OF VIEW, THE INTERVIEW, and DREAMS came about. And during our years we extended that to a few mainstream episodes. We did NIGHT AT ROSIE’S that was more like a one-act play. Everything was set in Rosie’s Bar. (I wonder if a series like that but set in Boston would work?) We moved them all to a cave. We did an episode set exclusively in Post-Op and assigned each of our characters to a specific patient. Letters-to-home was another nice device.

I should point out here that I didn’t come up with the MASH guidelines for storytelling. That was all Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds (pictured). We just followed the template. And for the record, in all my years in the business, no one is better at story than Gene Reynolds. It was amazing how he could zero in on problems and more impressively, find solutions. The story had to constantly move forward, it had to have flow, logic, surprises, the comedy had to real as well as funny, and most of all – the dramatic moments (especially during the conclusion) had to be earned.

So that’s how we did it, based on how they did it. And when I occasionally watch episodes of MASH from our years there are always lines I want to change or turns that could be made more artfully or humorously, but those stories hold up beautifully. Thank you, Gene Reynolds.


David Kassnoff said...

To this day, MASH stands as the best-scripted 30-minute show to air on network TV. Thanks for the peek behind your typewriter.

Michael said...

I'll second David's motion. And I'll point out that Frank Chirkinian, the genius who directed CBS's golf coverage for almost 40 years (he invented a lot of things you see when you watch a sporting event on TV), used to say simplicity was an art. MASH made it look simple. But it wasn't, and, deep down, I think we knew it. Thanks to Ken, we know more about how and why.

John said...

One of the reasons why Seasons 3-7 were my favorites was the deftness in the balance between the comedy and the more serious scenes. Outside of a few isolated episodes in Seasons 1-2, M*A*S*H at times felt too light (though admittedly that was at the behest of the suits at CBS, who reportedly got the vapors over the Season 1 episode where Hawkeye's friend dies).

At other other end, once we get into Season 8 -- and especially Seasons 9-11 -- there was something missing in the seeming spontaneity of the comedy, as if the comedy part was just an afterthought or a nuance the show was required to do, while the writers, actors and others were more interested in making sure the dramatic scenes were effective (which to me had the opposite effect, in that the better the comedy scenes were, the more the viewers cared about the dramatic moments).

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

In defense of using depression as a sitcom plot, Friends did a pretty good job at it, back in the 4th season, when they aired a Chandler story where he was trying to move on after a rough breakup, going through several stages.

The last stage was one of the show's best endings, which had him and the girls going to a strip-club.

Jeff said...

Jackie Cooper's book was somewhat controversial regarding MASH. Did you read it?

Peter said...

I've never written in but love your posts. I still watch the reruns. Loved this post. Thanks for stories.

Anonymous said...

Most insightful! We'll have to go back to our MASH collection and have an episode binge! Thank you!

Erich Cannon said...

You mentioned the episodes DREAMS. Now there's a subject i'd love your take on. Television dream episodes, or dream sequences. To me, there is nothing less interesting than someone telling me about their dream. What's worse? An episode of television devoted to it.

Curious your thoughts?

Cap'n Bob said...

Interesting breakdown. As for the photo, couldn't you find one that made him look less like Satan? Or are you having fun at his expense?

Pamela Jaye said...

your first?
That was the second episode of MASH I ever watched. It would have been the first, but when I saw it in the TV Guide, I thought probably would be a good idea to see a "normal" episode first.

I read recently that MASH was on Saturday nights somewhere along the line. I assume I was busy watching Emergency. (Have you seen that ad - here is a list of people you don't see on Me.TV? Miley Cyrus, Honey BooBoo, Snooki ?)

Johnny Walker said...

Another fascinating post on the nuts and bolts of sitcom production. Two acts, five scenes each. I'll definitely be watching out for that the next time I watch MASH.

David G. said...

Question for Ken:
Long-running TV series will often construct an episode to bring back a former regular as a guest star. ("Cheers" did it. "Happy Days" did it. "St. Elsewhere" did it.) Granted, the setting of "M*A*S*H" probably probably would have required such a thing to be limited to phone call scenes or a character doing something at home that connected with a situation going on at the 4077th, but was there any type of "No Trapper/Frank/Radar" rule in pitching story ideas during your time with that series?

Stoney said...

I'd be interested in hearing about how several uncommon medical conditions were worked into the plotlines. Has anyone here followed the recent story of journalist Miles O'Brien? The injury he suffered which led to the amputation of his arm sounded strikingly similar to the injury to B.J.'s hand in one episode.

Scott McPherson said...

Whenever I get a compliment on the quality of my character or integrity I always note that I'm truly not the right person to thank--I was simply fortunate enough to be raised by an amazingly loving and strong father, with some brilliant assistance by Pink Floyd composer and lyricist Roger Waters, and also Larry-and-Gene via Hawkeye Pierce. Thank you so much for your contributions to how I see the world and for ultimately leading me toward a long, enjoyable and successful career in film and TV.

Angry Gamer said...

"The very first MASH we wrote, Hawkeye was temporally blind and Hawk & Beej pulled a sting on Frank."

Was the sting the scene where Hawkeye called a fake baseball game??

LOL - the part where they fake a hit after Hawkeye calls a ball (INSPIRED) "wait a minute folks he caught a piece of that one"

TOO FUNNY - I bet that was all you Ken.

Angry Gamer said...

Friday Question(s) Ken -

How did the transition from Radio Vagabond to TV scriptwriter occur?

And since you said the first M*A*S*H script seemed to include some radio type themes... how can you say Radio did not help your creativity?

Anonymous said...

"Chekov" would pull off his atrocious Beatle wig trying to plot "BJ's Depression," you mean.


MizMarshaM said...

From earliest childhood I watched MASH every chance I got. After school I could get three episodes in a row, and MASH kept me company as I tackled my homework (I'd seen every episode so many times I didn't really have to pay attention to follow the plot). I can still watch it over and over and it's fresh and as funny as the first time, except that I can see more layers. To me, that's the mark of truly great storytelling - when it doesn't ever get old.

Dale said...

My mother, dying of terminal illness eased her pain watching MASH. Those 30 minutes really helped. To all involved I extend a huge thanks. To you who I can speak to, thanks a lot mate.

Bob McCullough said...

Great post. IMHO, MASH was great and survived the exigencies of network/studio pressures because the audience liked the CHARACTERS. Not the jokes, not the setups, but how the CHARACTERS handled things true to their CHARACTER. That's why the "bottle shows" were just as compelling as those with more external elements.

skarab said...

"stories where your lead character is depressed generally don’t work in comedy. Moping around is not conducive to laughs. Better to make them angry, frustrated, lovesick, impatient, hurt – anything but depressed… or worse, happy. Happy is comedy death."


P Taylor said...

MASH repeats, two episodes every weekday eve, are being shown in UK on Freeview channel. I have been watching since the beginning. Yesterday was 'Goodbye Radar.' The quality of the writing and the acting is superb. Of course, it fluctuates with different writers, directors etc. But the pathos that becomes stronger after around Series 4/5 is wonderful. I've always felt that having drama within a comedy is much more poignant than vice-versa, it makes the characters more human. The episode where we saw the ensemble through a patients eyes was exceptional, witnessing and observing all the different people and their duties. Sometimes a line will come back to me the day after I've watched it such as Colonel Flagg: 'Nobody knows the truth. Not even me.' And it will keep me laughing for days. And blubbing too sometimes. I really didn't like to see Radar leave, Gary Burghoff is just a wonderful comedic actor, as were the rest of them.