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