Sunday, October 26, 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. Chekhov 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.

This is a re-post from over four years ago.   Check out my archives sometime.  There are one or two decent entries.  

10 comments:

Scooter Schechtman said...

I know it's Hangover Sunday but do you really need to phone it in after a blockbuster hit? Give us a few more treats like Raggedy Ann's cloth tits.

MikeK.Pa. said...

If no one has read it, would highly recommend Larry Gelbart's "Laughing Matters." Effortlessly funny read.

James Van Hise said...

I understand that there was one MASH script which was pitched but couldn't be finished because no one could figure out how to make it work. It had to do with the pacifist Hawkeye forced to use a gun to defend himself, but no one could figure out how he could justify using a gun and keep to his strict moral code.

John said...

Ken, I know you and David weren't the Season 5 show runners, but was it a little awkward coming up with story lines for that season, given how the dynamic between Larry Linville and Loretta Swift's characters changed that year?

Season 5 was basically the "Frank Burns alone" year, after it began with Margret's engagement, and as developed over the previous four seasons, Maj. Burns just wasn't a strong enough character intellectually to carry the role of 'heavy' by himself, the way David Ogden Steirs' Maj. Winchester was in Seasons 6-11. The subplot of your first script, with Frank scamming everyone with the baseball bets, was one of the few I can remember from that season of Maj. Burns basically acting like Maj. Burns in a solo effort.

Frank generally needed a co-conspirator to be effective (whether it was Hot Lips, Col. Flagg or whomever), and in some of the Season 5 shows, especially towards the end of the year, he almost seems ... lost, as if there's no solid role for the character anymore, even in the shows with multiple story lines (though the loss of his paramour did set up the idea of Frank going crazy over Margret's marriage and offered an easy segue to write him out of the show in the Season 6 opener).

Johnny Walker said...

Did you follow the same show structures when it came time to create your own shows, Ken? Do you give this thing any consideration when you're writing a pilot?

gottacook said...

As admirer of the Lou Grant series since the start of its original run in 1977, I'd be interested in what you know of Gene Reynolds' involvement in creating and running that show - which must have been in the planning stages during the whole last season of the MTM show, and possibly while he was still involved with MASH.

I suppose Lou Grant might never have been conceived if it hadn't been for the great success of All the President's Men as well as its timing (released spring 1976). (Robert Walden, who made a vivid impression playing Donald Segretti in that movie, was soon a Lou Grant regular.)

John Mansfield said...

I’m trying to understand this problem with shooting outdoors past October. The point of LA is that the seasons are scarcely distinguishable. A Norfolk pine was being cut down in the Palms neighborhood, and I obtained a section of the trunk to show some cub scouts how tree rings work. But there weren’t any rings! Not even the trees of Los Angeles know what month it is.
So taking this idea that eight pages could be filmed when sunset is at eight o’clock, but only six pages could with sunset at half past six, it would appear that filming wasn’t underway until two in the afternoon. It sounds like a problem with a well-known solution called “morning,” if anyone was really interested in solving it. So consider it a Friday question: Is TV production a field where everyone sleeps in and works late and has the same relationship with 9AM that most people do with 4AM?

Paul Dushkind said...

C'mon, Ken. You have to share these outrageous anecdotes that no one would believe.

Paul Dushkind said...

C'mon Ken. You must share these outrageous anecdotes that none would believe.

skarab said...

Hi Ken - I have a Friday question but I guess it will have to wait til next week. Though no longer practicing, I was raised Catholic. The character of Father Mulcahy was always under-realized in my opinion, as there are things priests do on a regular basis that were never depicted in the show.

I've always wondered if the cause was a) Jewish writers who had no idea what Catholic priests do; b) an institutional unwillingness to depict religious stuff too closely; or c) the network's fear of offending anyone with religious depictions.

Did this ever come up among the writers or cast?