Thursday, October 19, 2017

Potterisms

A reader asked about “Potterisms.” These are the colorful expressions, often substitutes for curse words that Colonel Potter would utter on MASH. “Horse hockey!” “Buffalo Bagels!”

The reader wondered about the derivation, how we came up with them, etc.

Sherman Potter (played to perfection by Harry Morgan) arrived at MASH a season before we did. Larry Gelbart was still running the writing room.

I can’t say this for absolute certain, but I’m pretty willing to bet that “Potterisms” were the brainchild of the brilliant writing team of Jim Fritzell & Everett Greenbaum.

Fritzell & Greenbaum had a storied career in TV comedy writing. They wrote 24 episodes of MASH (including the famous one where Colonel Blake is shot down), but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. They wrote on dozens of shows from THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW to SANFORD & SONS, THE REAL McCOYS, all the way back to MR. PEEPERS (which they also created) in the early ‘50s.

When they wrote for MASH they were in their fifties, doing anywhere from six to eight scripts a season. In those days you could still make a nice living as a freelance writer. And in those days writers with experience were actually valued.

Like I said, they were brilliant. Very funny, terrific craftsmen (there was not a wasted word and their scripts always had a definite flow – we learned a lot from them), and something else: they had a real love for Americana. Their scripts were always brimming with great expressions, period slang, and colorful words. I’ve noticed that filmmaker Alexander Payne also has that appreciation for Americana as is evidenced in his work.

Fritzell & Greenbaum also had this love for scatological humor and once a script they’d slip in a shit joke – but always a sneaky network-acceptable shit joke. Klinger would remove a rectal thermometer from a patient and say, “It’s 102 in Pittsburgh.” Or: “Prune juice – greatest invention since the Gatling Gun.”

So when Potter had to say “bullshit” I suspect it was Jim & Ev who came up with “Buffalo Bagels.” And remember, a lot of those euphemisms were not made up – they were existing expressions. “Road Apples!” “Cow Pies!”

Fritzell & Greenbaum and Larry Gelbart realized those expressions could be part of his character and ran with it. And again, those Potterisms for the most part, were actual slang expressions (even if they hadn’t been used since World War I). Potter might praise something by calling it “the Oyster’s Ice-skates.” Now I don’t even know for sure what that means but it sure sounds funny.

When David Isaacs and I were at the helm we used Potterisms sparingly, partly because a lot of those expressions were from before our time. After we left the show Potterisms just became expressions with different words to say the same phrase. My favorite was “Curiosity K.O.’ed the feline.”

But if you’re a MASH fan, I invite you watch episodes from seasons 2-6 and seek out the ones penned by Jim Fritzell & Everett Greenbaum. Next to Larry Gelbart, no one wrote the show better. And that includes me and my partner.

27 comments :

JC said...

My 10 year old tells shit jokes. It doesn't make him Billy Shakespeare.

Griff said...

While the great Fritzell and Greenbaum were regular writers for MISTER PEEPERS -- now, there's a show I wish had been shot on film (only murky kinescopes survive)-- the show was created by David Swift.

Jon said...

Fritzell and Greenbaum also wrote THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN. Don't leave that one off their resume. Many people from my generation are inordinately fond of that movie.

Betty said...

Yup. Love "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken."

Dr Loser said...

Seems like "Curiosity K.O.ed the feline" goes in and out of fashion, even on this blog. (See March 11th and, I think, an earlier post or two.) I'm on the side of "it just doesn't sound right," but still.

It's more difficult to get this right than it looks from the outside, isn't it? Essentially, we're talking about inventing a euphemism, with comic intent, that actually sounds like several hundred people would like it and share it and use it.

I think this is a lot easier with Colonel Potter -- a character who has a specific back-story that stretches back to WW1 -- that in would be for most sit-com characters today. Maybe nerds, I guess ... but then again, who would want to admit that they understand nerd-speak?

Cowboy Surfer said...

As a kid, I got hooked on MASH in 1975. It's an all time classic show. The Jim Fritzell & Everett Greenbaum episodes were fantastic. Those dudes Levine and Isaacs were pretty good too.

It's hard to replace a Henry Blake but Potter fit the 4077 like a glove.

For me, Sam Malone and Hawkeye are the best sit-com leads ever but Colonel Potter was the sensible grand dad that always had your back.

Sundaynista said...

I absolutely love Jim Fritzell & Everett Greenbaum episodes. They are goofy and fun and very breezy. I imagine some might find them a bit too “light.” They’re pretty much the opposite of, say, a Dennis Koenig episode.

Speaking of scatological humor, one of my favorite jokes was from the “The More I See You” episode with Blythe Danner. B.J. says something like, “And here’s some shampoo because we couldn’t find any real poo.” When you’re a kid that’s the funniest joke ever.

Jon B. said...

"Curiosity K.O.ed the feline". That line is a good example of what made M*A*S*H somewhat hard to take (and unfunny) in later years.

Chris G said...

I'm still disappointed how quickly MASH came and went from Netflix a few years ago - we made it just into season 2 before it left. It was a revelation - I was a kid when it ended so I'd only ever seen it in reruns and never in anything close to the original order. And Marcia Strassman! Man, Mr. Kotter married up.

Sundaynista said...

Yep. And all the jokes were replaced with puns in those years.

Anonymous said...

"They even tried Bon Ami!" I haven't seen Mr. Chicken in over 50 years and I still remember that line.

Mike Bloodworth said...

"Atta boy, Luther!" There's a Don Knotts box set that includes T.G.& Mr.C., The Reluctant Astronaut and The Shakiest Gun in the West. ALL written by Fritzell & Greenbaum.

Mike Schryver said...

Dr Loser said "we're talking about inventing a euphemism, with comic intent, that actually sounds like several hundred people would like it and share it and use it."

I never got that at all from it. It seemed to me to be Potter's way of talking, rather than something other people would also say. Some of them seemed a little forced toward the end.

Frank Beans said...

I recall that our favorite one when I was a kid was "beaver biscuits". We would play Pac-Man on the Atari and call the bonus pellets that.

Another family favorite was "St. Swithuns Day" that Col. Potter somehow worked into an irate rant.

Mibbitmaker said...

Fritzell & Greenbaum also wrote most of the "storyline" episodes, I'd noticed. Henry Blake going home, Hawkeye picks up Trapper, misses him and meets BJ, Potter arrives, Margaret marries, Frank runs off/Charles arrives, etc. They definitely had a knack for those!

Potterisms: One thing that made those work (at least before the '80s episodes) was that Potter's predecessor Col. Blake also had a colorful way with words. It offered a nice bit of continuity in that way.

Kaleberg said...

Back in the 1970s, a friend of mine had a job tutoring a Harvard legacy admit who was clearly out of his depth with the coursework. At one point he was so upset with himself that he blurted out, "Oh, Christmas crackers!" Back when swearing just wasn't done in public, there were a whole bunch of euphemisms like that. Sometimes they started with something like a swear word and then switch to a more harmless phrase in midstream. "Oh, Christmas crackers" starts out with "Oh, Christ!", but that would be blasphemy. Do a search for "operator give me number nine" for an extended children's song that was based on this idea. You'll probably recognize it.

Mike H. said...

Gotta disagree with you there Ken. Most of the homespun Potterisms were just plain hokey. "Oyster's Ice Skates"? Just plain bad. "KO'd the feline"? Such a reach. The more homey they tried to make Potter, the less believeable the character was. He started out a regular army col. who fought in WWI, but ended up being a semi-dottering spewer of 'Potterisms'. Thus ends my rant. :)

estiv said...

Ken, read the section on "Frasier" in this article. I think you'll be gratified.

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/likes/what-were-watching-on-tv-twin-peaks-queen-sugar

Shar said...

Off topic, Ken, but I'm catching up on your podcasts and thoroughly enjoying them. I've started with episode one (after listening to several recent ones)and working my way up. Since I'm an old codger too (okay, a baby boomer...), I recognize all of the cultural names and references - what fun! The dj sound checks were terrific, too. Keep on keeping on!

Mike said...

The best of these are malapropisms, eg. "crock of beans" or "great caesar's salad".
"Sweet Fanny Adams" is a euphemism for fuck all. "Muffin the mule" is the best known character of early children's TV. I'd cite "horse hockey" as polo.
@Frank Beans: "St Swithins Day" is 15th July. If it rains on St Swithins Day, it rains for the next forty days.

My attempt at a Potterism has unfortunately evolved into a description of a home-brewed martini:
The sweet, sweet tang of Errol Flynn's jockstrap.

Anonymous said...

"Oyster's ice skates" appeared in The Pittsburgh Press on Oct. 23, 1923.

Andy Rose said...

Fritzell and Greenbaum's love of Americana was also evident in their Andy Griffith Show work. I suspect that Andy didn't have to do nearly as much work making their scripts sound like authentic Southern culture as he reportedly did with many of the writers.

@Kaleberg: The Benny Bell song "Shaving Cream" is another example of something written to sound like its going to be dirty, and then repeatedly turns a corner. See also, "The Freckle Song."

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

On "The Slap Maxwell Story," which starred Dabney Coleman as an overbearing sports writer, Coleman's editor, played by Brian Smiar, used to spout such gems as, "She better look to her lemons, I don't care how many times she flips the midget."

Bob Sharp said...

I occasionally use a Henry Blakeism: "Well, I'll be dipped in Shhhellac."

Greg Thompson said...

I had the pleasure of writing for a (lamentably never aired) NBC show in the 90s on which Everett Greenbaum played a small recurring part. (The guy could act, too!) Such a nice man. Once when the writers were on stage, huddling to try to solve a problem with a scene (there were many such problems) , he threw out in his crisp voice: "Have you considered a boxing kangaroo?" It was a tension breaker and it just cracked me up. I also remember him describing his lifestyle as a freelance writer back in the day. A few hours behind the typewriter and then behind the stick of his private plane, zooming around the sky above L.A. I wish I had gotten to know him better.

Mike Doran said...

A few days ago, I put up a comment about Everett Greenbaum's memoir, The Goldenberg Who Couldn't Dance.
For whatever reason, it didn't go through.
So since no one else has mentioned it, this is Try #2.

This book was published in 1980, covering Mr. Greenbaum's life and career up to the passing of his long-time partner, Jim Fritzell.
It's a brief book - only 160 pages - but worth whatever you might have to pay for it in the second-hand marketplace.

In the meantime, you can watch out for middle-of-the-run episodes of Matlock, when Everett Greenbaum was part of the regular rotation of judges.

Brian said...

Great post. Can't believe its been 35 years.

Netflix - if your listening - bring Mash back to streaming!