Saturday, June 01, 2019

Weekend Post

I was hoping to find a YouTube video of this I could embed but none seems to exist.  So you'll have to settle for the text.  This is the speech that launched Levine & Isaacs' career.

It was our first MASH assignment.  "Out of Sight/Out of Mind," season 5.   A gas heater blows up in Hawkeye's face and he is temporarily blind.  We worked out the story with show runner Gene Reynolds and went off to write it.   There were a number of funny scenes built in -- Hawkeye in the OR room, Hawkeye in a fist fight with Frank, etc.  

But as we were writing it we realized there was no moment where Hawkeye drops the bravado and really tells us what he's going through and he feels about it.   So we decided to write a speech.  We figured if Gene didn't like it he could just cut it.  We weren't deviating from the outline, just adding to it.  

Well, it must've taken us three days and fifty drafts.  We kept changing it, writing thoughts on napkins and scraps of paper, moving things around, adding and subtracting until we finally wrestled it to the ground.  

Gene loved it.  Kept giving us script assignments and the next year we were invited to join the staff.   

The point is, always be looking to do something more, something better.  I think Gene was as impressed with our initiative as he was the speech itself.   We were starting out.  We wanted to really distinguish ourselves from every other writer or team starting out.  So we took a chance.  Those don't always work out, but more often than not they do.  

The speech that Alan Alda delivers on the episode is word for word our first draft.   That's what I'm most proud of.   People have said it's very memorable; a few have even quoted lines of it back to me.  It's flattering but I think the real reason is that Alan delivered it so brilliantly.

Anyway, here it is. 


Listen, Hawk, why don’t you just settle down for five minutes? I know what you’re trying to do, and I know how you really feel.

No you don’t.

You don’t want to have time to think about what might happen to you.

That’s not it. Sure, when Overman walks in tomorrow and unwraps my package, I hope to God I’ll have my sight back. But in the meantime, this crazy accident has taken on another meaning.


One part of the world closed down for me, but another part opened up. Sure, I’ve been seeing myself sitting on a corner with a tin cup selling thermometers. But things are happening that take me away from that. This morning I spent two incredible hours listening to a rainstorm. I didn’t just hear it, I was part of it. I’ll bet you never realized that the sound of rain hitting the ground makes the same noise as steaks when they barbeque, or that thunder seems to echo forever. And you can’t believe how funny it is to hear someone slip and fall in the mud. Had to be Burns. Beej, it’s full of trapdoors, but I think I’m using this thing to my advantage. I’ve never spent a more conscious day in my life.


Dene said...

Superb stuff. Didn't someone post the script for this ep some time ago? Does anyone still have it..?

Karan G said...

I recall a friend once commenting to me, 'How could a young Paul McCartney write the song- She's Leaving Home - and understand how it feels as a parent to lose a child?' It takes great empathy. This dialogue is profound...and was written at a young age. Pretty amazing. Those are my thoughts.

E. Yarber said...

One of the most common mistakes beginning writers make is to confuse "strong" characters with characters who never feel anything at all. They're only drawing on their memories of TV shows and movies they've passively watched, never getting into the skins of the teflon puppets they're jerking around. I particularly remember one effort where a woman was raped in one scene, then shrugged the whole thing off two pages later. Not surprisingly, there wasn't a single moment in the entire script where anyone stopped and reflected on the reality of the violence around them, because the writer felt absolutely nothing himself. He didn't give an audience anything to feel, either. That's the stuff of schlock exploitation movies.

In the second book of Thucydides' history of the Peloponnesian War, a general named Pericles delivers a long, idealistic oration at a ceremony honoring the Athenians who have died in the recent campaign against their neighbors, stressing the worthy motives the city-state has for waging war and how the parents and wives of the fallen shouldn't feel grief for their loss but simply have more kids to replenish the ranks of soldiers.

Immediately after this speech, we're told that a plague struck Athens the next summer, leaving its foes untouched. The citizens who stayed home during the incursions of the army are unexpectedly brought into unbelievable suffering and have to face death all around them. One of the few times Thucydides inserts himself into the narrative is to mention that he was stricken himself at that time, no detached observer. His descriptions of the symptoms of illness has been compared to Hippocrates' medical accounts of the same conditions. Meanwhile, the stricken Athenians are invaded for forty days while weakened during the health crisis, finding relief only because the attackers decide to back out before they wind up with the plague themselves.

Pericles has to deliver a second long pep talk to counter the resentment the people now feel toward the war, which is now linked in their minds with a rampaging disease, not some abstract ideal. Soon enough, however, the Athenians will come to resemble a conscious plague, debating among themselves whether to wipe out the population of a city that has rebelled against their authority. They've had their chance to feel empathy and have set it aside.

These are events some twenty-five centuries removed from us, yet you can still feel them. The line that supposedly insulated the Athenians from the pain felt by victims of their aggression has been shown to be illusory, as just as we might comfortably watch MASH feeling like we can identify with a character like Hawkeye as securely positioned on the side of healing rather than being just as human as the kids he treats. Once that line is removed for him, we have to get inside his head in order to understand that we're living under the same vulnerability. At that point, you may be able as creators to emotionally affect your audience, which is what the whole business is about. Otherwise it's just a puppet show where characters flail about mindlessly.

Terry said...

Ken,I'm confused. At one point you say it took 50 drafts, then later on you say what Alan Alda read was your first draft. So what happened to the other 49? Did you do all that work only to realize you had it right the first time?

Michael said...

I have loved that speech from the first time I ever heard it. Thank you for it.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Fox has always been very stringent about clips from their shows and movies being uploaded to YouTube, which is why you'll find very, very few clips from M*A*S*H on there.

Craig Russell said...

ALWAYS loved that speech...and ALWAYS thought Alan had ad libbed the "It had to be Burns" line...the way he delivered it seemed so natural a reaction to the moment...

By Ken Levine said...


49 versions until we settled on the first draft.

Diane D. said...

That has to be one of the most elegant speeches Levine and Isaacs ever wrote. Small wonder that it launched your careers.

julian said...

Hi Ken,

I remember this scene vividly from my childhood. My sister and I watched either new episodes at night before bed, or in syndication after school on a [still] black and white set. Those shows between 4 and 5pm counted for alot! I remember thinking "they're bringing something new to the table at this point", and this is pre-Winchester.

I also appreciated delving into how people feel while experiencing different physical difficulties, which was new to the culture somehow [or at least new to me].

anyways, thanks!

Mike Bloodworth said...

12 year cycle, Ken?

There's the old saying that, "writing is rewriting." So, I'm glad to hear that I'm not the only one who thinks a first draft is sometimes the best draft. I believe I've sabotaged myself by feeling obligated to rewrite things over and over only to see them get worse instead of better. Not that rewriting isn't necessary. But, having confidence in one's work is also important.

E. Yarber, What is it with you and the Greeks lately? Couldn't you just get a bottle of Ouzo, a couple of gyros and binge watch "Kojak?" Just kidding, of course.

Regarding E.'s comment about, "'strong' characters," there's an improv game, I can't remember the proper name, about subtext. The players are given a suggestion of something that happened before the scene. (Positive or negative) Then they play the scene with that in the background; never mentioning the event. There may not be any overt emotion such as laughing, crying or yelling, yet it's still there. But, I get his point that too many writers expect the actors to buoy a weak script.

I haven't watched that episode of "M*A*S*H" in a long time. Syndication can cause one to burn out on a series. I guess I'll have to tune in to MeTV to try to catch it again.

Buttermilk Sky said...

It must be especially hard to write an episode like this. Will Hawkeye regain his sight? Will Frank Furillo survive being shot? Will Jed Bartlet avoid impeachment? OF COURSE they will, they're the stars of the shows and we haven't heard that they're leaving. So special praise for making it so compelling by exploring the inner experience of a surgeon possibly having to give up his profession and everything he knows, and what he might gain instead (really hearing a rainstorm, for instance). By its nature, MASH was about the human damage of war -- the pianist Charles tried to help to cope with a crippled hand, a star athlete who lost a leg, Mulcahy's hearing loss and how he could continue to be a priest. It engaged with reality as much as any sitcom (maybe the first "dramedy") and it continues to be cherished for that reason.

Wally said...


Ken posted it on 7/3/2010 (via search, not memory). However his link goes to an iCloud sign in page. So, you are right, it's been posted previously.

Steve Bailey said...

By way of kissing up to you and your partner, let me say that this is one of my all-time fave M*A*S*H episodes. I found it refreshing that Hawkeye chose to look on the bright side of his blindness and how it enhanced his view on life. Compare this one to an episode of "Happy Days" a couple of years later, where the Fonz gets temporarily blinded and everyone but Richie suddenly and condescendingly treat him like a helpless cripple.

Brian Phillips said...

The image is inverted, but it's here:

E. Yarber said...

I should have mentioned an ironic twist to the Pericles story, but I didn't know it this morning.

Pericles inspired the people with his funeral oration, then took to the sea for a naval campaign. That summer, the plague hit and the citizens became disgruntled. Pericles returned to restore order, won the people back with his second speech, then contracted the plague himself and died.

That's a classic reversal, but you'd never know it from Thucydides. He merely reports that Pericles passed away at such-and-such a date in the war. It was up to Plutarch to add the detail about the plague in his later biography of the general, which I only checked this afternoon.

When you consider that Thucydides wrote about the speeches in the fifth century BC and Plutarch followed up with the plague death in the second century AD, that's possibly the longest ever pause between a set-up and punchline in recorded history. Let's see ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT top that.

Buttermilk Sky said...

Friday question, based on this from today's Guardian:

Do you agree that sitcoms should never send the characters off to another location, or is this a way of opening them up? For instance, I always liked the visits to Sheldon's family in Texas on BIG BANG THEORY (of course, Laurie Metcalf had a lot to do with it). Some of the funniest SEINFELDs had them visiting his parents in Del Boca Vista, Florida.

Anonymous said...

Link to video:
Starts at 18:40

Anonymous said...

@ Karen G
On the other hand McCartney wrote the lyric, "Man buys ring, woman throws it away"
And that actually happened to him with his second wife

Karan G said...

@Anonymous The HELP album. Sounds like McCartney was a bit prophetic.

Anonymous said...

I saw this brilliant episode again recently and it was very poignant to me. I had a mini miracle when after all the surgery and testing a cochlear implant was turned on and I could hear for the first time in decades. The sounds from my childhood returned and the long forgotten memories that accompanied them were a shock (also I never knew Velcro made a noise, and I forgot that seagulls sounded that annoying)

The speech was a perfect encapsulation of what I felt, albeit with different senses.

Btw, Ken, great work and support on Tommy T’s project.

Filippo said...

Thanks for sharing this story. Itʼs instructing and inspiring.

It made me think of a novel I recently read. Itʼs “The breath. A decision” by Thomas Bernhard. I donʼt know if an English translation exists yet though. The original title, in German, is: “Der Atem. Eine Entscheidung”, written in 1982.

Itʼs one of the three novels that make the writerʼs autobiography. If Iʼm not mistaken, the other two are “The cellar” and “The origin”.

“The breath” is the story of a recovery from an illness based entirely on the decision by the sick boy (the young writer) to not give up. Itʼs at the same time the recount of every possible detail of that illness. Heck, I canʼt sum it up well enough. Itʼs a book worth reading I think, thatʼs why I suggest it to everyone.

VP81955 said...

To Karan G:

The song is "I'm Down," but it was the B-side of the "Help!" single, not on the album in either the UK or US (though it's subsequently been issued on compilations). It's a brilliant rocker, the one time McCartney beat Little Richard at his own game. For a while, the Beatles used it to close their concerts.

Gary Benz said...

I've always been a huge fan of MASH generally, and Levine & Isaacs in particular. I absolutely love that speech. Well written and perfectly delivered. that's the magic.

Seoul City Sue said...

Hi Ken,

I've always been curious about "the sound of rain hitting the ground makes the same noise as steaks when they barbeque." What made you come up with that analogy?