Saturday, May 30, 2020

Weekend Post 2

Every so often I’ll read an article or term paper or passage in a book that references a MASH episode my partner and I wrote. The piece is most always complimentary; sometimes overly so. But invariably the authors will analyze the episode. They’ll identify the symbolism, how when Hawkeye hangs up his laundry he’s really representing the Anti-Christ, and they’ll find all kinds of mythological parallel, subliminal messages, and odes to other works of literature. They’ll compare Klinger to Jane Austin, find significance in jeep license plate numbers, and detect hidden codes in Radar’s dialogue.

I’d like to be able to shrug my shoulders and say yes, all of that is in there. David and I write on many levels. Our scripts are challenging intellectual puzzles to be solved by only the most advanced sophisticated minds. Thanks for noticing.

I’d like to say that but it’s all bullshit! There’s no symbolism in our MASH scripts. There’s no attempt to send covert messages in Hawkeye’s Groucho routine. Sorry, we’re not that deep. We were just trying to write a funny show with substance and heart. Our goal was to entertain. Period. Even the Viet Nam comparisons to Korea – we never pointed to that. We didn’t have to.

There are series that do consciously employ symbolism. LOST did for example. MAD MEN for another. Pay attention because every detail has added importance. I love both of those shows. And I was always thrilled when I caught one of these symbolic nuggets. But don’t go looking for them in MASH, at least in our years. They’re just not there, folks. We used names of ballplayers, former girlfriends, and my family dog, but that’s about it.

People have deemed MASH a television classic and I’m humbled and grateful but at the time we were making the show we never for a moment thought we were writing a “classic”. We probably would have been paralyzed if we had. Or, at the very least, pretentious as hell.

And it makes me wonder -- all through school our teachers have analyzed and interpreted the crap out of great works of literature. We’re tested on intent and correct meaning. Well, what if the teacher has no fucking clue what she’s talking about? What if she has no idea what the author was trying to say? Or worse yet, has grossly misinterpreted it? If my personal experience has taught me anything it’s that books and plays and scripts and Billy Joel records may in fact be just what they seem.

I imagine if you asked Shakespeare about the ambiguity of HAMLET he might say, “Yeah, about that. I was really slammed for time. I figured I’d just clarify during rehearsals but something came up. The Globe needed some repairs and I had to interview a few contractors. Jesus, those guys will soak you. But people seem okay with the play as it is, so what the hell? Plus, I’m working on my next and that bad boy just does not want to fall into place.”

The next time you watch one of our MASH’s, trust me, I will be more than pleased if you just laugh at the jokes and enjoy the story. There’s something wrong when the viewer spends more time analyzing a script than the writer.

43 comments :

Moon Mullins said...

And, if you play an episode of MASH backwards, Paul's still alive.

dolittle said...

😂👍

Y. Knott said...

I had a prof once who was a religious imagery nut. A guaranteed A awaited you if you could find religious imagery in any text -- no matter how much of a stretch it was. So it became a game...could you keep a straight face while positing that the sandwich on page 147, consisting of three parts (bread/filling/bread), was a representation of the Holy Trinity? That the supermarket they bought the sandwich in was a metaphor for the Garden of Eden? That the tree they passed on page 157 was made of wood, and wood reminds us of the cross used to crucify Christ?

There was literally nothing too ludicrous to suggest. And all of it -- if presented in academic language without giggling -- was treated as further proof of the author's subtle but omnipresent use of religious imagery to enhance the text.

James said...

I agree wholeheartedly. But I was an English major in college: we were taught to do that. "It's just a cigar" doesn't make for a long or compelling paper. You end up with an D- and a uncomfortable discussion on switching your major to something better suited to your mental abilities, like weight-lifting.

I remember reading an essay that claimed that E.T. was the Christ-figure that Steven Spielberg's jewish heritage denied him. It was preposterous but it was a fun read, and 40 years later I still remember it.

Beth S said...

School courses aside, writing a TV script is like other artistic endeavours ... the interpretation is in the eye of the beholder, whether or not that was the intent of the artist.

slgc said...

My dentist loves this shot I took of the Unisphere from the 1964 World's Fair in Queens and has an enlarged copy of it hanging in his office - https://www.flickr.com/photos/slgc/6650857777

One day my son and I were in for a checkup, and our dentist told us of the symbolism that one of his other patients saw in it (trust me, there was no symbolism when I took the photo). My son commented, "Mom - you're now officially an artist. Your work is being interpreted!"

Troy McClure said...

Does this mean I should abandon my plan to write a thesis on how the real antagonist in Jaws isn't the shark but the greed of capitalism as embodied in the character of the mayor who keeps refusing to close the beach?

RMK said...

I wrote a hilarious paper about how Cheers was "keeping communism alive" in Reagan's America. "Where everybody knows your name" INDEED. I don't recall getting a good grade, but the professor laughed at me when I turned it in.

Jeff Boice said...

Oh yeah, that's college English Lit class.

But we all had a good time listening to Beatles albums and trying to pick up on all the deep meanings hidden in their lyrics. Even stuff like "Hello Goodbye".

Michael said...

Well, Ken, you are the professional, and one of the best, but I have a slight quibble or two.

First, some cultural images and tropes are so strong and pervasive that they creep in unawares, so to speak. Did the makers of the 1933 King Kong intend for him to be viewed as a Christ figure? Probably not, but you can argue, easily and consistently from the text (which is a key) that he is.

Second, I teach my students that if they can defend their premise using the text itself, then I'll consider it. Remind me to share the story of Atticus Finch's glasses sometime.

Covarr said...

This brings back bad memories of the book Heart of Darkness, and ridiculous arguments about who the main character was, and the significant deeper meaning of every little detail, even though most of it was only there to support the core story, which itself already had plenty of deeper meaning and quite frankly would've been weakened if every single thing in it represented something else.

JAS said...

Hi, Literary scholar and English professor here. I love this topic because literary (or television in this case) analysis is often misunderstood.

As scholars, we're not so much interested in what the author thinks or what they did or did not intentionally embed into the narrative. There's actually a term for this - "death of the author." The general idea is that once the author finishes the text, their work is done. Jane Austen famously disliked a lot of the conversation and interpretations of one her books, so in the next printing, she wrote a forward in which she basically said, "No, you guys got it all wrong! THIS is what I actually meant..." But the question is, does she get to do that? At this point, her work as an author is finished and she becomes "just" another critic. For scholars, authorial intent is only one small aspect we look at as we attempt to interpret a text. Personally, I think authorial intent is important to an extent -- I want to know what you and David were thinking as you wrote MASH. It helps to inform and contextualize my analysis in some way. But your intent is not the be all end all.

What's often misunderstood about literary analysis is that it's really cultural analysis. We look for symbols, themes, and archetypes see the culture you are representing. There is always a dialectical relationship between literature and the culture in which it is produced -- the text is simultaneously responding to and contributing to the culture in which it is produced (even indirectly -- think about The Brady Bunch, which is the most apolitical show you can think of. And yet, it's about a divorced woman inhabiting a traditional domestic role. This was at a time when divorce rates were rising and folks were blaming the feminist movement. Though the show never has an episode about divorce, as critics, we can look at the cultural context and recognize that it is actually making a comment on this issue).

For example, consider the effects of a television show like Will & Grace on gay rights. Several years ago, Vice President Biden -- I believe shortly after he became the highest ranked public official to endorse same-sex marriage, even before President Obama did -- said that Will & Grace in particular is responsible for modern gay rights and the progress we'd had at that point in getting several states to legalize same-sex marriage. That TV show not only arose to prominence in response to the culture wars (remember Ellen had just come out the season before, causing huge controversy), but also worked to change the conversation -- it both reflected its cultural context and contributed to it. As literary scholars, THAT'S what we're interested in.

You, as an author, may not even be aware of the ways you are incorporating cultural cues into your work (even less-so with historical fiction, as I'm sure you're aware), and so it's our job to dissect if or how your ex-girlfriend's name contributes to our understanding of that cultural context. It's our job to pose an interpretation of the text based these things. Literary analysis is not just "the drapes are blue, so it's obvious that the character is sad." That's middle-school-level analysis (I'm not dismissing low-level analysis, mind you, because it is an important foundation for high-level thought, but you'd never see a professional scholar base their analysis on this alone -- at least not today. It was more common when New Criticism was the dominant mode of literary inquiry. New Critics' motto was literally "the text itself," and discouraged scholars from looking at cultural and historical contexts; that mode of criticism died out decades ago, though). Once you get into higher-level thinking about this stuff, you realize that the intent of literary scholarship is really cultural analysis. We want to know what the text is reflecting about its culture, what it is commenting on, and how it is contributing to a cultural conversation.

Mark Potts said...

Many years ago I attended the national popular culture convention (yes, there is such a thing). It was full of academics making presentations on and debating the meanings and significance of songs, movies, etc. A very popular topic--multiple sessions--was whether Star Trek's Kirk and Spock were lovers. I asked the organizer of the conference, "Hey, why don't they just call Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek creator, then still alive) and ask him?" The guy rolled his eyes and said, "Because they're English teachers."

Mark A said...

Have you seen Det Duva? A student film done (I think) by students in San Francisco where they do a version of The Seventh Seal. Play badminton with death for example. Someone famous is in it, Madeline Kahn maybe? It's done in English with VERY strong "Swedish" accents.

My favorite line is when a cigar is offered: "Would you like a phallic symbol?"

Lemuel said...

@ Mark A: I saw that film and mistakenly thought it was a Carl Reiner project.

Andrew said...

This is why The Beatles wrote "I Am The Walrus." It was to confront the nonsensical symbolism that was being applied to their songs.

There's a great article about it at Mental Floss:
https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/30523/who-was-walrus-analyzing-strangest-beatles-song

DBenson said...

This does what "Shakespeare in Love" needed a whole movie to do:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IwbB6B0cQs4

Also the Benny Hill sketch where the foreign director keeps correcting the pretentious interviewer, explaining that the moments of supposed symbolic genius were usually matters of budget or incompetence.

It's been reported here and elsewhere the author of the novel M*A*S*H was not happy it became a famous anti-war franchise. But for many readers -- even before the movie -- it was hard to see it as anything but a thinly veiled critique of Vietnam, or to see the frat boy interludes as anything but pitch black comic irony. One can only an wonder what an author-approved movie would have looked like, cast with safe mainstream stars and emphasizing traditional movie heroism.

-dsr- said...

There's a short story by Isaac Asimov -- not one of his better works, but memorable -- in which a physics professor is best friends with an English Lit prof: they both love Shakespeare. It goes like this:

As the story opens, they're having drinks together, and the English prof notices that the Physics prof is getting drunk, which is not his usual behavior. What's got him down?

"Well," says the Physics prof. "I invented a time machine. And it works."

"Isn't that reason for celebration?"

"It was. I went to visit Shakespeare. Took a while to find him."

"I would give my left -- well, I would give quite a bit to have met him!"

"Funny you should say that. Do you remember a guy in your Shakespeare seminar this semester with a funny Tidewater kind of accent?"

"Not really. Maybe?"

"That was Will. You flunked him."


sueK2001 said...

I recall taking a Humanities class that examined symbolism in song. It sucked all the mystery and fun out of some of the songs I knew and added others meanings to it.

I recall a friend met Gordon Lightfoot once. The friend was star struck and asked him "What did you mean by the song Talking in Your Sleep mean? Gordon said "Why do you want to know what it means to me?" The man said "...to help understand the meaning of the song.." and Gordon said "Then it changes the meaning to you..and whatever that means to you IS what it means".

MikeN said...

Was this what you had in mind for the Frasier episode where their dad goes to a baseball game with a famous author, and they read his next work and see references to Dante?

I use a joke from that show, "The two things we've learned are, X is an idiot,
and,

no, just that.

Cecil Newson said...

Ringo Starr once referred to a review on his drumming on a particular Beatles song. The reviewer thought that Ringo's off-beat lick at a certain point in the song was genius. Ringo revealed that he is left-handed and plays a right-handed drum set so he wasn't able to get his arm over to that drum in time.

Steve Bailey said...

The funniest commentary on this is in William Goldman's book "Adventures of the Screen Trade." I'm paraphrasing now, but there was once a screening of the movie that was guested by the movie's writer, Ernest Lehmann. At the Q&A session that followed, some brash student tried to find symbolism in the license plate number of the car used by the movie's hero. Lehmann said something like, "I hate to disillusion you, but I had a plate with that number many years ago, and I thought I'd use that number to avoid legal entanglements."

Keith Nichols said...

I don't necessarily put much stock in the opinions of English professor/scholars who apparently don't know the difference between the terms forward and foreword.

JAS said...

@Keith Nichols

I mean, if we're getting technical here, the more accurate term would be preface, since the author wrote it. But if you don't want to put much stock into my overview of my profession and the significance of my field because of a misused homophone in a hastily-written blog comment (aka not a professional publication that I would typically proofread), that's totally your call. But just know that the humanities are about more than correct spelling and proper grammar. I deeply apologize for the shame and humiliation I have brought upon my profession.

Rich Shealer said...

When I was asked in a class why so an so wrote some piece of classic literature, my first line was basically, he needed the money and probably didn't like manual labor. Then went on to give a more intellectual answer the teacher wanted.

blogward said...

A pedant writes: Dear Ken, sir. On the subject of English scholarship, it's Jane Austen. It's like when people spell it 'Levene'.

Total said...

People put things in their creative works for all sorts of reasons, conscious and unconscious. Analyzing only the things that the author explicitly intended would be a remarkably silly way to look at a text.

(Just to give an example: you've said that you pulled names for MASH characters from baseball players [IIRC]. I know you didn't mean it that way, but that's an interesting statement about how important baseball was in American life when you were growing up).

Andy Rose said...

An anthropology professor once acknowledged to me that saying an unusual-looking relic "probably had religious significance" was really just code for, "We have no idea what this thing is."

Michael said...

Doesn't have to be either/or. I stress to students that Shakespeare was a professional writer who wanted fannies in seats: that's why the tragedies have jokes (including some filthy ones) and the comedies have duels. He wrote to make a living. It so happens that he was also a fertile-minded genius who could put layer upon layer into what's basically a mystery about a boy finding his father's murderer.

Joe said...

Something that WAS done deliberately that I never noticed until I saw a Larry Gelbart interview on YouTube. He directed "Abysinnia, Henry" and he said when he shot scenes of Henry in the office he deliberately put the skeleton in the shot because Henry was going to die at the end.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3Rh2EkQWhw&t=503s

Anonymous said...

I feel sorry for people who had to do an essay on the meaning behind the fish slapping sketch from Monty Python.

Viscount Manzeppi said...

Moon Mullins said...
And, if you play an episode of MASH backwards, Paul's still alive.


No, Henry Blake is.

Buttermilk Sky said...

So you're telling me Richie and Fonzie DON'T represent Dr. Faustus and Mephistopheles?

My life is a lie.

Frank Beans said...

I tend to think that TV shows, movies, and plays that use overt symbolism come across as heavy-handed and cheesy.

That's what MASH mostly avoided, and what made it so great. Even when the show was kinda preachy, it wasn't really preachy, it was just honest. And always funny, even when the shit wasn't funny.

Integrity and humor go hand in hand.

Liggie said...

Interpretations of works of art also change as society changes. When I studied "Death of a Salesman" in high school English class, we were taught that Linda, Willy Loman's long-suffering wife, symbolized unconditional love. Nowadays, she's seen as an enabler.

Troy McClure said...

Last night I watched the movie Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down The White House. It's the true story of the FBI Associate Director who became known as Deep Throat, the man who provided vital information to Woodward and Bernstein on Nixon's corruption, which eventually led to Republicans threatening to join the Democrats in impeaching Nixon if he didn't resign, which he then did.

Ain't that a novelty. Republicans actually putting country before party.

The film is fine, though not in the same league as other films that have covered the same events. But it's worth watching for Tom Sizemore's performance as a total sleazebag in the mould of Steve Bannon and Roger Stone.

PatGLex said...

And that is the reason I decided to major in math education rather than English when I was in college. (Now I think it's called "communications.") Even as a teenager I thought all of the "symbolism" we studied in those books was subject to personal interpretation, and anybody's could be valid. I knew I couldn't teach that stuff and force my view upon kids. So I ended up in math, though I took a lot of English courses and they all said I should change my majors because I was such a good writer. [However, I did change my major as a junior -- to journalism -- and ended up in scholarly publishing, eventually.]

cmarks said...

In a 1957 Peanuts strip, Charlie Brown is analyzing Linus' drawing and tells Linus that he drew the character's hands behind his back because of Linus' own feelings of insecurity. Linus responds he drew it that way because he cannot draw hands.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Reminds me that in the early 1970s there was a book circulating, a collection of essay parodying the whole symbolism academic fad, called THE POOH PERPLEX.

wg

Pat Reeder said...

To cmarks: I can relate to Linus. When I was a kid, my parents were called in for an urgent meeting with my teacher. She said she'd told the class to draw a picture of our families, and I didn't draw myself, which symbolized that I didn't feel a part of the family. My worried mother hurried home and asked me why I didn't include myself. I told her that the assignment the day before was to draw ourselves, and the next day was to draw our families. I asked if the pictures would be stapled together, and the teacher said yes. So I didn't draw myself because I'm not twins.

When I was in college, I took a lot of elective literature courses because it gave me an excuse to read things I wanted to read (I ended up earning an English minor entirely by accident.) One course was Shakespeare. I just wanted to read the plays. Everyone else in the class was an English major taking it because it was a requirement. They would always ask the rather imperious professor long, time-wasting questions about some shaky theory of symbolism. It was clear that they weren't really seeking an answer; they were just trying to impress the professor (they even tried to help me in the class by telling me that's what English majors do.) It was also clear to me that the prof wasn't impressed; he saw through the scam and was bored and irritated by it (his rolling eyes and impatient grunts were an obvious symbol of that.)

I just read the plays and actually read the footnotes, too. In the first essay test, I made the only A. The prof told the entire class, "If any of you want to know how to study for a test, you should ask Mr. Reeder." It was a nice compliment, but it insured that all those English majors hated me for the rest of the semester.

Steve said...

Hope you can take a break from the week's awful news and check this out on Amazon, Ken. For a radio guy, it's a treat. https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_vast_of_night

Troy McClure said...

Random funny trivia I learned today while reading about The Weather Underground, the militant political group in the 70s. One of its members, Brian Flanagan, later went on to win $23,000 as a contestant on Jeopardy.

Anonymous said...

Considering the ongoing tragedy occuring in the country this may seem a bit frivolous but maybe it might help.

While flipping channels came across a Frasier wher he was hosting a tv show with his female agent. They had a cooking segment where the agent brought out a monkey to compete.
After being complimented on his cooking ability as part of build up Frasier deferred stating that he just works on making "Good Eats".
Question is have you ever considered claiming some of Alton Brown sweet cooking channel money for stealing the title of his show from Frasier?