Monday, June 26, 2006

Our first MASH

Last week’s MASH posts sparked a lot of questions about the show. I’m always amazed there’s still such interest in a thirty year old show but I couldn’t be happier. So keep those cards and letters coming in.

A number of people wanted to know how David Isaacs and I got our first MASH assignment. We had sold a JEFFERSONS and a couple of episodes of another series, JOE AND SONS, cancelled one nanosecond after we turned in our second script. (Surprisingly, there are no JOE AND SONS tribute websites.) Our agents moved up to the agency that also represented MASH executive producer, Gene Reynolds. He read and liked our JEFFERSONS and invited us to come in and meet. My partner and I had met in the Army Reserves so we were very comfortable writing a military show. This was season five, Larry Gelbart, had just left, and Gene was looking for new writers. Forget for a moment that the two of us together couldn’t carry Larry Gelbart’s pencil sharpener, we jumped at the chance.

We had a good meeting, were loaded down with research material, and told to come back when we had some stories to pitch. I asked how many stories? At the JEFFERSONS writers were allowed to pitch only three. Gene said as many as we had.

A week later we were back in his office with FIFTY stories. There was no way we were going to walk out of there without a sale. Needless to say, he was a little overwhelmed. By idea number fifteen he put two of them together and gave us the assignment.

We were over the moon. (Quick aside, a little over a year later we became head writers of MASH and wound up using most of those fifty stories.)

The two stories for that initial assignment were:

A gas heater blows up and Hawkeye is temporarily blind.

And Frank bets on baseball games aired by Armed Forces Radio live in the middle of the night then rebroadcast during the day. Thus he bets knowing the outcome. (This came from a true story I heard about from the Far East Network in Viet Nam.) Our spin was that Hawkeye discovers this and he, B.J., Radar, and Klinger do a recreation of a game to fool him.

The episode was called OUT OF SIGHT/OUT OF MIND. Our draft was very well received and proved to be the turning point of our career.

It took us two weeks to complete -- one week to write just one speech. But that speech was key to the episode.

Tomorrow – that speech.


doggans said...

That was a wonderful episode, a perfect example of the balance of comedy and drama that made M*A*S*H so great.

So, it's safe to say you started your M*A*S*H stint on the right foot.

Richard said...

I saw that episode exactly once -- the first time it aired -- and I know exactly the speech you mean.

But for some reason I can't explain, my favorite bit is when Hawkeye asks a patient to read a chart to him, not realizing...well, you know.

Ann said...

This is such awesome blog, Ken! I'm so glad Beth C. pointed me here through the massive blogosphere. Your memoirs are fascinating, amusing and educational and it's a beautiful thing for a baby comedy writer to get a glimpse into the mind of a master. Looks like you worked on every single one of my favorite TV shows!

Reading this is an absolute thrill. Thanks so much for sharing!

VP81955 said...

Not sure if you heard this sad news, but Moose, aka "Eddie," the beloved Jack Russell terrier on "Frasier" and arguably the best dog actor since the legendary Asta, has died at 16 1/2, a ripe old canine age.,26334,1208083,00.html

I'm sure over the years, a few of your "Frasier" scripts had scenes involving Eddie. How difficult was it to write a scene involving a dog? Any interesting stories in that vein?

Joshua James said...

OUT OF SIGHT is one of the best episodes of the series -

blogwriter said...

question about writing a spec script... not sure if this is the best place to post a question, especially since it doesn't pertain to your current blog, but when writing a spec script for say HOUSE, which I hear is the best hour drama to write a spec for, how should you handle the medical speak? Should I research it? or since they have hose people already on staff would I just write jibberish, like "medcal jargon, medical jargon, medical jargon"?

Blondie said...

LOVE,LOVE,LOVE talking about MASH. I watched a 2 hour block last night, and was able to do most of the dialogue from each episode. This drives my boyfriend bonkers BTW.
At some point on this wonderful blog, we need to discuss continuity on MASH, because I notice, after all these years,there are A LOT of inconsistencies. For example: is Hawkeye an only child, or did he in fact have a sister? In season 1 I swear he has a sweater knitted for him by a sister; but then I think he refers to himself as an only child later on, than in season 4, he says the only deleiver he has ever made was taking his nephew to his sister's house. HELP!!

Mr. Hollywood said...

Great anecdotes Ken ... keep them coming! Not sure if this is the best place for it, but I remember the first meeting my writing partner and I had many years ago with a producer. We had about 10 ideas to pitch for his sitcom. He greeted us and told us to pitch away. I had barely gotten the first sentence out of my mouth when he got buzzed by his secretary. He takes the call and it's his wife. He proceeds to have an argument with her that slowly builds to the crescendo of FUCK YOU BITCH! He slams down the phone, takes a beat, then says "Go ahead with your funny stuff!" Needless to say, our 10 "great" ideas were dismissed in about thirty seconds and we were back to our car in about 2 minutes. Call it bad timing...REAL bad timing. I call it "The Mazel Factor"! We had none that day!

Anonymous said...

For a show that ran as long as MASH did, and with numerous writers coming and going over the years, some discontinuity is going to happen.*A*S*H

By Ken Levine said...

For Thursday's post I'll answer some misc MASH questions -- medical jargon, continuity, other stuff. Stay tuned.

Blondie said...

The fact that there were SO MANY writers for MASH has always been my personal explaination for the lack of continuity; in fact I was having this same coversation with the boyfrond last night about that.
I can't wait for the Thursday's post.
BTW Ken, I still love the fact that you got Tom Sullivan to play the blinded soldier; brilliant casting.

Anonymous said...

Ken...I actually remember watching JOE AND SONS. Did you write the particular episode I still can summon after three decades? Noting the old "write what you know" credo....the one were one of the sons dealt with his bedwetting problem?

Anonymous said...

I'm trying to find an episode in which a USO troup stops in while on of the performers has her appendix removed. Particularly, a song called "love, love be mine." Can anyone help?