Tuesday, April 20, 2010

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. Chekov 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.


SpectreWriter.com said...

Can't thank you enough for sharing that with us, Ken. I knew some of the crew at the latter part of MASH but never got that far into it at the time. Now I can really appreciate what it must have been like to write a show like that every week. You and the rest of the crew and cast have earned a very special place in my heart, and that of all the fans the world over!

Sunshine Vitamin said...

We love your stories about writing and especially the idea (fantasy) that this is something we could all do just as well if we only learned a few secrets, like 5 acts and then a call back.

Awesome. Love your work.

W.V. Croni: What you make us feel like when we read your blog.

Unknown said...

Oh, yeah? In the original M.A.S.H. movie, Capt. 'Painless' Waldowski was depressed and was planning suicide and they made that funny. But I suppose television execs wouldn't handle having a major character want to kill himself because one night he couldn't "perform". At least not when MASH was running. Never mind.

Michael said...

My wife and I watch 60 Minutes and have noticed that the current generation doesn't do nearly so good a job at mixing it up. Once upon a time, if Morley Safer had a serious story, Mike Wallace had a light interview. If Iron Mike was doing a number on a con man, Morley interviewed Kermit the Frog. They knew how to mix it up.

MASH's writers had that marvelous ability to tell a story. Ken, you have said you learned a lot about storytelling from Vin Scully--as I did and as so many others have. The key is to know how to tell it, with the right pauses and twists. MASH did that better, I think, than any other show I have ever seen.

Pat Reeder said...

Always enjoy the behind-the-scene stories on MASH. My late father and I used to watch it together when I was in junior high. He was a Korean War vet, and would often comment on how good a job the show did in finding locations that looked like Korea, or at least the part of it he got to see, which he described as a scrubby, rocky wasteland.

Wish he could have shared his stories of the war with the writers, since I've never heard anything like them from anyone else. He was a photography buff, drafted out of high school and stuck into the photo corps as a sergeant. He had just about the worst job imaginable: he flew over the enemy encampments, leaning out of a helicopter and shooting at them with a camera while they shot back at him with guns. His Indian name would've been "Sitting Duck." He'd then develop the film in a stream, and the officers would use the photos to learn about the size and location of the enemy troops.

Once, Life magazine did an article about the photo corps. He saved a copy. The picture showed a captain and a lieutenant, leaning over a pan of photos in a stream and staring purposefully at them, like Gen. McArthur. He told me that those guys actually never took or developed a photo in their lives, but when Life showed up, they made damn sure they were the ones whose faces appeared in the article. You might be able to tell that my dad, although patriotic and I think, heroic, had about as much love for the Army as Hawkeye did. In fact, he enjoyed his two years in Korea so much that I didn't even know Oriental food existed until I moved away from home to go to college.

Anyway, thanks for indulging the rambling memories, and for creating a show that my dad and I could both enjoy together, in our very different ways.

gottacook said...

Let's not forget that "Thank you, Gene Reynolds" extends (at least for me) to LOU GRANT. Darn good storytelling.

Mike said...

I think Charles had a kind of descent into depression during his speed addiction. Perhaps that's it, depression was a feature of addiction, it didn't stand alone.

Anyway, you guys did great with that, a terrific episode.

Jim said...

I understand that as a series ages, there's a tendency towards the formulaic and predictable, but why were the last five seasons of M*A*S*H also so preachy compared to the first five?

And why did the characters become so loud and arch?

It isn't exactly an unbreakable comedy axiom that depression isn't funny. If so, Richard Mulligan's performance in S.O.B. would disprove it.

By Ken Levine said...

I wasn't there the last four seasons. I really can't speak for what was done or why. I can just speak for my years.

SpectreWriter.com said...

Why? Maybe they became more comfortable with Korea? More fed up? Maybe feelings about the war overall changed, or the Koreans' attitudes about them changed? Plenty of reasons that the characters might have tended to act differently in their last 5 years than their first 5 years, not the least of which would be the passing of time.:)

D. McEwan said...

"Jim said...
Why were the last five seasons of M*A*S*H also so preachy compared to the first five?"

Well they were freaked out about still being in the Korean War for a decade, when it only lasted a year. "Why are we still here? The war ended 9 years ago!"

Very interesting posting.

Anonymous said...

Um...now I would really like to hear some of those stories you couldn't use because no one would believe them. There's a trope for that, 'Aluminum Christmas Trees'.

I think the Dreams episode was one of my favourites. And the one with the ghost. Was that yours?

Phil said...

Ken, thanks for sharing the behind-the-scenes info, as always.

Do you (or your readers) know which sitcom is credited with being the first to feature multiple stories per episode?

That was standard practice in Seinfeld and Cheers, but the shows I grew up with were much more simply constructed (e.g., "Beaver loses his sweater" or "Lucy steals John Wayne's footprints").

(Having one story made it easier for someone at TV Guide to summarize each episode.)

dodz said...

old pics. hmm maybe in present those in the pics are old now

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Do you (or your readers) know which sitcom is credited with being the first to feature multiple stories per episode?

I've wondered that too. As you say, the standard practice for many years was one story per episode. (Even WKRP or Taxi would usually have one-story shows.)

I always got the impression that Barney Miller may have done a lot to formalize the idea of having more than one story per episode, since Danny Arnold built each episode out of several different stories (all taking place on the same set). But before that, I recall Gelbart's M*A*S*H was doing more multi-story episodes.

John said...

The best asset/skill MASH had in Seasons 3-7 was the ability to maintain the balance between the serious plot lines and the lighter ones, to the point that one side didn't dominate the other.

Seasons 1-2 at times tended to be a little too lighthearted, going back to military shows the networks felt safe with in the 1960s, like McHale's Navy or Hogan's Heroes (both of which Gene Reynolds did some work on), while the Season 8-11 shows at times tended to either get too serious, or have forced comedy plot lines. And the decision to have the characters be less laid-back and louder and more expressive in the comedy scenes in the final few seasons (Harry Morgan especially) also didn't help things any.

(And while I'm thinking about, it, there was one Season 6 plot line that felt a bit weird, where Charles was scheming to exchange script at a higher rate, but ended up losing all his money because he couldn't get back into camp on time. While there was nothing wrong with the concept, it felt more like a plot line for Season 5, with Larry Linville's Frank Burns trying to pull off a stunt like that instead of David Ogden Stiers Bay State Brahman doing it. Were there ever any plot lines that didn't fit into one epsiode but were still considered good that were 'held over' for use in a later epsiode?)

SpectreWriter.com said...

Reading all of the comments so far, I find it interesting that some of you have such strong recollection of specific episode's components, as well as tendencies within a season. Gotta disagree with John's statement, "The best asset/skill MASH had in Seasons 3-7 was the ability to maintain the balance between the serious plot lines and the lighter ones," though. Hardly the BEST. The show and each episode in it, each aspect that made up the whole, those were all impressive. To me, that was the heart of MASH, rather than an overall tendency.

What strikes me, though, is that so much of it comes down to memorabilia. What about the now? What can we gain, learn from these masterful works? The times aren't that different. People are still human, and the show was decidedly about the that.

Some of you expressed that it got too preachy in the later years. I was glad to see them using their vehicle as a means of conveying messages, leading by example, per se. MASH was never about fluff -- not in the original film nor in the series. What would have been a shame and waste would have been to reduce it to a bag of laughs.

Brian said...

Hi Ken, Question for a Friday. I liked the character Colonel Flag - CID, CID, CIA, etc. Where did you get ideas for him?

Chas Cunningham said...

Off topic, but I think that MASH in its later seasons would have played better if there'd been a regular camp barber character to keep both Jamie Farr and Loretta Swit from sporting 1980s blow-dried haircuts in a 1950s army setting.

Dawn Marie said...

I kept in mind when reading your post that MASH was only a half hour show. So you juggled all of that in what, 22-25 minutes of airtime? The economy of that is the part that blows my mind.

Kirk said...

I think the drama in MASH was good right up until the end. However, the comedy in the last, say, three seasons, lost lot of it's punch. It was comedy relief, basically, and not so different from what you'd see in more innocuous sitcoms. There was no more black comedy, whereas there was quite a bit in the earlier seasons. Watch the final episode with Henry Blake. It's comedic for most of the episode, until Radar walks into the OR with the bad news. If anything, the earlier humor made the unhappy ending even more devastating.

SpectreWriter.com said...

Exactly the point, Kirk. In the final analysis, it was still all about a war, and there's nothing happy/smiley about them. The characters made the best of it, but it's still a war. What would have been Wrong would be to paint it "All's well that ends well." The show seemed determined to pay proper respect to those who served in that war.

Ken, you gonna weigh in on this? :)

Matt said...


Just a thought ...

Any chance a collection of your M*A*S*H scripts could be collected and published, much like The West Wing scripts from a few years back?

M*A*S*H still has such a base that I would think this could make a few dollars on the market.

-bee said...

I loved MASH from the first season to the last.

As much as I loved the more freewheeling early seasons- I think adding more depth to established characters like Margaret and Klinger as well as all the various cast turnovers helped keep the show from going stale.

I think much of the whining about how MASH 'went to the dogs' after the early years has a lot more to do with Alan Alda's personal life then with the show itself - namely his outspokenness on some liberal issues back during the height of his fame .

Alda really hit a very, VERY sore spot with certain kinds of people - and all these years later I think they are still trying to make him (and the show) 'pay' for it.

Michael said...

Apropos of the comment about Alan Alda, I remember a Chicago TV critic, Gary Deeb, who just HATED Alda and beat him up every time he could in his column. Unquestionably, MASH could get preachy. But I've always thought a great example of the combination of comedy and drama in the later years was when the congressional aide accused Margaret of having been a communist. It fit the times incredibly well, and had a touch of lunacy to it.

Baylink said...

> I understand that as a series ages, there's a tendency towards the formulaic and predictable, but why were the last five seasons of M*A*S*H also so preachy compared to the first five?

Indeed, as others have said, the general allegation is that it was because Alda became more involved with pre-production and writing; for my part, it never bothered me...

Kirk said...

I don't think the episodes Alda wrote himself were particularly preachy. Indeed, I think he wrote some of the best episodes in the later seasons.

Again, I thought the comedy was less edgy in the last two or three seasons. Not because if was anti-war, but just the opposite. It didn't reflect the war at all.

With a few exceptions (there are always a few exceptions) the dramatic episodes were fine.

I wonder if the reigning philosophy in the least few seasons was that the war could only be approached dramatically, but not comedically.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to mention, my wife and I have been rewatching all 11 seasons of M.A.S.H. on DVD, usually anywhere from 2-5 episodes a night, and we're currently in season 7, your era, and I take special notice when I see "Levine & Isaacs" in the credits.

We both remember watching the show with our families as children, and then later, in our high school period, it was in syndication 3-4 times a day, so you could watch a M.A.S.H.-fest after school until dinner time every day if you wanted, so the show is quite fixed in our memories.

Point of View, which you mentioned in your post about shaking up the format, was one of the handful of episodes that really stood out in my memory (The one with the ghost soldier and the one in real time were the others that immediately came to mind). So, yeah, it worked.

Although it was always funny, each episode had touching, poignant moments that stay with you. I am a screenwriter trying hard to be a working screenwriter, and this show is the best education in balancing comedy and drama. Kudos!

There isn't much TV that we all watch together these days, but my daughter (8) is watching M.A.S.H. with us. Although she prefers Henry Blake to Sherman Potter, she's really enjoying the show, ("Can't I watch another M.A.S.H., pleeeease?") and we're delighted to share something special from our childhood with her, rediscovering an old favourite with new eyes.

Anonymous said...

The show was funny in the first four of five years, then it became this boring, preachy, politically correct lesson each week. Alda is not a funny man. When Hot Lips became Margaret it was over. Gary Coleman could act circles around any of these people.

JT said...

Dear Anonymous,

Everyone is most certainly entitled to his/her opinion. As you've expressed yours, unsolicited though it may be, I feel entitled to do the same:

1) Get a name change. Yours is far too similar to all the other trolls, and I'd hate to see you not getting the credit you so richly deserve for sharing your thoughts.

2)Since Gary Coleman is dead, it's highly unlikely that you're correct.

3) If you think Alda isn't funny, you should listen to yourself some time. The man has more heart and ability in his pinkie nail during any given 30 seconds (including sleep time) than you'll ever muster collectively in your entire lifespan. Just clarifying, since you seem to have become confused and deluded into thinking the existence of your opinion matters to anyone but yourself any more than your anonymity. Perhaps that's due to the name thing... or maybe you're just an unmitigated dull tool all the time. Either way, the clincher's the same: Be gone, before a house falls ... oh, wait, wrong script.

Sandra said...

I agree with Anonymous & cannot believe the venom directed toward her/him by folks who claim they have a sense of humor. MASH was indeed preachy & took itself entirely too seriously--believing its own hype--as the series went on. Try just listening to it sometime without watching it--the lively banter & endless repartee quickly becomes tedious. Eventually this patter became an end unto itself & had little to do with furthering the original theme of the show.

Anonymous said...

The first three years of MASH were very funny... aka a comedy. All the remaining years MASH was a poorly written and acted drama. MASH had the correct formula with Hawkeye, Trapper, Henry Blake, Hot Lips & Frank, Klinger & Radar... and even some occasional other characters (nurses, doctors, anesthetist, dentist, etc) that had small lines but gave the show some depth. After the third year, we were spoon fed Hawkeye and BJ routines with Colonel Potter playing dad. The character BJ was the worst. All BJ did was walk around behind Hawkeye adding in da,dum,dum finishes to Hawk's jokes... it was embarrassing at best. This is not an assassination attempt on Levine. His work will stand the test of time. The problems I mention were created by upper management letting the best actors/characters slip away and also letting political correctness replace comedy with shitty drama.

Armybouy said...

First time that I came across this site and Ken Levine's outline on writing scripts for MASH would be a great white paper and instructions for perspective writers to use. Some here have posted that they thought they show was too lighthearted in the first seasons and become too preachy in later seasons. I've watched this show since it first came out when I was a kid with my step-dad. Through the years, it is still one of my top five t.v. shows. I spent a year in Iraq, 2006-2007, and completed two tours. Since that time watching this show has changed for me. I see and hear things, that before my tour of duty, went far over my head, but now I hear real Army-speak and the nuances that I lived day-to-day. How the writer's were able to point out the finer details of Army life in a war zone, is something that I will never understand, but they did a great job. Now days, when I watch the show, there are lines that characters speak that could come right out my experiences in Iraq.
The writers, actors, plots, were all executed very well. Of course some shows were a bit slow and unfocused, but so was real life in my war zone. I enjoy the last five seasons moreso than the earlier shows because it is more down-to-earth and like Army-life, for the most part.