Friday, April 08, 2011

Friday questions: Inside dish on MASH and pilot advice

Heading up to Seattle for the Mariners’ home opener and tribute to my broadcast partner, Dave Niehaus. I found white shoes. Here are some Friday questions:

Tom gets us started with a question that relates back to Monday’s post.

Referring to vintage hairstyles got me thinking about something I always wondered while watching MASH: Was it a conscious decision especially in later seasons to have some characters (BJ and Hawkeye jump to mind) not even bother with 1950s hairstyles, while other characters (Potter...) did? I always figured it was either because the actors didn't want to get haircuts or because the show was trying to underscore being "really" about Vietnam, not Korea? Or some combination? Or some other reason? Thanks very much.

All readers: buy Ken's book, it's great.

Of course I had to leave that last sentence in.

The answer has more to do with vanity than anything else. Loretta Swit, in particular, wanted to look more glamorous. It is hard to ask an attractive woman to wear army fatigues and combat boots for eleven years while Mary Tyler Moore and Suzanne Sommers and every other lead actress is wearing million dollar wardrobes no sitcom character could ever afford. So Loretta began wearing her down long and tousled. And she began wearing tailored t-shirts with MASH stenciled on the front. There was no such thing in the 1950 U.S. army.

We chalked it up to “creative license”.

The only time it really bugged me was on the episode my partner, David Isaacs and I wrote called POINT OF VIEW. This was the episode seen through the eyes of a patient. At one point he’s on the operating table and Loretta puts the anesthesia mask on him. So her hand fills the screen. And you can see she has long fingernails under her surgical gloves. Now what army nurse in Korea or Earth for that matter, had long fingernails? And they were so prominent that it really stuck out to me.

Otherwise, we asked the audience to buy that eleven years of shows actually took place in 18 months so what the hell if an actress wears a designer army uniform?

Cappy asks:

After a pilot is taped, what is the next step? In other words, do the networks decide whether to air the pilot and/or order some more episodes or whether to order a whole season of episodes?

Once a pilot is taped, the first step is editing. Then comes the network and studio notes. The revised version is then sent off to be research tested by the studio. Based on those results, more changes are made. Finally, a finished (although not really) pilot is delivered to the network. They test it to within an inch of its life.

Then a group of network honchos screen and discuss their pilot slate. Based on the research, personal preference, schedule needs, politics, pre-existing commitments, the opinions of the executives' 12-year-old kids (I'm not kidding) – the network decides whether to pass on a project or go forward.

What does go forward mean? Practically anything. A network can pick a show up for the fall, or as a backup and can order six or twelve more episodes. They can also insist on recasting, or reshooting certain scenes.

And if the studio that produces the show is not owned by the network, then a license fee must be agreed upon. It seems that one or two pilots a season blow up because the studio and the network can’t make the license fee deal.

Think of your pilot as a beautiful bride. And as she walks down the aisle she’s pelted with a thousand paint balls coming from every direction. That’s what happens after the taping.

From Jose:

Ken, I was just curious, given your experience, if you suddenly had to whip up an all-new spec pilot to use as a writing sample, how long do you think it would take you?

I’m not a good example because I’ve been doing this since Lincoln was president so I’m much faster and proficient now then when I started during the Civil War. So don’t go by me. But once I have the idea and the outline I can write a pilot script in a week. However, when I started it was a month.

The bottom line:  TAKE AS LONG AS YOU NEED.

And finally -- Helen has a question.

I'm a British screenwriter working on an idea inspired by something which happened in New York and by a location there. As I live and write in the U.K., although I'm good at dialogue, do you think I'd have more chance of someone picking it up if I transferred it to the U.K.?

You’re probably much more comfortable writing British characters so I would shift the story to London. That’s if I could. If the story is about hijacking the Statue of Liberty, then yeah, maybe I’d keep the story in New York. Otherwise, it seems you have better command with British characters so that’s what I would do. Remember, it’s not just dialogue. It’s attitudes and thought processes. And if you’re not really sure how a New Yorker would act in a certain situation it’s going to be apparent on the page.  Write what you know.

What’s your question?? Go Mariners.


Azatenym said...

Today's entry, dealing as it does with Loretta Swit and pilots, reminds me of something that has long puzzled me. You may not be the one to explain it, but you are the one soliciting questions, so I will go ahead and try it on you:

Why did Loretta Swit make the CAGNEY AND LACEY pilot when M*A*S*H was still in production and would, as it turned out, run another couple of years? I must point out here that this was definitely a pilot, something meant to spawn a series--not something intended as a one-shot movie, that someone later saw had series potential, as in the cases of PRESCRIPTION: MURDER and THE MARCUS-NELSON MURDERS, which led to COLUMBO and KOJAK, respectively. Also, I remind everyone that Swit had the rather essential role of Cagney, so she presumably did intend to be part of the series if it sold.

Was there an expectation at the time that M*A*S*H would soon be canceled (it had already run three times longer than the Korean War)? Was Swit wanting to leave? Or did she merely think it was never a bad idea to have multiple choices?

Thank you for your attention.

iain said...


Best wishes for tonight. Beware the juggernaut also known as the Cleveland Indians!

Also, please ask the Mariner pitchers to not throw curveballs to Matt LaPorta, as that would be mean & he couldn't hit one anyway if he used a redwood tree for a bat.

Sanford said...

Go Mariners! I'll be there!

Joseph Scarbrough said...


Loretta did the Cagney and Lacey during a hiatus of M*A*S*H (in other words, after one season had wrapped up production, and before the next one went into production).

But yes, during that time, she actually did want to leave M*A*S*H to do the series version of C&L, however, from what I understand, CBS had a firm hold on her with her contract, and wouldn't let her leave... which makes me wonder... why were they okay with McLean Stevenson, Wayne Rogers and Larry Linville leaving (nervous about Gary Burghoff), but refused to let Loretta leave?

BigTed said...

It seems to me that the networks have gone farther in the last couple of years in insisting that female characters look hot, regardless of how it fits their job. So in addition to the fact that virtually every actress on TV has to be model-beautiful, we now see detectives and lawyers and surgeons with cleavage-revealing tops and Farrah Fawcett hairstyles.

Not that I'm complaining (which I suppose is the point), but I doubt those outfits would go over so well among real-life professionals.

Jeff said...

Completely separate question I just have to ask - we love Community, but each episode can be so weird - claymation character, zombie halloween, etc. How much leeway does a show like that have? I keep expecting to seee them go to Vegas or something...

Cap'n Bob said...

Having lost their last four games, the Mariners better go. Let's hope home field and your presence helps them out, Ken. I'll be tuned in.

On the Swit question, it seems that all the moaning about the heat, cold, vermin, and bloody bodies brought about by the war would have been better served if she wasn't wearing glossy lipstick and hot pants. Maybe I expect too much.

Ryan Eibling said...

Do you know if hour-long drama pilots go through the same level of scrutiny or (especially) changes that half-hour comedies do? I'm thinking of shows with lots of effects, makeup, stunts, large cast, etc. for which the pilot must be expensive to produce. Shows like Heroes and CSI spring to mind. I'm also wondering if HBO and Showtime, or free cable channels like AMC, handle these things differently. Do big names with track records like JJ Abrams have the power to make hands-off deals with the network for complete control?

mcp said...

BigTed said...

"So in addition to the fact that virtually every actress on TV has to be model-beautiful, we now see detectives and lawyers and surgeons with cleavage-revealing tops."

Actually, there is a lot less cleavage on TV now than there was two seasons ago. That might explain why I'm watching less TV now.

gottacook said...

I saw "Story by Steve Gordon" (just before the screenplay credit) in newspaper ads for the current remake of Arthur. Wouldn't Gordon, if he were still alive, be unhappy about this? Or is having his name attached to this picture strictly a matter of WGA rules, unrelated to what he might or might not have to say about it? (I realize that the credits for Arthur 2 on the Rocks might shed some light on this but don't really want to look it up.)

Rockets and Turtles said...


Thank you very much for answering my question! It is always nice to hear the inside scoop from a person who knows it well!


Max Clarke said...

Excellent questions, guys. Thanks, Ken.

Anonymous said...

Glad to see you back with the M's. Was Dave Niehaus the inspiration for Big Wave Dave?
My son has unaccountably become a fan of John Candy. Where can we get a DVD copy of Volunteers

Unknown said...

Ken - entire run of Cheers is on netflix streaming. Tell the world, Ken...

Home Run Baker's Chocolate said...

Here's my question for ya, Jo-Jo: It's almost 10 pm, but for the M's it's way past midnight...I've been listening to the game all night, as opposed to watching it, and YOU ARE NOT ON MY RADIO. Why? I have nothing against Dave Valle and Rick, but I thought you were going to do some radio, too. Tomorrow? I noticed that the Giants raised their World Series Championship flag today. And the Mariners raised their traditional white flag tonight. 12-1 now, not that I'm paying attention any longer. Assuming the M's don't score 11 more runs (this month!), they are now on a pace to lose 116 this year. It's still early, but 116 is not out of the question, is it?

Anonymous said...

I was in my late teens when MASH started and one thing I really recall is that neither myself nor anyone of my buddies thought that Swit was "hot" or sexy, that went to other sitcoms actresses. Even Hawkeye was sexier! And til today Swit is not called forth as one of the "hot" sexy actresses from television pasts in any nostalgia poll or such lists. She really could not have been played that sexy, as she was also to be the target of humor in the series, the uptight army officer who really wants to break the rules to suit herself with Burns. Of course, she becomes humanized as years go by, and it seems right then, they need her to be looking more potential as a "love interest" for Hawkeye. A change in plans.

The casting department obviously went for someone who would invoke the lips of original actress Kellerman and the name - not the tall, svelte bodytype. But that's always the issue of overstating a detail that becomes a caricature problem later. To me she was more fishlike. Sure she was a fine enough actress for tv but the idea she was improved by giving her tighter fitting clothes and styled hair really misses the point as to what her potential was ever going to be. She would have been right for moving on to Cagney and Lacy, or in that direction and it would have made more sense.

Peter said...

Hi, Ken. When an episode calls for physical comedy an actor may not be crazy about--like a gag involving kissing someone of the same gender, or someone with a less-than-flattering body having to walk around in a swimsuit--how is it broached with the actor? Is it more of a, "Hey, we have this idea, are you okay with it? If not, we'll do something else," or "Here's the script. Have fun"?

Nonori said...

Gottacook: It's standard for a remake to give story credit to the writer of the original film, no matter how much has been changed. A notable example of this is the Willie Nelson vehicle HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, in which all the names under the "story by" credit are Swedish--because it is actually a remake of an early Ingrid Bergman movie, INTERMEZZO.

Nonori said...

Oh, and to minimize the weird images some of you may be forming, Willie Nelson did not have the Ingrid Bergman role--that was, more plausibly, Amy Irving.

Unknown said...

To my knowledge reading about MASH, only Wayne Rogers and McLean Stevenson broke contracts. Each had 5-year deals. Larry Gelbart explains this in his YouTube interview. They decided if McLean was so unhappy in the show, it wasn't worth trying to hold him to the contract.

Larry Linville did not break a contract, he left after his expired after season 5.

As for MASH not letting Loretta leave, my guess was the show didn't want to recast a new character that late in the run. Alan Alda had said Season 10 would be the last, then was convinced to do a shortened Season 11 to set up the finale. But Swit never should have signed a multi-year deal if she had other possibles in the running. Seems like she protected herself with a contract, then wanted to back out.

Anonymous said...

Barney Rosensweig, the producer of "Cagney and Lacey", tried to sell the networks on the idea of a C&L series for several years. CBS finally agreed to take it as a two-hour movie, but insisted on Loretta Swit as Cagney. Rosensweig protested that Swit was unavailable for a series should the movie be successful. But CBS had a deal with Swit to be in a movie-of-the-week, so they prevailed and told Rosensweig, "If it goes to series, you can recast."

Jose said...

I was reading a sort of anonymous Q&A with a guy who said he has been a TV writer since the 70s, and he mentioned that (at the time of the Q&A) he was involved with 3 Chuck Lorre shows.

Is that really possible? Is it like having 3 part-time jobs and getting 3 part-time salaries?