Saturday, November 02, 2013

Symbolism in MASH: Now it can be told

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 for example. MAD MEN for another. Pay attention because every detail has added importance. I love both of those shows. And I’m always thrilled when I catch 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.


kenju said...

I'm glad to know that. I don't look for deeper meanings and symbolism in most shows, and humor with heart is just fine with me. Mash is one of my top five favorite shows.

Chris Ledesma said...

I have always been skeptical of deep analyses of literature and music. It's a sort of "reverse engineering" that attributes schemes and plots and structure to the works that just weren't in the author's mind or heart when they were created. I'll just enjoy a M*A*S*H rerun for the well-crafted entertainment that it is and leave the analyzing to others.

Nevin ":-)" said...

Reminds me of the scene in Back to School where Rodney Dangerfield fires Kurt Vonnegut for blowing the book report on his book.

Sunday said...

*scans thesis chapter to make sure there are no absurd symbolism links*


I think I'm safe. All I say is that Hawkeye inadvertently employs inverted Dandyism occasionally, but that it was probably very unintentional from the writers/producers/etc.

Tell me if I'm wrong, Ken - thesis hasn't been handed in, yet!

Craig L. said...

I've always assumed that is very unlikely that anything on Series Television can have 'deeper meaning' considering the time restraints on getting each episode from inception to completion - at least with a 22 episode season on the Broadcast Networks. Now, The Simpsons and similar animated series have something like a full year's leadtime and the simple fact that every frame is drawn by somebody (or every-fourth frame - not sure how inbetweening is done these days) so you can throw in 'Easter Eggs' every few seconds. And a show with 13 episodes a year doing a story arc over 5 years? By the end of the first season, the show-runner will often have the 'deeper meaning' of the final episode already carved in stone (and be praying he's still the showrunner for the final season). "Lost" was somewhere inbetween and all the worse for it - I just kept getting the impression they started going in one direction and changed their minds several times.

Mitchell Hundred said...

It may not have been your intent to include deeper meanings or symbolism, but that doesn't mean they aren't there. In creating new things, we are all informed by societal context and our own personal experiences in ways that we don't always perceive. Leni Riefenstahl probably didn't intend for Triumph of the Will to be a disturbing propaganda film: she probably thought it inspiring. But history has given it a different legacy. Robert Frost originally intended for Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening to be just a poem about someone on their way home, but it has come to be seen as a meditation on mortality. Once you put a work of art out into the world its true meaning becomes subjective, open for anyone with an opinion to speculate on.

Mister Charlie said...

Compare to the Beatles canon. People were playing records BACKwards to glean clues to the cosmos, answers to our future lives and meaning from gibberish. Even know bios attibute all manner of meaning to various lyrics the authors refuted time and time again.

I guess art, if it resonates on hidden or unknown levels for the observer, is a bonus. Otherwise, for most it is work, a day you went in and created something, under the usual daily worries and deadlines, and simply did not have time nor inclination to deeply think out each word or letter.

Entertainment is still assembly line creative work, produced not to last but to kill time and hopefully entertain.

Rays profile said...

Sometimes a cigar is ... and so on.

By the way, my mother used to have the cast picture at the beginning of your post on her wall as a poster.

Keith Cooper said...

Great to hear... thanks!

As a photographer, I get similarly confused by the deep significance some see in images.

Once I read a few discussions about some of my images, I started to wonder if I really had taken shots just because I thought they looked nice... Seems I did ;-)

That Neil Guy said...

An academic book contains a four page analysis of a two page short story I wrote. I was stunned at the depth of imagery I had allegedly inserted into my story.

That being said, I think all this speaks to the idea that the author is not the ultimate authority on the "meaning" of that author's writing. Just because a symbol or image or "meaning" was not consciously imparted by an author does not mean it does not exist, especially to an individual reader(viewer).

Deacon Structionist said...

Great essay, Ken. And yes, obviously I spotted the witty allusions to the Düsseldorf School of painting, Meiji era Noh theater and "Hagar the Horrible."

estiv said...

Shakespeare's an interesting case. There's no real doubt that he saw himself as an entertainer, basically. There's clear evidence that he rewrote some of his work if his theatrical company needed something slightly different, so he wasn't a precious "artiste" who expected others to simply accept the unaltered fruits of his genius. (He didn't save any of his manuscripts for posterity - what we have today is what other people saved.) On the other hand, his primary and secondary education was wa-a-a-ay beyond what we think of as childhood education. He was reading Ovid in Latin by the time he was a teenager, and the classical myths were second-nature to him. That sort of education would have stressed the importance of allusion, underlying themes, and yes, symbolism. So the truth is that his use of symbolism was something that came easily to him, but that doesn't mean that he wasn't also a popular artist. He wanted to make his audience cry or laugh without having to strain to figure out what the hell was happening onstage in front of them. (Four hundred years later the changes in language have made that harder.) The symbolism was there for anyone who picked up on it.

TheBigAlabama said...

I think your use of "Jesus"
and "Anti-Christ" in that post represents man's struggle between "good" and "evil." Am I right?

Nonchalant Savant said...

This reminds me of an anecdote I once heard about a college student who was having to write a paper about a Robert Frost poem (I don't remember which one). Evidently there was a part in the poem where Frost repeated a line, and much speculation was made in class about the symbolism of this repeated line.

At the time of this incident, Robert Frost was still alive, so the student contacted him directly and asked him what it meant.

He explained that he repeated the line simply because he thought it would sound better.

Paul Duca said...

Who do you think was a better dresser...Klinger or Jane Austen?

Gene Renaker said...

"Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

David Baruffi said...

My favorite story about this is Robert Frost's poem "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening," which ends,

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
and miles to go before I sleep.

And people always wondered why he repeated "And miles to go..." twice. Many theories were drawn up and discussed, and finally someone asked him, and he finally revealed the reason. He said, "It fit the rhyme." That's all. He needed to finish the rhyme, so he repeated it. (Shrugs) Oh well.

RyderDA said...

In university, they made me take a "Psychoanalytical Approaches To Analyzing Literature" course. Premise: all fiction is made up, like a dream, so they can be interpreted as dreams. Required text: Sigmund Freud's "Interpretation of Dreams", and a "Dictionary of Psychoanalysis".

You don't even want to think about the kinds of nonsense we were taught to find in poems, stories and books. Penis envy. Oedipal complexes. Fears of abandonment.

Being crappy at it when we tried to do it for real, our marks got better when we randomly picked Freudian analogs from the dictionary and arbitrarily applied them to sections of writing. We were called "insightful" and applauded by the prof for what was utterly made up crap. Because it was crap.

I can just imagine the fun we would have had with a Levine and Isaacs M*A*S*H script.

MacGilroy said...

> David B
Similarly I heard an interview with Paul Simon where he said Mickey Mantle once asked him why he used Joe Dimaggio in the song "Mrs. Robinson" instead of him.
"Syllables, Mick," he replied.

Nicolas said...

That you didn't put any symbolism in MASH doesn't mean it's not there. Analysis can be bullshit, but sometimes it can also provide a legitimate, if unintended, reading.

I discover unintended meanings in my own writing all the time. There's no reason why it shouldn't happen to MASH episodes. Often the author is not the best placed person to analyze a work.

But it's good to be skeptical, as lots of deconstructions are indeed bullshit.

Dbenson said...

There's an entertaining book called "Naked is the Best Disguise," a Freudian analysis of Sherlock Holmes. Among other things, the author makes much of a story where robbers tunnel into a bank from beneath to steal French coins, only to be met by Holmes with a riding crop.

Mike said...

'twas a dark and stormy night,
The air was filled with sleet,
An old man stood out in the rain,
His boots were filled with feet.

Mike Schryver said...

Chris Ledesma, ditto.

Coincidentally, a MASH episode of Ken's started on my TV while I was ordering Must Kill TV. I only realized later it was a Levine-a-palooza.

Dan Ball said...

I have too active an imagination to really interpret things. Without an author's input, I could formulate a number of theories and it's never as satisfying as knowing the right answer.

On the other hand, Peter Weir's films tend to intentionally invite viewers to interpret what happens to characters either after fade to black or whenever something's not defined. That kind of ambiguity's good, I think. The other kinds...meh.

But I kinda think the psychoanalytical approach is interesting. Sometimes, I think Freud overshot it by bringing sexuality into it, but our creations are the sum of our experiences and inspirations. The time we spend living those things and thinking about them, letting them affect us, really shapes our lives--especially the creative part. Ken, something had to shape you to write the way you did, and it's just possible these analyses have found the source. :)

Now to watch one of my more conscious inspirations: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

Mark said...

A few years ago I attended a conference on popular culture that featured dozens of presentations by academics analyzing current TV shows and movies in great depth, finding all sorts of bizarre subtexts. I went up to the leader of the conference and said, "Why don't they just call up the screenwriters and ask them what they meant?" And he laughed and said, "Because they're English professors."

Cap'n Bob said...

That may be well and good for you, but everything I say, do, or write is packed with significance and rife with meaning. Ten years from now some hopeful PhD student will dissect this comment to find the underlying meaning of it. To that young man or woman I say this:


Wendy M. Grossman said...

Reminds me that I still have a book published in the 1970s that's a selection of deliberately over-the-top spoof essays meditating on various aspects of the deeper symbolism of Winnie-the-Pooh.


Carolyn said...

From the TVTropes website: Isaac Asimov repeated in several places an anecdote based on this (Death of the Author theory): He once sat in (in the back of a large lecture hall, so semi-anonymously) on a class where the topic of discussion was one of his own works. Afterward, he went up and introduced himself to the teacher, saying that he had found the teacher's interpretation of the story interesting, though it really wasn't what he had meant at all. The teacher's response was "Just because you wrote it, what makes you think you have the slightest idea what it's about?"

Mike said...

In other words, sometimes a rat is just a rat.

Hank Gillette said...

My 9th grade English teacher explained how there was deep symbolism in virtually every line of the first page of John Steinbeck's The Pearl. I thought it was crap then and I still think it's crap.

ChicagoJohn said...

Around 8th grade, I had a teacher who used to insist that they knew/understood the reasons and motivations behind every word that an author used. It was maddening to me. The instructor insisted that so many things had symbolism that at first, it turned me off of writing.
But then I decided to "prove the teacher wrong" and went full bore into writing.

I can't stand when people try to project their agendas into an author's work.

Anonymous said...

From Trapperjan:

Thank you, Mitchell Hundred (11/02 12:30 PM) and Nicholas (11/02 3:07 PM). It doesn't matter what the author "meant to say" or the impression the director or cinematographer meant to convey as long as the analysis can be supported with examples from the text or TV show or film. Oftentimes people make unconscious puns, for example, which fit the situation. They don't think them out or plan them, but they just come out in speech. And to Chicago John (11/04 12:04 AM): any teacher who claims to know or understand the “motivations behind every word that an author used” is full of BS. All the reader—or viewer—can know is what can be supported by the information given. It has nothing to do with the motivation of the author. Just because Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” wasn’t meant by the author to be a meditation on mortality doesn’t mean it can’t also be read as that. The text supports that interpretation.

Tom Galloway said...

There's a bit that Harlan Ellison talks about in an interview with the Onion's AV Club at,14253/

Short version; Harlan's in the audience at an MLA conference where a critic goes on about the symbolism in one of Harlan's stories. The moderator asks Harlan for his opinion of the critic's points, and Harlan says he thinks the critic was completely wrong, and that the critic didn't even notice that the character he'd built his entire analysis around was black. The critic asked where that was established and Harlan read the line "her face, black against the snow". To which the critic replied "Well I thought you meant there..."

Joe Camel said...

Does this mean that Alan Alda's been bullshitting just letting us all think he was this dramatic mastermind?

Storm said...

@Dan Ball: A fellow Blue Blaze Irregular?! AWESOME! I am sure, in the miserable annals of the EARTH, you will be duly enshrined! You, Sir, are my kinda nerd.

No matter where you go, there you are,


(B.B.I. Codename: "Big Red")

McAlvie said...

Ha! I've enjoyed reading these comments just as much as I did reading Ken's post. You guys are great.

I love books, and once thought about taking a course about how to analyze a novel, break it down into parts. I decided against it mainly because I was afraid it would take away my pleasure in reading. And so I wonder if some of these people are over analyzing works of fiction to somehow make up for the fact that they don't get it.

Iron Mike said...

Glad to know there was no symbolism in MASH - there are alot of liberal types who see it as a protest against the troops in Vietnam!

It's just entertainment and nothing more, Obamabots.

And that's right from the horses' mouth!