Monday, September 08, 2014

In the mood for a post about MASH?

Since I worked on MASH for four years, I get a lot of MASH Friday Questions.  Thought I'd answer a couple today that require some really candid answers.  I may have answered some of these earlier.  I don't remember. 
From reader “Bee” comes:

Did it ever bother any of the MASH production staff that seemingly no attempt was made to make the women's hair and makeup seem to be of the 50's era? (Margaret had a Farrah Fawcett hairdo later on in the series fer cryin' out loud - and Klinger's getups were about the only reliable shout-outs to actual female dress of that time).

I LOVE the show, but this one thing always bugged me.

Bee, it bugged me more. To the point of driving me crazy. Nurses in Korea also didn’t have long nails, sport bright red lipstick, or wear tailored green sweatshirts with the MASH logo. Dog tags were for identification not accessories. Fashion experts were not consulted when designing wartime army fatigues.

But these are arguments producers rarely win. It’s the TV equivalent of trying to give a cat a bath.

From Just a Guy:

I’m curious what you think the fresh shelf life of a TV show really is--be it sit com or drama...
For example on MASH, if you watch real closely, after a couple of years (and this is especially true when new characters replaced the original), you can see where scripts are basically re-cycled, e.g. a situation occurs with Trapper and a few years later the same exact situation occurs with BJ and so on with Burns and Charles and other characters. Sometimes the role/words Hawkeye spoke to Trapper end up being the same (or virtually the same) or virtually identical are switched and BJ says them to Hawkeye, etc. etc. etc.

So my question is this: what's the shelf life of a TV show, how long do you think it lasts before it actually becomes redundant?

After five or six seasons every show starts showing its age. Sometimes recasting can add a freshness that keeps the show going for a few more years. And some shows that rely on a successful formula (like LAW & ORDER) seem to defy time and can go on forever.

But I’d say seven years is the magic number. Let’s see William Shakespeare come up with the 150th episode of Hamlet (and getting notes on the outlines from a network executive who just graduated from Sarah Lawrence).

The name of the MASH episode Just a Guy was referring to was Preventive Medicine from season seven. The story seemed very intriguing. The number of arriving wounded had increased because of one careless Colonel. Hawkeye slips him a mickey then to keep him from returning to the front removes his appendix. This was before malpractice suits and HMO’s, but there was still that pesky question of ethics. It created a nice debate between Hawkeye and BJ. We did a lot of rewriting on that episode, the cast was happy, we were happy, and they went off to the ranch to make it.

On Friday night David tuned in to the MASH rerun that CBS was airing at 11:45. After watching a few minutes he came upon a horrible discovery – IT WAS THE EXACT SAME SHOW THAT WE WERE FILMING. Identical. Same plotline, same argument. The only difference was it was better (no surprise there – Larry Gelbart vs. us).

We were mortified. I mean, it’s one thing to steal from other shows, but to steal from your own? We looked like a couple of blithering idiots. The amazing thing is that no one on the cast or crew caught it. And a lot of them were there for the original episode.

By the way, check out the first and last seasons of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW.  There are some episodes that are practically identical.   So we weren't alone.  Although that doesn't help.  I'm still embarrassed.


Ron Smith said...

As I recall, Trapper John had no problem with the ethics of removing a healthy organ. But BJ did. I thought then and continue to think that re-visiting the situation the way you did showed the maturation of the show and of Hawkeye. He was being forced to re-think his views, as were we.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

At least you (usually) can't get sued for stealing from yourself.

But I think the freshness thing is relevant to the jump-the-shark discussion. It isn't always easy to pinpoint the moment when your favorite show loses the spark that made you love it - and the flashy moment you pin it to may not be the actual moment. But it still happens.


Sean D. said...

Ken, To expand on the hairstyle and clothing question, other than MAD MEN, do you think television has improved on trying to get period details right? While MASH had some anachronistic hair and wardrobe, I don't think it was nearly as bad/obvious as Happy Days when it seemed like they just gave up trying to keep Moran and Baio as early to mid-60s teens. Dramas were always a bit better about it, but even a few of them in the 70s/80s were shaky.

RockGolf said...

At least you (usually) can't get sued for stealing from yourself.

Unless of course, you're John Fogerty.

Unknown said...

I don't see a problem. When a show is successful and has been on for a few years, it becomes clear that people don't necessarily watch it for the plots. They watch it because they like the actors on the show, and the characters created by talented writers such as the author.

Massimo said...

This prompts a Friday Question. Some repetitions of ideas over the life of a series, surely, represent not a lack of originality, but the deliberate exploration of a theme. I'm thinking of the many episodes of "Frasier" that take place in hotel rooms, where the characters involved experience a psychological breakthrough (or breakdown)—Frasier and Lilith, Frasier and Niles, and in one particularly brilliant episode all three. Many of these episodes were Levine/Isaacs creations. I'm curious to know how this idea developed.

Kirk said...

If I remember correctly, that was none other than Colonel Flagg Hawkeye and Trapper slip the mickey to.

James Van Hise said...

Regarding anachronisms on MASH, I remember watching a rerun of an early episode, probably from about 1973. Radar is reading a comic book and although he tries to not let the viewer see what it is, at one point his hand moves and it is obvious that it is a 1973 Avengers comic which the prop man probably picked up on his way to work. The thing is, in 1973 you could buy 1950s comics for a couple dollars (unlike today) so getting a vintage comic would have been easy. There was even a major comic book store on Hollywood Blvd at the time.

Largo161 said...

Bewitched was a show that also recycled in its last couple of seasons.

Brian said...

Ken -

I believe the earlier episode deals with Hawkeye and Trapper spiking Colonel Flagg's drink and then performing surgery, which was done more for comedic value than anything else, since Flagg was such a cartoon character. I'm a huge Gelbart fan, but what you and David did was far more interesting and raised all sorts of questions completely overlooked by the earlier show.

Johnny Walker said...

Speaking of M*A*S*H authenticity, here's a gallery of REAL photos from the 8055th -- the actual inspiration for the fictional 4077th. Although the nurses featured here look nothing like the ones on the TV show, the rest of it look like outtakes with an alternative cast. Spooky how spot-on the show mimicked them!

(This 8055th is the M*A*S*H unit that the original author, Richard Hornberger, served at.)

Scooter Schechtman said...

Johnny Walker:
Once I beat away the popups it was an interesting slideshow. I remember reading an article about the original author where he said he liked the Altman movie but disagreed with the "politics" of the series.

blinky said...

Speaking of candid MASH questions: You never answered the one where I asked if Alan Alda's influence on the show gradually steered it away from the edgy,lots-of-drinking, womanizing Movie version to a more PC, feminist no-so-much drinking version.

Stephen Robinson said...

I think Alda's vision of the show is more mature. I love the first few seasons and the movie but both are against war and authority in the way that Groucho was against "everything" in HORSEFEATHERS. There was an underlying challenging of the rules that was as juvenile as a teenager's.

As the show developed, Hawkeye's aversion to war and violence deepened -- he was a pacifist, a healer, forced into a situation that was anathema to him: stiching up wounded men only to send them back to get wounded again (if not killed).

I also liked that Potter represented authority in a more complex manner (Henry was just incompetent), and the antagonist forces of Hotlips and Frank transformed into the more realistic and grounded Margaret and Charles.

Ralph C. said...

This weekend I watched the MASH finale again, as well as some of the featurettes. I bought a 2-disc set of a used copy of that show. I saw Ken in the "Memories Of MASH" show, hosted by Shelley Long. Ken, any memories about the "Memories"?

D. McEwan said...

Bee's comment put me in mind of the movie Meet Me n St. Louis. Set in 1903, the hairstyles Judy Garland and most of the other women in the movie wear are not hairstyles of 1903, nor of 1944, the year it was made. The tops of their heads are in a 1903 style, while on the sides and back they went with the long hair of 1944. The resulting hybrid hairstyle is one no one ever wore except in Meet Me in St. Louis. The only women in the movie with the proper hairstyles are Mary Astor, as the mom, and Marjorie Main as the bulldyke in the kitchen.

I'm assuming this was due to actress vanity, that the young women in the movie did not want to wear stodgy old hairstyles. (Even little Margaret O'Brien wears the imaginary hairstyle.) So was that the reason for the anachronistic M*A*S*H hairstyles?

The recurring anachronism on M*A*S*H that drives me up the wall are Hawkeye's endless Godzilla jokes. There are a lot of them. Godzilla was a got-to joke reference for Hawkeye. The problem is that Gojira wasn't filmed until after the Korean War ended. (Admittedly, shortly after, but after nonetheless), and the American-version with Raymond Burr, which was the first useage of the word "Godzilla," was released in 1956, well after the Korean War. Hawkeye keeps making jokes using a word that hadn't even been coined then. And he does it again and again. (I would notice this. Over the years, I've had two different cats that I named Godzilla.)

On the other matter, recycled plots, take a look at the very first episode of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, and then look at the final episode of Dobie Gillis. (Or watch them in the reverse order. It matters not which order.) Different heroine (Goodbye Tuesday Weld, hello Shiela James), different rich kid, but THE EXACT SAME PLOT, and nearly the exact same script. I happened to see them a day apart last year and was struck by what looked like a rerun of the first episode, but with the road company cast. I'm tempted to believe that they'd received their cancellation notice before it was shot and figured, "What the hell? This show is now dead. Why bother with a new script for the last show? Here, rewrite this old one slightly," and they went with the oldest one they had.

DwWashburn said...

I'm always amazed that people seem to fixate on Swit's hairstyles but they never seem to notice Alda wearing long hair pre Beatles and in the army.

The thing that always irritates me when people talk about MASH is when they say that MASH lasted 11 years which was, according to them, "nearly three times as long as the actual war". This logic only holds up if you believe that the war was fought for thirty minutes a week and went into hiatus in the summer. In reality if you add the running time of the episodes, the show only showed us less than six days of the war.

Anonymous said...

DwWashburn, one problem with your argument is that the actors visibly aged during the run of the series. Alan Alda certainly looks more than three years older in the final episode than he did in the first --though I suppose you can attribute that to the rigors of war; maybe I should make Gary Burghoff my example. The character was supposed to be, at most, in his early twenties, but he had a conspicuous bald spot by the time he left.

Touch-and-go Bullethead said...

The hair was also too long on "The Waltons." Before someone responds with "That was set during the Depression, so no one could afford a haircut," I will note that in a farm family at that time it would have been usual for the mother to cut her children's and her husband's hair.

Mark said...


Get Smart (TV Series)
Ice Station Siegfried (1969)
Showing one item
Don Adams refused to appear in this episode because he considered it a poor rewrite of the fourth season episode "Schwartz's Island". He called in sick on the day filming was to start and his friend Bill Dana was quickly hired to take his place. Adams only appears briefly in the opening scene.

Mark B said...

Hi Ken,

This is a Friday question. Is there a show you didn't like in the beginning but warned up to it and now think it's a great sitcom?

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

I was flipping around today and caught an early episode of MASH where Hotlips' hair looked like Olive Oyl's

Terrence Moss said...

I'd love a week of Friday questions.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

I heard from Mike Farrell that CBS put that episode up against the Oscars, so nobody on the West Coast would watch it.

Francis Dollarhyde said...

DwWashHburn - even if it wasn't 11 years, the Korean War in "M*A*S*H" lasted longer than it did in reality. For one thing, "M*A*S*H" did about four or five Christmas episodes, but American involvement in the Korean War spanned from July 1950 to July 1953. At most, the 4077th should have only had three Christmases in Korea.

Johnny Walker said...

Some trivia on this episode from the IMDB:

"Originally, the story was to have Hawkeye and BJ being equally eager to perform the medically needless appendectomy to put the warmongering colonel out of action. However, Mike Farrell objected to this plot development on the basis that it was an act of mutilation and is never justifiable. While Alan Alda was equally adamant that it was appropriate for the sake of the lives of the soldiers the colonel was about to manipulate into battle, despite that colonel being clearly ordered to keep out of needless combat. The resulting argument between the actors was incorporated into the revised script which also has BJ refuse to cooperate with Hawkeye's surgery."

Any truth to this, Ken? :)

SBell in San Mateo said...

My MASH/Friday question: when dialogue in Korean (or other languages) was required in the script, did the writers have a translator on hand? And were those actors able to speak the language, or were they given a phonetic approximation?

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

@Francis Dollarhyde
I can't confirm without looking this up but I believe that all the Christmas episodes took place on different days...i.e.
1 happened right before christmas
1 happened on christmas eve
1 happened on christmas day
1 happened on Boxing day.

Rich D said...

Don't think of it as just recycling, think of it as being the first eco-friendly TV show!

Anonymous said...

Aha.. very meta. Touche, Mr Levine.

Francis Dollarhyde said...

@The Bumble Bee Pendant:

You could be right, but I lean towards there being too many "M*A*S*H" Christmases as a result of the show's confusing and self-contradictory timeline. If you look at the various dates peppered throughout the show's run, it's virtually impossible to reconcile them into a chronology that holds up. (Of course it doesn't spoil enjoyment of the series, it's just amusing to think about.) Fans of the show have pieced together a timeline here:

You'll realise that arranging episodes in order based on dates given in them leads to continuity errors like Potter and B.J. being in the camp before Henry and Trapper leave.

From the link I posted above (and this relates to the Christmas issue):

"Perhaps the most confusing timeline issue is when Colonel Potter and B.J. arrived at the 4077th. During the teaser at the end of “Welcome To Korea” (Season Four), Colonel Potter’s arrival is said to take place on September 19th, 1952. However, in the episode “A War For All Seasons” (Season Nine), we see Colonel Potter and B.J. at the camp on New Years’ Eve 1951, and in “Death Takes A Holiday” (Season Nine) Potter and B.J. are there for Christmas 1951. April Fools’ Day 1951 finds Colonel Potter and B.J. there as well, seen in “April Fools” (Season Eight).

Also, the episode “‘Twas the Day After Christmas” (Season Ten), should be set the day after Christmas 1952, seeing as Christmas 1951 was “Death Takes A Holiday.” Christmas 1952 would be the last Christmas of the war, since it ended in September 1953. However, in “Trick or Treatment,” which takes place after “Death Takes A Holiday,” we see a Halloween party, meaning it is October 31st, and apparently 1953.

How is all this possible? The most likely solution is that the writers realized after “Welcome To Korea” that they had made Colonel Potter and B.J. arrive too late in the war, that Trapper and Blake shouldn’t have been there for a year. That explains how Potter arrives in 1952 but is shown in 1951. It doesn’t explain Halloween of 1953, which can’t be explained as anything more than a simple mistake."

Roger Owen Green said...

Francis - I like the timeline you posted. But for me, the contradictions, along with the recycled plots DID affect my enjoyment. Except for Dreams, I doubt there's an episode I've watched more than once since Radar's departure.