Sunday, February 15, 2015

Why did we leave MASH?

In light of Jon Stewart leaving THE DAILY SHOW, I'm reminded of the national uproar when David Isaacs and I left MASH.  Here's a re-post of a Friday Question from five years ago.  Trust me, with Brian Williams as my witness, bevo is just one of MILLIONS who asked this question.  

bevo asks:

How come you left MASH?

We had just completed the 7th season. From the time David Isaacs and I became head writers we pretty much wrote or re-wrote every script. We had a very small staff.

Most of the stories came from the research that we, and before us, Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart conducted with doctors, nurses, and soldiers who served in Korea. Usually we had two, maybe three story lines in every episode that would dovetail and eventually connect with each other.. The plotting was very intricate. And our shooting schedule was so demanding (an entire episode was shot in only three days; today a half-hour single camera show takes five or six days to complete) that we had no time to fix stories once they were on the stage. So we really had to get them right beforehand. On multi-camera shows sometimes you go to the stage with a script that’s still a little undercooked but you figure you have a week of production to shore it up. We had no such luxury.

Once we broke the stories David and I wrote every outline, even for the freelance writers we hired.

We made 25 episodes a year so that’s somewhere between 50-70 stories a season. And by year seven we had pretty much picked the bones of all that research. Plus, we were locked into the time and place. It’s not like other shows where characters can marry, have kids, get new apartments, new jobs. Our conceit was the entire run of the series took place over the span of roughly one year.

So by the end of year seven we had done every hot show, cold show, every visiting general, everyone had slept with everyone else, Klinger had worn every dress, we had done every practical joke, everyone had been caught naked in the shower, every activity had been interrupted by choppers, they raised money for every good charity, they performed every tricky operation, they endured every shortage, and everyone had written four letters home.

And worse for us as writers, the characters no longer surprised us. They were so established that by this time we knew exactly what they would say and how they’d react in every situation. (I can’t explain why exactly, but I never felt that way about CHEERS.)

Anyway, we were a little fried and figured it was time. We were offered a big development deal and pilot commitment from NBC so the timing just felt right.

Looking back, I think we could have squeezed out one more year. But then we’d be in the same situation. The show lasted 3 1/2 seasons after we had left. No way could we have done another 90 episodes without winding up in post op ourselves. Once we left they got smart and expanded the staff and I thought the new regime did a great job.

All that said…MASH was an incredible experience. I can’t tell you how proud I am of the work David and I did on the show. And we are forever grateful to Gene Reynolds, Burt Metcalfe, and Alan Alda for giving a couple of kids in their 20s such an extraordinary opportunity.


Oat Willie said...

You were smart to get out of there, friend. You might well have ended up working on "After MASH".

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

The show was always intriguing to watch I always found something special about each episode. The parallels between the Korean and the Vietnam wars was strong and the show's characters expressed the sentiments about war that most Americans believed at the time.

I guess my favorite episode was POV, (fellow readers: that's where the camera became the eyes of the wounded soldier.) Of course, it didn't hurt that the character's name was Bobby Rich, the same as our PD at KFMB AM&FM. That got my attention right fast...and it was a neat nod to Dr. Boogie himself)

...and the story behind Ken's use of the name Honoria in one episode is just priceless...

Happy Valentine's Day weekend to all...and wishes for heat and sunshine to the folks in New England..

SER said...


SER: Because of the finite timeline, M*A*S*H was sort of like a series set in high school because the visible aging of the cast began to puncture the suspension of disbelief.

In the book, Hawkeye is 28 (I think that's also the age given for BJ in Season 4). That seems a prime age for drafting doctors. By the end of the series, Alan Alda and Mike Farrell are both in their 40s but neither should be too far into their 30s.

I also wonder where Hawkeye and BJ were during World War II. Did they avoid the draft because they were in college?

John said...

Even before I started reading your blog, Ken, I saw Season 7 as something of a cut-off point, both in watching MASH in first-run and in re-runs. It wasn't just Gary Burghoff's departure, it was something about both the tone of the scripts and how the cast was handled, especially in Seasons 9-11.

To me, it just felt as if MASH went from a comedy show with serious overtones to a show where the focus was more on the drama part in too many of the scripts, with the comedy bits just tossed in as filler material. And the acting style went from subtle to overly expressive, as if the audience wouldn't get the action without some serious emoting (Harry Morgan and Loretta Swit's characters suffered the worst from the decision to have them seemingly shout 75 percent of their lines).

Basically, the people who were writing and rewriting the scripts after you and David left ended up with a much different MASH than the one you bequeathed them. Eight years into the run, it's harder to find new material in the same place, and going in a slightly different direction may have been a natural choice, but unlike the change in tone after Seasons 1-2, when Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds were able to put a more serious tone into the show without hurting the comedy, the late seasons went too far in that direction.

The Real Carson, Not That Other One said...

Hi Ken,

How on earth did you shoot a 25 minute episode in three days??

I've worked on multi-cam sitcoms and on hour-long dramas, but no single-cam comedies. (just an aside, I love how it's called single-camera, but they always use at least two cameras).

Most hour long dramas get about 8 pages a day done, depending on if you're in a soundstage, on the backlot or on location (could be much less on location), so the episodes take 7-9 days to shoot.
But you were having to get 12+ pages shot per day! That takes some incredible skill by the crew, cast and director. What were the hours like? How did the crew not burn-out? That is a stunning feat. Was that the norm back in the 1970's? I guess this is a Friday question.

Mike in Seattle said...

What a monumental task you had in front of you and how well you pulled it off. By a couple of kids in their 20s. Wow.

My mentor, Stewart Stern, writer of screenplays and teleplays for REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE; RACHEL, RACHEL; SYBIL and others including a lot of early live TV, died on Feb 2 at age 92. I remember clearly a class before or after which students were chatting and somebody (not me) made a not so flattering remark about TV comedy writing. Stewart overheard this and tut-tutted the guy and said, "half hour comedy writing is the hardest writing there is." Respects to you and David.

i could be a bob said...

I know you've written about the Cheers-Superbowl clip. Then there's this bit about savings bonds -- were there other events or things the cast was asked to endorse?

Richard Rothrock said...

I do think that M*A*S*H outstayed its welcome by about two seasons. I heard once that, for the last few seasons, the cast would take a vote each year as to whether to continue another season or end it. Alda, Farrell, and Swit would vote to end it. Morgan, Stiers, Farr, and Christopher would vote to do another year. Finally, one season, Stiers joined the others in voting to end the show. As consolation, Morgan, Farr, and Christopher were given AFTER M*A*S*H.

Without a doubt, my favorite post-Radar episode is "Old Soldiers".

Canda said...

Exemplary career.

Johnny Walker said...

I remember reading somewhere that M*A*S*H was really three separate shows with the same cast, characters and settings. I wish I could find that article somewhere, I'd love to read it again.

Anyways: I have another Friday question inspired from this post.

I just noted that "Goodbye Radar" was actually a Season 8 episode, technically after you, David and Gary had left. I assume this is because they were a "holdover" from Season 7. But can you explain: What IS a holdover? Why do they happen? I see that the same thing happened on The Simpsons quite frequently, too. I always imagine TV production as being several scripts behind, not several shows ahead. Could you explain more?


Roger Owen Green said...

I've LONG thought the show should have end with Radar leaving. The number of really episodes after that point (Dreams and a few others) was no worth the rerun feel of those last couple years.

Eric said...

I have a collection of scripts from M*A*S*H (I have a few of the scripts you and David wrote!), and a few of the ones I have belonged to a stand-in. My (Friday) question is, what was the role of a stand-in? Is this something unique to a single camera production, such as M*A*S*H?

Alan I said...

People can have their opinions, I generally don't mind or care, but I feel the need to pipe in this once.

I loved season 8, and 9 and 10 and 11 and I adored the finale.

I realise Ken (and it seems every other M*A*S*H fan) had major issues with the later episodes and the finale... and that's cool, but not me.

A WAR FOR ALL SEASONS (9) - an incredible 'cyclic' episode. Sears & Roebuck Catalogue, baseball, seasons (corn), NYE, knitting all meshed together and ending with the shot heard round the world.

BLESS YOU HAWKEYE (9) - Doesn't every fan always say "we needed more Sidney". Well here he is. Great Hawkeye back story as well.

BLOOD BROTHERS - Swayze episode

BOTTLE FATIGUE (8) - superbly written episode with two awesome storylines. "Olive skin makes good kin."

OLD SOLDIERS (8) Sad Potter backstory and fan favourite

DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY (9) - such a memorable episode, turning back the clock.

OH, HOW WE DANCED (9) - always brings tears seeing B.J's family back home

TWAS THE DAY BEFORE CHRISTMAS (10) - Charles vs the Cook.

FOLLIES OF THE LIVING... (10) - a fantastic and fantastically episode which lives long in the memory

PRESSURE POINTS (10) - when potter questions his ability and sends for Sidney (didn't we want more Sidney?)

FOREIGN AFFAIRS (11) when Charles becomes romantic with a French bohemian. She says (paraphrased) "Hawkeye was too much of a boy and now I see you are not enough of one."

SETTLING DEBTS (11) - party for Potter's mortgage

THE MOON IS NOT BLUE - that movie mixup

THE FINALE (11) - perfect television and with that Chalres line "Music was always a refuge from this place and now it will always be a reminder." Sums war and the series up, for me.

Wish that M*A*S*H ended after season 7 or 8?


Breadbaker said...

Interesting perspective. M*A*S*H really couldn't grow outside the setting of the war, and it was a limited war in many ways. Cheers could change as society changed, and there was no limit on who could walk through that door.

And one of the best lessons one can learn is that the right person at one point in a show's cycle isn't always the right person at another point. You can overstay your welcome. It's not a bad thing. It takes character to admit it.

Sunday said...

Lik Alan, I enjoyed a lot of the later episodes, particularly the ones like 'Follies of the Living...' And 'Dreams', in particular. I wouldn't say it should have ended at 7 or 8, but I only got quite frustrated in the last year, though I did really think something was lost when Gary left as well. Maybe half seasons in those last two years would have been best - you can really see the threads of both the writers and actors being stretched to exhaustion by that point.

M*A*S*H is a perfect show for the angry 70s - but the conservative 80s incoming meant the show went from ''I hate war, get me outta here' to 'we're here, let's just all pull together to do this'. Very different flavour. I prefer the series with Gary, but I'm not sure I'd say the show ever a Jumped the Shark, simply because for me I was still willing to watch, even if they were all clearly stretched to the limits. But I know a lot of people firmly put the Shark at series 8.

I LOVED the last episode. It's actually my favourite episode. I love ironic endings. I love the Listener becoming deaf, I love the Sanest one finally cracking, I love the Escaper chosing to stay, I love the Untouched by war finally touched so much he can never be the same. I loved it. Just wished it had happened 2 years before, but still.

But loving the show as much as I do, I would say I stop loving entire seasons by season 8 and after that, I really love specific episodes.

Blood and Rhetoric said...

A question inspired by a discussion with a friend of mine: he has noticed that on Fraiser there was a character called Ros, and another called Gil, and wonders if this was a deliberate reference?

I am doubtful; I would be more convinced if they had been introduced as a pair, or functioned in some way as a unit. Do you happen to know and be able to settle our dispute?

Sunday said...

(Please forgive any typos on this or my previous post - I'm typing on a tablet and they're hard to catch! )

Just a reply to Johny Walker, I'm doing my PhD and one chapter I'd on M*A*S*H. There is a really enjoyable book by James H Wittebols called Watching M*A*S*H, Watching America. I use the book a lot for my research, it's fantastic.

He breaks the show up into these categories:, saying the show us actually about 6 different shows:

Year 1 - This is a Man's War.
Year 2-3 - War is Hell, but Life's a Party.
Year 4-5 - Hearts and Minds
Years 6-7. - This War Just Isn't Working Out For Me.
Years 8-9 - the Party's Over and Radar Goes Home
Years 10-11, Goodbye Farewell, Amen.

The only one I'm not terribly in love with is the last 2 years, (but they had sone good episodes) though I did miss Radar terribly.

Anyone interested in the changes M*A*S*H went through, or how M*A*S*H reflected general American society at the time, it's a great book.

Well worth the read.

Johnny Walker said...

@Sunday: Thanks for that. It sounds very interesting!

@Blood and Rhetoric: Roz (not Ros) was named after Roz Doyle, a real life friend of the producers who passed away in 1991.

Sunday said...

No problem Johnny! It's a very interesting read, and I think it would be interesting to those MASH fans out there who are not academic.

Ethan said...

I have a follow on question:

Why did you leave Frasier?

My wife and I are watching all of the episodes on Netflix and it jumped out at me that David Isaacs is credited as "creative consultant" without you in seasons 7 and 8 (possibly more?), unlike seasons 1 and 2.

Henry said...

You said everybody slept with everybody. You missed the idea about Father Mulcahy & Ho-Jon. Where were Hawkeye & BJ for WWII? In college, just like the author, Richard Hooker aka Hornberger.

Ike Iszany said...

This post raises the question of why do shows stay on the air longer than five or six seasons? I know the obvious answer is money and success doesn't come around that often and for the actors major success on one show doesn't promise any future success anywhere else. But almost all sit-coms age very badly after season five.

SER said...

IKE: Few long-running TV shows stay on the air without a large audience. It's a business. There is no network executive who would cancel a TWO AND A HALF MEN if the ratings were high and the actors willing just to make room for "fresh" new programming -- especially when the success rate of new programs are so low.

Artistically, I think we can also fall in the habit of comparing the 11th season of FRASIER to its first season (same with CHEERS). It's probably a more apt comparison to contrast the 11th season of FRASIER to the first seasons of I'M WITH HER, MY BIG FAT OBNOXIOUS FIANCEE, WHOOPI, HAPPY FAMILY, THE STONES, A MINUTE WITH STAN HOOPER, and THE TRACEY MORGAN SHOW. Those shows all bombed. A few should have never made it to the air, but some of the others features amazing talent (Christine Baranski, John Laraquette, to name a few). You have no idea what will hit or miss.

And a final bit of trivia: At 12 (!) season, TWO AND A HALF MEN is the longest-running (non-animated) sitcom in 45 years. I don't know of anyone who might have taken that bet in 2003.

(I think it's important to make the non-animated distinction because series like THE SIMPSONS or SOUTH PARK have the benefit of keeping the characters static -- they don't age or change, which I think is an advantage more than it is a disadvantage for a situation comedy. Dramas might benefit from having the formula "shaken" up but if THE SIMPSONS were live-action, it would almost be a different show with a 60-year-old Homer, almost 40-year-old Bart and Lisa, and a long-dead Mr. Burns).

Tim Norton said...

Wonderful insight about M*A*S*H. The mechanics of getting something great to the screen continue to fascinate.

Though I have not crashed the comments section in quite a while, I remain a devoted Ken Levine Blog fancier.