Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Best Of: 2014 -- How we plotted stories on MASH

The "Best Of" now moves to 2014.  One thing you readers said you especially liked was inside stories on how we made MASH.  So here's one from March 16, 2014.
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. Chekhov 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.


Michael said...

Thanks for repeating this one, Ken. Antenna TV repeats MASH each evening and, bless it, doesn't chop them up much, so the storylines again make sense!

blinky said...

I got on the MASH set once back in 1979ish. A college pal, Chip Chalmers was a gofer there. He distributed scripts I believe. He eventually went on the direct a Star Trek TV episode. Lost touch after that. I went on to making bad commercials. NO MONEY DOWN!

Mighty Dyckerson said...
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Paul Dushkind said...

Ken, can you share now some of the incidents that were to wild or unbelievable to use?

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Ken: FRIDAY QUESTION: My great uncle went to High School with Charles Dubin. What was he like?

Hobbes said...

I watch the first six seasons of MASH on DVD regularly. No matter how many times I see these episodes, they are always a treat and I often notice something different that I didn't see in previous viewings. You can detect the subtle differences in the seasons as the show-runner changed from Larry Gelbart to Gene Reynolds to Burt Metcalf but the quality is always there, in both the writing and in the acting.

Frank Beans said...


Based on what you've said about MASH, would it be accurate to say (very broadly, of course) that Gene Reynolds was more the story/plotline kind of guy, where Larry Gelbart honed most of the comedy/one-liners on the show?

Matthew said...

Your "I wonder if that would work set in Boston" comment makes me wonder too. What would a crossover episode where Major Winchester drops into Cheers look like?

Albert Giesbrecht said...

An episode entirely set in the Officers Latrine would have been funny.

Lis Riba said...

For your Friday questions, I've been rewatching reruns of Seasons 5 & 6 recently...

What's the behind-the-scenes story on Donald Penobscot? The initial engagement seems like a logical plot complication to Margaret's and Frank's stories. But once Margaret returns from the honeymoon, every reference portends disaster and the breakup happens awfully quickly. The relationship never really gets a chance, and it feels like something else must be going on.

Was this the plan from the start? A lack of chemistry? Bad press? Did someone in production get cold feet after the ship set sail?

Thanks in advance for your answers, and also for the many years of entertainment M*A*S*H has given me over the years.

Gerry said...

Ken, I'm curious about how you used the show's "bible" ofc haracter bios and backgrounds. Once you came on to an established show, did you miine the character backgounds for story ideas or did you more often come up with a hook, then work out what character it would go with?