Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Shocking revelation! The internet got it wrong!

I’ve touched on this before, but a recent on-line article has prompted me to revisit it in more detail.

It concerns a 7th season episode of MASH when David Isaacs and I were the head writers called “Preventative Medicine.” This is one of my least favorite episodes, but it’s not for the reason you may think.

The premise was that to prevent a reckless field commander from sending his unit to battle Hawkeye and B.J. performed an unnecessary operation and removed his healthy appendix. That kept him in post op for several days and seemingly prevented some of his men from dying in combat.  Like most stories on MASH, this one came from our research. This incident actually happened.

In our original script, Hawkeye and B.J. were both on board for this operation. At the table reading, Mike Farrell had an issue with it and didn’t think B.J. would cross that moral line.

Now the article seemed to suggest that this disagreement caused some friction between Alan and Mike. It said that Mike “refused” to do the episode as written. And he “fought the production team.” They go on to call this a “tiny rift” between Alan & Mike and eventually “they reconciled.”

This is how things get blown out of proportion and nonsense is spread on the internet.

So here’s the real story:

Yes, after the table reading Mike balked at having B.J. go along with this operation. But there was no tension whatsoever. He and Alan debated the point for a couple of minutes and right there we all decided that this debate would be great for the script.

Here’s how contentious it got: We thanked Mike.

Far from being angry or even annoyed, Alan was energized. After rehearsing the scenes from the other story in the episode, Alan came up to the room and we all did the rewrite together.

Alan found the rewrite to be such a positive experience that he wrote about it at the time in an article for TV Guide. In the piece, he mentioned that after the rewrite we all went out to dinner at a local Italian restaurant called Anna’s (which sadly is no longer there). The owners of Anna’s were so thrilled that I was treated like a VIP for the next 20 years there.

The episode clearly benefited from Mike’s objection and I’m proud of the result.

So why is it one of my least favorites?

At the time, MASH had not yet gone into syndication. Episodes from the first six seasons were never aired after their year ended. CBS during season seven began airing one episode a week Friday nights at 11:30. We had just completed shooting “Preventive Medicine.” David happened to watch the late night rerun that Friday and called me in a panic. “They already DID that episode!” he exclaimed.

Sure enough, there was an early episode called “White Gold” that had the exact same storyline, although in that case Hawkeye and Trapper were on the same side. Obviously, they got it from the same research.

I was mortified to think we’d repeat a story on our watch. That’s why that episode always bothers me. Many fans think ours is better than the first. I don’t care. (I also don’t agree. Nothing we ever wrote was as good as what Larry Gelbart wrote.) But what amazes me to this day is that numerous people on the staff and crew were at MASH during the production of “White Gold.” NOBODY, not ONE PERSON said “Hey, didn’t we already do this story?”

I would think that had someone said THAT at the reading, vs. Mike’s objection we might have just thrown out the whole script and written something else entirely.

After that we told the cast and crew, “If there is ever ANYTHING in a script that you think looks familiar and you might have done in the past, tell us IMMEDIATELY. We will check it out and if indeed you had done it before we will remove it and do something else, even if it means throwing out an entire episode.”

But back to the original point, there was no animosity, no rift, no clash with the production team, no disgruntled rewrite, and it was certainly not an incident worthy of a whole article. But I get it. Click bait. I’m sure more people would rather read an article where Alan Alda & Mike Farrell were at each other’s throats than one where a genuine collaboration led to a better product.

Gee, I wonder if there’s other misinformation on the internet as well.


Douglas Trapasso said...

But . . . the M*A*S*H finale. The scene with Hawkeye, Sydney Freeman and (sigh) the chicken . . .

Didn't THAT scene repeat, almost beat by beat, a previous breakdown by Hawkeye into Dr. Freeman's arms from a couple of seasons back?

E. Yarber said...

Stories like that get around because they play into the cliche that writers always have to fight for their work, as though revision is some sort of debilitating creative tragedy. What REALLY screws up the process is an inexperienced scripter assuming that their artistic integrity will be called into question if the first draft isn't considered perfect as is. Sometimes you'll find a beginner getting a break and ruining their chances by regarding everyone else on the project as a presumed enemy trying to undermine their precious concepts.

The reality is that once the script is given to the rest of the team, it's going to become a collaboration. Others will find things in the story that the writer didn't have time to develop. The writer should appreciate the new levels that come out of the material instead of having their ego threatened and making a drama of the process. That's why you want to work with smart, emotionally secure people.

Anonymous said...

Gee, I wonder if there’s other misinformation on the internet as well.

Nope, there is none. I've checked.
You're welcome.

Mibbitmaker said...

Think of it this way: it would've been an embarrassment, except that Mike Farrell's (non-angry) objection SAVED it from being that. Without the initial mistake of coming up with a used storyline, there would've never been the excellent idea of that difference of opinion between Hawkeye and BJ. The viewer, and show, is better off for it. This Bob Ross-ism applies: "We don't make mistakes... we have happy accidents."

Though, I'm sure that, from a writer's perspective, it grates regardless. But, objectively, it served a greater purpose.

Curt Alliaume said...

Some of us saw the episodes the way you did. I saw Preventative Medicine first (I was nine years old when the series started, and didn't start watching regularly until 1977), and probably didn't catch White Gold until it was in reruns on Channel 5 in New York in 1979. And my reaction was pretty much the same - "Hey, they already did this one."

I get it, though. The longer a program runs, the harder it must be not to repeat something (even by accident), especially as the writing staff changes. At least you took a stand against it happening again. (How many episodes of the last three years of Bewitched used the same plot line as one from the early years? A dozen or more?)

McAlvie said...

It was a great episode, and I think Mike was right. BJ wasn't above hijinks and pranks, but that would have been against the character. It still fit the early Hawkeye, from back when the show more closely mirrored the movie; but as other characters came in, the series and longstanding characters did some changing, too. As much fun as those early episodes are, it was the change in focus that kept the show fresh as long as it was, and why it is still so very watchable today.

I've often wondered, though, if after 10 years of army green the actors might have been more than ready for a change in wardrobe, at the very least!

Kirk said...

Well, your version WAS better. I'm glad no one remembered that it had been done before.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ken, I saw and, sadly, clicked on the article you are referencing. While reading it I realized, MASH nerd that I am, that the writer of the piece was blowing the situation way out of proportion. Thanks for setting the record straight and thanks for always being straight with us regarding your feelings and opinions not only on the material you've worked on but on you work itself. And stop being so hard on yourself.....

Michael said...

Douglas Trapasso, I remember an episode where Hawkeye had sneezing fits and Sidney brought out that it was something from his childhood, but I don't quite recall it being the same as the chicken scene. Am I wrong about that?

And I respectfully disagree with Ken about which episode was better: they were equally good because each fit the ethos and characters of the time. Hawkeye and Trapper had a moral center, yes, but the early episodes showed them and the most of the other characters as more fun-loving, as befit the early days of a TV series about a war. By the later years of the series, granting that it lasted longer than the war, it logically had to be later in the war, and they would be different in various ways. It might be interesting for Ken to address that, because he might show that I'm totally off my nut. But the hijinks certainly were different in later years, and I think that fit the situation the characters were in, not just the characters themselves.

Andrew said...

Great story. I love hearing about these types of successful collaborations, with mutual respect between the cast members and crew. So much more uplifting than "behind the scenes they hated each other."

The misinformation online reminds me of this cartoon:

Matthew said...

That's one thing that annoyed me about later seasons of Frasier, the repetition of story ideas. The example that stands out most is the prank wars one. Bulldog and Kate vs Frasier and his lizard in the early season, and Carlos/Chicken vs Frasier's bath blend in the later.

Kubelsky said...

MASH is back in the news in other ways, too:

Pat Reeder said...

Anonymous is right, there is no other misinformation on the Internet. It says so on Wikipedia.

Unknown said...

The whole series was wrong. Everyone knows the Korean war was a Hoax.

Peter said...

Saw ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD today. I'll post my full thoughts in the ONCE UPON thread. But just to say, was I the only one who thought Sam Wanamaker was played by Peter Fonda? I swore it was him but it was actually Nicholas Hammond.

I also spotted the Natalie Wood reference. I'm guessing Robert Wagner won't be best pleased.

Anonymous said...

The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis used the exact same plot on the opening show of its first year and the final show of its last year.

Mike Bloodworth said...

This has happened to me before, but It's worth mentioning again.
I had a great response written out, hit the wrong button and erased it. I don't have the time or willpower to try to rewrite it. Plus, as of this writing the DOW is down more than 700 points. I'm watching my IRA dissolve away.

But, as to M*A*S*H and other shows of that era.
I was fortunate in that when I was a kid my mom let me watch shows with more adult themes such as M*A*S*H. Yet, even in the days before VCRs, DVD-RW and TiVo one still had a brain capable of remembering. As a regular viewer, when "Preventive Medicine" first aired I knew that they had already done that. "White Gold" was a Colonel Flagg episode.
I'll take you at your word that no one realized that they had repeated that plot point. However, even if that story is "misinformation" or DISinformation M*A*S*H wasn't the first sitcom to rehash a story line and it won't be the last.

Regarding the World-wide interwebnet, the first thing you have to do is consider the source. Both sides have their biases and agendas. I've grown to distrust the mainstream media. And these days I can't look at a photograph or video without asking, "Is that real or C.G.I.?"

P.S. When I looked up "Preventive Medicine" on IMDB it lists Tom Reeder as writer. More "misinformation?"

Buttermilk Sky said...

I prefer a long-running show that repeats the occasional storyline to one that jumps the shark because the writers are out of ideas and need to attract attention to a moribund show. Klinger with a high fever hallucinating about space aliens would not have worked.

Todd Everett said...

Damned internet!

Before it was invented by Al Gore, nobody got stories wrong!

Houston Mitchell said...

I've read articles on MASH fan sites on the Internet in the past that said the episode was written as a response to "White Gold", because the writers and Alan Alda were unhappy with the message the first episode sent. Strangely, the articles didn't quote anyone saying this. And it's not like you are hard to find to get the right story.

J Lee said...

Blogger Curt Alliaume said


The longer a program runs, the harder it must be not to repeat something (even by accident), especially as the writing staff changes. At least you took a stand against it happening again. (How many episodes of the last three years of Bewitched used the same plot line as one from the early years? A dozen or more?)

8/14/2019 6:54 AM

The very first episode the show filmed with Dick Sargent was a remake of an episode four years earlier with Dick York (Columbia's old short subjects department, where many of the Screen Gems crew cut their teeth, also had no problems remaking two-reelers with the same plots as they had used 10 or so years earlier, while Jack Benny made a habit of redoing his old radio scripts or live TV broadcasts for the filmed episodes that would be syndicated. So some of the crew who might have worked on both episodes of M*A*S*H might simply have thought they were doing it over just because some of the roles had changed since the original episode).

VincentS said...

I did notice the similarity in the two episodes but I don't think one was a repeat of the other. It was the same procedure but under an entirely different situation with a different result. The colonel in PREVENTATIVE MEDICINE was out of commission whereas Flagg (thank God) returned to fight another day!

Anonymous said...

Did you read about Roy Moore, the Pervert, commenting about MASH and Klinger? What a moron.

E. Yarber said...

Stop me if you've heard this one before:

Repetition of storylines is not unusual when you consider the amount of material TV plowed through. Even a quality series like THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW began to repeat earlier premises in its final season.

CAR 54 WHERE ARE YOU and GOMER PYLE USMC had episodes with identical plots involving crooks who rent a failed diner in order to break into the bank next door, only to make more money legitimately running the place: respectively "The White Elephant" and "Dynamite Diner." The same story turned up as the first act of Woody Allen's SMALL TIME CROOKS, and may have originated in Damon Runyon's BUTCH MINDS THE BABY, which was filmed in 1942 with Broderick Crawford and Shemp Howard.

Warner Brothers TV was handling so many shows that they had no trouble recycling MAVERICK storylines or even scripts in episodes of 77 SUNSET STRIP or THE ALASKANS.

John Cleese said that one reason he didn't hang on for the fourth season of MONTY PYTHON was that he felt the third had almost entirely consisted of reused ideas, with an occasional exception like "The Cheese Shop."

And that's not even counting deliberate remakes. Laurel and Hardy revisited a lot of their silent film material when they converted to talkies, such as LOVE 'EM AND WEEP reappearing as CHICKENS COME HOME, or ANGORA LOVE rippling through LAUGHING GRAVY and THE CHIMP.

Jane Morrison said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
MikeN said...

Peter, I was a bit hazy on the details, and while watching the movie, I was thinking Natalie Wood was married to a stunt double?

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
PJ said...

This leads into a Friday question I've been wanting to ask. Is the repetitive use of certain names and phrases on Frasier intentional? It's noticeable when you binge watch on netflix, but probably wasn't when it aired unless you had a spectacular memory.

just off the top of my head:
there are two Dr. Kagans, several seasons apart
the phrase "Helena Bonham Carter riding a pony" comes up twice, several seasons apart
the Vietnamese name Nghe (sp?) which Niles coaches people to pronounce correctly
I believe the name Gunter repeats, but I'd have to check
almost every one of Frasier's love interests (with a few exceptions) is an underwear model, never lingerie model, it's always underwear model.

I know I'll think of others as soon as I post this!

StoicJim said...

How can I believe you? You're on the internet.

Maurice M. said...

Sadly, the Internet is full of fan hypotheses posing as fact. People turn a "disagreement" into a "fight". These tales are a game of telephone writ large, and facts get steamrolled by dramatic exaggeration.

Barry Traylor said...

Ken, I have a Friday question for you. Did you ever work on MASH with Allan Arbus in his role as as Major Sidney Freedman? I have watched multiple time every episode he is in.

Frank Beans said...

@ PJ

"the Vietnamese name Nghe which Niles coaches people to pronounce correctly"

That's one of my all-time favorite wordplay sequences on FRASIER. I think in general they were just very fast and loose in temporary character names, just for fun. They even referenced Eddie's (Moose) real-life dog trainer Mathilde de Cagny as someone Frasier quoted.

E. Yarber said...

One last detail: The missing link between Runyon's "Butch Minds the Baby" and CAR 54's "The White Elephant" is 1958's BIG DEAL ON MADONNA STREET, which shifts the scheme from blowing a safe to breaking through a wall.

I should have thought of that when writing my last comment, but I'm a bit preoccupied. Have I mentioned that I'm a Nigerian Prince trying to find an American willing to pay my tax bill in order to share millions in gold that would thus be freed?

MikeN said...

This is not just back then. Sometimes when I watch a series from the beginning that was made in the 1990s or even the 2000s I will see that early episodes had an actor playing a different character. The early Simpsons had different voices for the characters.

Anonymous said...

@ E. Yarber

The basic premise was used long before Damon Runyon.
Arthur Conan Doyle used it as the plot of The Red-Headed League.

Saburo said...

I grew up with MASH as a first-run show in the late 1970s so the normal *was* Potter, BJ, and Winchester. Imagine my surprise to learn about a different C.O. etc.

So who gets the character payment for BJ's mustache?

E. Yarber said...

That's a very good point about "The Red-Headed League." While the device of getting through a wall is present in the last four versions of the story I was following, however, what linked the five I mentioned was the use of dynamite and the twist the would-be robbers face at the end. Doyle's story centers on the investigation rather than the thieves, and the guys there tunneled rather than blew their way through the barrier, which is why the author punningly called their ringleader "John Clay." You can still make a connection, though.

I checked the annotation by both William S. Baring-Gould and Leslie S. Klinger to see if there were any even earlier inspirations for the scheme (THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO came to mind) but neither had any information on that score. Both speculated on a point Doyle ignored, which was how the criminals managed to excavate such an underground marvel without leaving gigantic mounds of earth around. That hooks us up with THE GREAT ESCAPE or possibly even the construction of the "super-lab" in BETTER CALL SAUL. The mole, the merrier, I guess.

Jeff Boice said...

Just click-bait. I suppose "How an intelligent conversation led to changes in a M*A*S*H episode" wouldn't get any clicks.

mike schlesinger said...

Actually, that story line may have originated with LARCENY, INC., a delightful Edward G. Robinson comedy in which his gang buys a luggage shop as a cover for tunneling into the bank next door. When Woody ripped it off for SMALL TIME CROOKS, he didn't even bother to switch the store's merchandise from luggage to something else. Amazing he didn't get sued.

E. Yarber said...

I'm feeling almost proprietorial about this silly heist plot by now. This year I've been watching a lot of Warner Brothers movies from the 30s and 40s and will definitely check out LARCENY, INC, having recently enjoyed A SLIGHT CASE OF MURDER with Robinson (from a play co-written by Damon Runyon!)

And that gives me an excuse to note WB's ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT from 1942, which opens with the dynamite trio of Phil Silvers (with hair!), Jackie Gleason and William Demarest setting the scene for the arrival of Humphrey Bogart. The rest of the cast is just as fun: Edward Brophy, Frank McHugh, Peter Lorre, Barton MacLane, Jane Darwell, Judith Anderson, Conrad Veidt... everywhere you turn is a welcome character actor. They knew how to pack them into films back then.

Colin Stratton said...

I remember watching a dvd commentary of South Park and the creators had the same reaction you did of a proposed episode concerning a story line already done by The Simpsons. My reaction is the same to your post. If you can improve or give a different perspective, go for it! As long as you don't use the same lines, what's the problem? Hell, Hollywood doesn't seem to have a problem remaking "A Star is Born"! But I do have a question or two. How does a writer not know what has happened before he/she has arrived, and as South Park goes, how did they not know they were going to "homage" the episode "Who Shot Mr. Burns?". I know you are not privy to their mindset. Just asking. But the one problem I do have with long running series is using the same actors in guest roles. The original Law & Order series was guilty of that in it's later years. I just attributed it to a lazy casting agent. If you can provide any insight,it would be much appreciated. Thanks for the info and entertainment!

E. Yarber said...

I may be the only one still finding this interesting, but by God it's actually pretty interesting.

LARCENY, INC was based on a play called THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS by S.J. Perelman and his wife Laura (who was Nathaniel West's sister and had a brief affair with Dashiell Hammett). Paramount Pictures had a half-interest in the play and the Perelmans unsuccessfully tried to get W.C. Fields interested in the project (though he was at Universal by then). Their agent Leah Salisbury got a copy to her pal Gladys Robinson, who played a serious role in picking out scripts for her husband Edward. Gladys convinced Warner Brothers to grab the screen rights, which resulted in a film featuring Edward G., many of the character actors I gushed about last time, and "Jackie C. Gleason."

Nat Hiken, who co-wrote "The White Elephant" with Terry Ryan over 20 years later, would certainly have been familiar with LARCENY, INC because he was scripting shorts for Warner Brothers at the same time the feature was made.

I think the mystery of the repeated plotline has definitely been solved, though I'll still have to see the original to confirm. Amazon says a drone packing a DVD of the movie is scheduled to smash through my living room window sometime before 9 pm tomorrow. I can't wait.

blogward said...

Oooft: my limited experience of writing on a regular, long-term TV show (The Bill, UK for about 25 years) indicates that the job of the 'Story Barn' was to work out how to recycle the same plot over and over again. And they did it year in, year out.

E. Yarber said...

I doubt anyone will be following this thread by now, but have to add a few last words to the stew I began.

It's a Masterclass to compare LARCENY, INC to "The White Elephant." Hiken and Ryan had exactly one-fourth the running time to tell the story and also needed to incorporate CAR 54's characters, yet still broke it down to its essentials.

And to be fair to Anonymous, the longer version does connect more to "The Red-Headed League," even addressing the issue of dirt removal by having the gang use the luggage to carry away what they excavate. The main difference is still that Doyle concentrated on the investigation uncovering the scheme while the later versions focus on the mechanics of the crime from the perspective of the would-be criminals.