Wednesday, March 11, 2020

MASH & women writers

Here’s a Friday Question that became a whole post.

It’s from Dan Harrison.

How do you think M*A*S*H would have been different if there had been more women on the writing staff (that is, if the writing staff had reflected the diversity of the staffs today)? Yes, Linda Bloodworth got her start writing on M*A*S*H, and Karen Hall made significant contributions, but most of the staff were men. Just curious if you think the trajectory of the series might have been different if there were more female contributions? (I realize this is probably a horrible “what if” impossible-to-answer question).

Okay, I will try to answer this loaded question. I can see readers frantically clicking on the Comments section even as I type.

The short answer, that is both a cop out and the correct one is that it depends on who the writer is and what her strengths are. I see no difference in “talent” between men and women writers – in all aspects. Story, emotion, comedy – women are as good or better than men in any category.

That said, I think MASH would potentially be a difficult assignment for a woman writer because of this:

To write MASH well I believe you needed to have some experience in the military. I honestly don’t believe I could have written on that show without it. There is a mindset and a culture in the U.S. military that is distinct and baffling. Without having a clear exposure and understanding of it, I think any writer would be somewhat lost. MASH, at least in the early years, strove for authenticity.

A case can always be made for exceptions, but I feel you needed a command of that world to do MASH justice. And at least during our watch, we would get scripts back from freelancers and know within three pages whether this writer had ever set foot on an army base. And we did a lot of rewriting as a result.

That’s not to say a woman couldn’t have been in the service, or even been an Army brat growing up on bases and being exposed that way, but that narrows the field considerably.

However, as I alluded to briefly, MASH in the early Larry Gelbart-Gene Reynolds years evolved into a different show by the later seasons. One may argue which era was the best, but I think all would agree those early seasons were more representative of the actual mindset of the period. Think MAD MEN but ten years earlier even. In the later seasons the show became much more “enlightened.” And trust me, the US Army was anything but “enlightened,” and my guess is that hasn’t changed.

In later seasons of MASH, Margaret (no longer Hot Lips) had glamorous hairstyles, wore designer sweatshirts that had MASH stenciled on them (not exactly government issued) and had long nails. OR nurses wearing gloves did not have long nails. So you could say a woman writer would do a better job of writing a woman character but not if that character bore little reality to an actual MASH nurse.

In the overall picture, I don’t think you could do MASH today and really do it justice. The TV show, at its best, was a stylized version of the movie. And that was the REAL MASH. Try adapting a version of that in any form that would be both true to the period and acceptable in today’s PC world. I wouldn’t have a clue. So it extends beyond whether more women writers should have been employed. On series that I showran (if that’s now a word) I always had women writers on staff, sometimes 50/50. It’s not that I think women couldn’t write MASH today. I don’t think I could write MASH today.


Not woke and proud of it said...

I'm glad we can still enjoy TV and movies from the 70s, 80s and 90s, because virtually nothing from those eras could be made now thanks to the humourless, boring, annoying, loathsome, worthless, ultra far left, woke social justice millennial morons.

If they had their way, the only acceptable movies would be Soviet films from the 1940s.

Stephen Marks said...

Hi Not Woke and proud of it, here are some remakes from those eras from which nothing can be made now.

All In The Family
Magnum PI
The Odd Couple
Murphy Brown
Hawaii 5-0
Charlie's Angels
One Day At A Time
Uncle Buck (yep, it was done with an all-black cast)
that talking car show with Hasselhoff
The Jeffersons
And then there's Maude, still stuck in the 70's

Not to mention reboots and bio picks of stuff from those eras like Rocket Man, Freddie Mercury, True Grit, Ferrari vs Ford, Steve Jobs, Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, etc.
I respect your right to comment but dude, seriously?

cd1515 said...

Ken is right, the way men talked about nurses as sex objects back then probably wouldn’t fly in today’s PC world.

tavm said...

Having seen recent comments against Billy Crystal wearing dark makup to play Sammy Davis Jr. on "SNL" despite Davis and his family always approving of him since his characterization was always worshipful and besides, it didn't cross the line like that of Mickey Rooney when he did his blackface with white lips (Judy's, in comparison, seemed more respectable when she did a slightly lighter complection), yeah, I can't help think it's too PC nowadays for anyone to get away with what Crystal did then...

blinky said...

I am sure there is a Doctoral Thesis that could be written comparing M*A*S*H the Movie to the two hour Finale of the TV series. One of the points would be that M*A*S*H the movie was written in the 60s with a 1950's sensibility and the finale was written from a 1980s point of view. Imagine a reboot of the show now! Colonel Blake would be a woman and Radar would be Siri.
(BTW I really appreciate your honesty with a loaded question like that.)

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Agreed. The military experience in the early 70's wasn't fun. For me: 5,000 men on an aircraft carrier with 95% of them not wanting to be there. The domination of 'lifers' over the one-enlistment folks was tough to take. All we talked about was what we were going to do when our time was up. Like prison, I imagine.

...and I agree that writing for MASH would have been far more difficult without that experience. That, or memorizing Heller's "Catch 22" might have been a decent alternative.


Michael said...

History professor here. I'd say yes and no. Consider the episodes MASH did on racism. One, in the Gelbart years, had the wonderful Mills Watson as a guy who wanted the "right" blood, so they ended up painting him with a darker skin. There were some "racial" lines, but how much do you want to bet that in real life when that happened, certain words were used that Standards and Practices wouldn't have tolerated?

The later one was about a colonel who sent his black troops into the toughest fights and had a correspondingly high casualty rate, and, again, they didn't use the racist language of the early 1950s that wouldn't have been used in the early 1980s.

May I add, the exception being at certain rallies these days?

Tom said...

Not making sexist remarks is not being PC. It's just being... civil.
Ever notice (to paraphrase Roger Ebert) that no one ever admits to being PC? He called it a movement with no followers.

DBenson said...

I have less and less patience with people who keep proclaiming themselves anti-PC and anti-"woke". My experience has been that they're bigger and louder crybabies than those they criticize, and build a lot of their arguments on the shaky premise that every classic show and movie was made better by the prevailing stereotypes, exclusions and offensiveness of their era.

For all the whining about the humorless left, where can one find successful "conservative" humor? Fox News has tried and failed to come up with answers to "Daily Show" and SNL; Dennis Miller plods on as The Comedian You Have To Laugh At to Prove You're Not a Libtard; "Mallard Fillmore" talks down to its readers; etc. Anti-PC is often more grimly doctrinaire than PC, decrying any change in public sensibilities as an unqualified evil. That rules out anything remotely nuanced or subtle, and irony has to be really heavy-handed lest some self-appointed commissar decide you were "serious".

Conservative humor appears to be largely a matter of provoking relatives with offensive comments, then responding with rote talking points if they take the bait. When the rote talking points fail, they blame the relatives for polarizing the conversation.

And when relatives stop talking to them, they post.

Buttermilk Sky said...

In the film (which I haven't seen in a long time), didn't Capt. Waldowski the dentist contemplate suicide because he thought he was gay? (A plot point which tends to get lost in the outrage at the Last Supper parody.) By contrast, the episode where Frank tries to get a soldier discharged for being gay was a model of sensitivity for its time. The series certainly evolved over the years, which Altman's film had no chance to do. All movies are stuck in their time like insects in amber.

Hogne B. Pettersen said...

"In later seasons of MASH, Margaret (no longer Hot Lips)"

Thank you! I've gotten in SO much trouble on MASH fan groups and message boards through the years when I claim that Loretta Swit played two different characters on the show. NOBODY can change as much as she did. Look at her in the later seasons. Breaking rules and regulations, wearing (as Ken points out) non-army-clothes and being friends with the other characters (which removed any resemblance of tension from the show).

Loretta Swit played Hot Lips in the five first seasons. Then she SUDDENLY (it wasn't even a slow progressive change)she played MAAAAAAARGRET. I loved Hot Lips. She was fun, believable and a complex character of contradictions and passion.

MAAAAAARGRET was... a bit dull in comparision, although Swit was great.

Not woke and proud of it said...


Point taken. But I guarantee you couldn't do Back to the Future now with the scene involving Libyan terrorists, you couldn't do True Lies now with islamic terrorists as the villains, you couldn't do Cheers now with Sam as a sex addict and jokes about Carla as a single mom, and you couldn't do Trading Places now with the scene where Dan Aykroyd pretends to be rastafarian.

When Dunkirk was released, some critics complained it was dominated entirely by men. Dunkirk!! This is the world we live in now.

Anonymous said...

you have to see this!

Jeff Boice said...

Barefoot Billy aloha's comment hit the bullseye. One of the great lines of the movie was Father Mulcahy's response to Hot Lips when she wondered how such a degenerated person as Hawkeye Pierce ended up in a position of authority in the Army Medical Corp: "He was drafted". We haven't had the draft in almost 50 years (that is one thing Nixon did accomplish). So I think people with recent military experience would have problems relating to the 1950's Army.

Y. Knott said...

I think the trajectory of M*A*S*H might have been different if female writers had been included from the very beginning. There were zero female writers on board during season 1.

In first season, there were several nurse characters for writers to work with (Lts. Bannerman, Bayliss, Cutler, Dish and Scorch, as well as Maj. Houlihan) -- but all of them (including Houlihan) were pretty one-dimensional. All except Houlihan and Bayliss were dropped by the beginning of season 2, and even then Bayliss was essentially mostly an extra. (And she got dropped from the show a little later anyway.)

Okay, so Houlihan definitely did become more complex as the series progressed. (Bayliss not so much.) But some female writers early on may have been able to work some depth into those other characters as well -- clearly the male writers couldn't. This could have led to at least some of those female characters sticking around, and to a series where Margaret *wasn't* our only consistent female lead character. It is a comparative weakness of the series (not a fatal weakness) that Margaret is forced to be the continuing representation of every woman...with a few more female characters on the roster, we may have also seen the war from the continuing viewpoints of non-career army women; women with different backgrounds or marriage/family situations; women with different ranks, perspectives, and goals. This in turn may have led to a greater range of stories being told on M*A*S*H.

Still -- what happened in the staffing of that show nearly fifty (!) years ago happened, and reflects a different time. It's interesting to think about what might have been ... but not at the expense of what was. M*A*S*H as a show certainly grew, learned and changed along the way, more than most other shows of its era. It remains a great series, a TV classic that took chances and strove to deal with issues while remaining entertaining.

Mike Bloodworth said...

Reading between the lines the inference is would M*A*S*H have been somehow less sexist and misogynistic if more women had been behind the scenes? Not necessarily.
"Married With Children" was one of the most misogynistic (also funny) shows I can think of. Yet, it had many women writers, directors and a producers.
But as Ken said you're writing to the context of a show and the reality of a scene. Besides, if anyone shold know why men hate women so much it would be a woman.

P.S. Off Topic: As of this writing the Corona virus is now officially a worldwide pandemic. NOT an F.Q., but do you think this is going to be a problem for productions? It's late enough in the year that TV might not be affected by it although, since there's no such thing as a regular season it still could. And movies are still being shot.
I've also heard that several sports teams will be playing without fans in the stands. Opening Day is not that far away.

Hollywood Antics said...

I finally got round to listening to your very entertaining podcast about the Mannequin movies. Jesus, David Begelman sounds like he was an absolute monster. I was horrified by the part about him lying to Judy Garland about a non-existent blackmailer so he could get money out of her. The man was clearly evil.

I have a two part Friday question about it.

You name everyone in the first meeting to discuss Mannequin except one executive you say you can't name. Is he still working in the industry?

It totally sucks that you and David have never received residuals from Mannequin 2 because the company that made it folded. But surely you could hire a forensic accountant who's experienced in this kind of thing to find out how you can be compensated? I've read stories over the years about people in Hollywood who found out they were owed tons of money after a forensic accountant did some detective work and they finally got paid.

Charles Bryan said...

Honestly, I'm still surprised that the movie and early series episodes got away with a black doctor called "Spearchucker".

I don't get too upset about changing tastes, but I also don't get too upset about works that would have to be different today. It's okay to do an eye-roll at some aspects of older work and appreciate the parts that are still good.

Rob D said...

Mad Men proved that shows about the past can still be done today. With sexism, racism, smoking, booze... Just as drama though, not as comedy.

CarolMR said...

Actually, FOX News aired Red Eye for nearly ten years. It was a popular show, especially when Greg Gutfeld was the host. Lots of laughs and interesting guests. Ken would have been a terrific guest. Gutfeld insisted that Red Eye was not FOX's answer to The Daily Show, but it came close, especially in its first five years.

Sandi Dobberke said...

Well said and true. I don't get this woked thing at all I feel it's a little silly or maybe I'm silly for not understanding it but I'm not feminist either far from it I like a good strong man

DBenson said...

Redeye was on for ten years? All I remember was it felt like Howard Stern's old show, with everybody laughing like hyenas at each other's quips -- again, the desperate fear that sarcasm might be missed unless writ very, very large. Also, I don't remember any honest outrage or genuine wit. It was the snobs' table in a high school cafeteria, loud and smug and mean-spirited over a desperate need for reassurance.

There are certainly some left-leaning shows that fit the same mold, but libtards have a range of comedic choices and voices. The powers that peddle right-leaning news talk appear to cling to a quasi-official PC comedy -- that is, politically correct in the eyes of their masters. A Fox show in the style of "The Cobert Report" would be an impossibility. They'd feel the need to have somebody explicitly denounce their mock host every few minutes rather than count on the audience to get the satire.

Marsha Himelfarb said...

It was a Great show, it would not have mattered.

McAlvie said...

For the most part I don't have a problem with the "woke" generation. (I have a problem with the word itself, but that's an entirely different subject.) If I think they sometimes take it too far, they are at least on the right road. And didn't the boomer generation try to do much the same thing? And we faced push back against change then and made some mistakes, so it seems hypocritical to complain about millennials or whatever we are calling this generation now.

Likewise, though, there's no point in comparing the past against today's standards. Everything is a product of its time. Rather, compare them against the standards of their own time. If you do that, you soon discover that there was ground breaking stuff going on. If you think there wasn't enough diversity, for example, that means that the introduction of ANY minority character or actor was actually a pretty brave step.

A long winded way of saying that the "woke" victories of today stand on the shoulders of all those small, brave steps of the past. Progress by definition means moving forward. Its when you stop doing that that you have a problem. So maybe both generations should stop criticizing each other and let's all focus on making sure we don't go backwards, huh?

Not woke and proud of it said...


The irony of your comment is that none of the movies and TV shows I had in mind were what anyone would call conservative humor. That's the essence of the whole problem. What was liberal in the 80s and 90s is now deemed right wing. I did refer to the far left in my original post in order to differentiate from mainstream moderate liberals.

The current discourse is so deranged that anyone and anything to the right of the ultra far left is called a right wing fascist.

The examples I gave - Back to the Future, True Lies, Cheers, Trading Places - none of these were "conservative humor." But by the ideology of today's far left, they're regarded as racist, sexist, fat shaming, patriarchal, etc etc, take your pick from the PC bingo.

Actual conservative humor is unfunny garbage like Moms' Night Out, made by evangelical Christians who wouldn't know comedy if their lives depended on it.

Rich said...

Friday Question -- Do you think the new Matthew Broderick/Sarah Jessica Parker production of "Plaza Suite" will work on Broadway, or is the comedy too specific to the 1960's/70's?

Jessica said...

Well...I'm a millennial and a solid liberal. With that said, I LOVE MASH! I'm pretty sure I've seen all of the seasons. The comedy is reminiscent of the time period, is it not? So just so everyone knows here...caring about social justice doesn't mean hating the gems of the past. After all, most of my influence comes from my parents...who are baby boomers. That can be said about many other millennials as well.

Jessica said...

I'm a millennial, a solid liberal, and a feminist. And Guess what? I LOVE MASH...I've probably watched every season. I wouldn't change a thing if I had the power to. The show's writing is reminiscent of the past. I have laughed and even cried when watching some episodes. It will remain my favorite TV show.

Joe said...

Even Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds began toning it down before they left. They replaced married serial cheaters Henry and Trapper with Potter, who was always faithful to his wife, and B.J., who tried to be faithful and who beat himself up the one time he wasn't.

Paul Duca said...

Joe...even after the earliest episodes, Henry wasn't really shown having any dalliances (only played for comedy, like his infatuation for the 21-year-old he met in Tokyo and brought for a visit)
And certainly BACK TO THE FUTURE was hardly a political treatise--it was just so Doc Brown could say "So I gave them a shiny bomb casing filled with used pinball machine parts"

Albert Giesbrecht said...

It wasn't that he thought he was "gay", he did use the term "fairy," it was more that he was feeling ashamed for being impotent. He did have the strange occurence of the enlisted men peeking in at him in the shower!

David K. M. Klaus said...

I don't doubt that this is just me, but I always thought the difference between the movie and television versions of M*A*S*H was that the movie was a comedy about death, while the t.v. show was a comedy about life, one about cynically dealing with an inhumane situation while keeping one's head down, the other about trying to create an island of something humane within the inhumane situation.

Just a personal opinion, not at all claiming to be definitive.

If you want another hard-to-answer question, how might you have written the screenplay of the movie? How different do you think it might have been from the shooting script used, given that you'd be adapting the original novel? What choices might you have made about key characters, given how differently Donald Sutherland and Alan Alda made their choices in portraying Hawkeye, for example?