Tuesday, February 09, 2021

My contribution to uniting the country

We are clearly a polarized nation.  (Don’t worry, this isn’t a political rant.)  And you would think it would extend to humor.  The Blue States appreciate urban humor while the Red States go for comedy that’s more rural. 

But I don’t think that’s necessarily true. 

On MASH we frankly didn’t care who was watching. We knew we had high ratings so that was good enough for us.  We never stopped to think, “Will they get this in Iowa?”  We just assumed our audience was intelligent and treated them as such.  We used Yiddish expressions, made obscure references to Adolphe Menjou (pictured above), philosophical jokes, Algonquin Round Table banter, sarcasm, political humor, word play — anything we felt was appropriate for the moment and characters.  

Several TV critics said we were too highbrow for Middle America.  They suggested we make the show more accessible.   We felt they weren't giving the audience enough credit.  They were capable of appreciating a military comedy that wasn't GOMER PYLE. 

Here’s what we found:  MASH was a way bigger hit in the “flyover states” than the big cities.  Forget Manhattan, those Yiddish expressions were for Omaha.

MASH is still a huge hit in syndication.  You would think over time, considering how ultra-liberal the show was, that maybe now Middle America would sour on the 4077.  Nope.  Doing just as well or better. 

I find that very comforting.  It’s nice to know that in a very small way through MASH I’m helping to unite the country.  And more important -- getting residuals for it.  


Brian said...

An it-means-nothing thought:

When the Charles Bronson film came out in 1984, "The Evil That Men Do", in my head, I mashed it together and called it, "The Adolphe that Menjou".

Told you it meant nothing.

Daniel said...

Possible Friday Question: Since you mentioned residuals in your post today, could you explain how they work?

Do you get a monthly check? Quarterly check? Annual check?

Is it a lump sum payment from all projects you worked on for a specific studio/production company? Or separate checks for each separate series?

Is it a constant rate of payment (e.g., you got X dollars per airing in 1985 and still get X dollars per airing in 2021), or is it a sliding scale with less money per airing as the years go on?

Who on the show is eligible for residuals? Writers? Directors? Cast? Do guest stars and day players get residuals? Editors and technical players?

If you're a show runner, do you get residuals even if you weren't the credited writer on a given episode?

Do you get an accounting or itemization with each check (e.g., these six episodes aired this past month in these specific territories)? Who is responsible for keeping the studios honest in paying out residuals? Is that a union function? Or the responsibility of each person and their accountant?

Are the residual payments based on individual airings of episodes (e.g., you get X dollars every time an episode you worked on airs)? Or are they payments based on an overall package deal (e.g., station WXYZ paid X dollars for the rights to air the series for two years as many times as they like during those two years, and you get Y percentage of those X dollars)?

Is there a different formula for different markets and media (e.g., Do you get a different residual rate if a series airs on a national network like TBS versus a different rate for a TV station in Omaha? Do you get a different residual rate for syndication versus DVD/Blu-Ray sales versus Netflix streaming?)?

When it comes to streaming, do you get residuals based on each click from each viewer? Or is it just a package deal with the streaming service?

Without getting into specific numbers, are residuals enough of an annuity to live off of in retirement? Or is it more like pizza money that's a nice little bonus but not significant enough to live on?

Alan in Napa said...

Well, I've been helping you help unite America. I've been chewing through MASH on Hulu for the last several weeks. I think I'm in season seven or so.

Sammy B said...

I would love some of the insight that Daniel asked in his Friday Question. I know these topics could be sensitive, but anything you're willing to share would be really interesting and appreciated!


Kevin FitzMaurice said...

I remember one of the Adolphe Menjou references on "M*A*S*H." It was in "Abyssinia, Henry"--McLean Stevenson's last episode.

Henry comes out to say goodbye to the unit dressed in dapper "civvies" given to him by Hawkeye and Trapper.

"Henry, that suit is really you," Wayne Rogers tells Stevenson.

"If you're Adolphe Menjou," Alan Alda interjects.

Mmryan314 said...

I might have said this in a blog post before but MASH is my go-to comfort show every night before I go to sleep. I would kill in a trivia contest if ever a MASH question came up. It has such heart.

Aaron Sheckley said...

I think the liberal viewpoints espoused by MASH in post 1960’s America weren’t as unacceptable to people in “flyover country” as many urban dwellers believed. You don’t have to be a member of the Chicago Seven to agree with the idea that war sucks; there were certainly Vietnam vets living all through the flyover states in the early to mid 70’s that would agree with that, regardless of their political affiliation. Same goes for the idea that the military could be populated by a lot of grossly incompetent leaders; again, anyone who ever served in the Green Machine could get behind that concept. Even the anti-racist viewpoint of the show wouldn’t be a stretch for someone living in rural America; you’d have to be a pointy hooded Klansman to watch the episode were they dyed Mills Watson’s skin black and not believe that he was the evil person in the story.

As for corruption in the government, the 70’s were a time when even the Republicans (as hard as it is to believe) had a limit to the amount of egregious behavior on behalf of their President that they were willing to tolerate.

As for the raft of obscure references that some feared would go over the heads of those dumb hicks in East Pigshit, KS, one of my favorite all time shows is Mystery Science Theater 3000. That show is overflowing with obscure references to music, history, pop culture, literature, etc. The writers’ concept was that they were going to write stuff that they found funny, and the people who got the jokes would find it funny too. And that show, and the creators of the show, were all midwest born and bred; the show originated from Eden Prairie, Minnesota. They even referred to it as their cowtown puppet show.

But this attitude from certain members and executives of the entertainment industry, that you have to dumb down shows for people who don’t live on either coast because they’re too simple to understand something more sophisticated than a fart joke, may be one piece of the puzzle as to why we’re in the sort of divide we’re in right now.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I could sort of understand why people who left small midwestern towns to move to LA and become TV creators would be so dismissive of the places they were from...but I find it bizarre that anyone else is. I used to drive across the US a lot, and so I've been to a lot of these places that are so cavalierly dismissed...and lots of them are filled with smart, interesting people, even if there are lots of things we disagree about.


McAlvie said...

Yep. Assume your audience Is intelligent is always a good idea. Goes for literature, too. So long as you don’t go into it thinking you are smarter than they are, it usually works. Because even if they don’t get the reference, if you’ve done it well they will be able to understand the gist. And you have treated them as if they are just as smart as you, which is always a win.

cjdahl60 said...

I also vote for a Friday post on residuals as suggested by Daniel. I'm interested in generalities, not specifics about individuals or looking to pry. Just curious as to how this works and I think Daniel covered all of my residual questions.

Russ DiBello said...

Re the "flyover states":

When television started proliferating post-WWII, there was an expectation that we could all calm down now, move to suburbia and have a quiet mayonnaise-and-white bread existence while TV kept America entertained and happy.

And it did, for however as far as the "flyover states" could receive what was known as the "coaxial cable" from New York, which continued to grow. Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Kansas City (etc.) were all being served from the hub of sophistication, Manhattan.

Here's the cool part: those salt of the Earth "real" Americans out there watching their B&W tube in its earliest days learned to use words, make jokes and basically think like the people they saw on TV. Whose lines were all crafted by Jewish comedy writers from New York with an underdog attitude. Farmer John would make a joke infused with mildly dark sarcasm. Farmer John's wife would go "Oy". You gotta love it.

My longtime suspicion has been that this was what the subsequent "Red Channels", or blacklisting, plague was really all about: the re-goyishization of American pop culture (hey, I made a word!). It was akin to what they did soon afterward, taking the "Black" out of "race music" and calling it Rock 'n' Roll, or.to the wild racial backlash after Obama 60 years later.

There has always been a culture war bubbling under this country, and the idea is to keep WASP-ism the resting face of America. And the Jewish comedy writers of the Golden Age of Television were our revolutionary Founding Fathers!

Troy McClure said...

Fans of vintage TV will be happy to hear there's a live streamed cast reunion of The Love Boat this Thursday. Gavin MacLeod, Fred Grandy, Ted Lange, Bernie Kopell, Lauren Tewes, Jill Whelan and Charo are taking part. It's funny that Ken mentioned Jack Jones yesterday, because he's also slated to appear to sing the theme song!

This is the link to watch on Thursday.

blinky said...

Still laughing over your first line of the SB review: Tampa Bay won 31-9 except on FoxNews where Kansas City won in a blowout.

Cedricstudio said...

Too many in Hollywood stereotype those of us in the Midwest as well-meaning simpletons. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Graham Powell said...

All I can say is the funny episodes are very, very funny, while the few tragic episodes are heart-rending but never manipulative. The two that get me are “I only know what they taught me in command school and Winchester listening to his favorite classical recording, then smashing it.

Graham Powell said...

You’re all evil simpletons?

(I’m from Louisiana.)

Buttermilk Sky said...

MASH was unsurpassed in blending serious drama with the hilarity. I'm thinking of the "beach party" where Klinger was dispatched to buy fresh seafood in Inchon. Unnoticed by anyone else, Winchester was dealing with a young pianist who had lost the use of his right hand. I can even remember how Stiers winced when the soldier finally sat down at the camp's out-of-tune piano.

You guys did some great work and intelligent viewers in all parts of the country were grateful.

Jeff Baker said...

Watching "MASH" when it first aired, my High School friends and I appreciated the cultural references that would have been made during the early 50s, and sometimes we asked our parents, sometimes we checked the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature and checked vintage magazines in the library!

Troy McClure said...

That's not true at all, Cedric. I've never thought of them as well meaning. Especially after January 6th.

Sparks said...

Off topic today, but would love commentary from you regarding this article.


Call Me Mike said...

I can confirm this. My Oklahoma cowboy father loved watching MASH as a teen in the 70s. He still watches the reruns today, with I Love Lucy, Andy Griffith, Dick Van Dyke, and Sanford & Son. He loves them all.

Funny is funny, doesn't matter where you live.

Brian said...

So glad that Hawkeye wasn't Gomer Pyle and Harry Morgan wasn't sergeant Carter. Been trying to find my favorite Mash episode. There were a bunch of deals in a chain that had to happen in order for the first person to get what they wanted. I think it started with a pass to Tokyo. Does anyone remember what season / episode that is?

Cowboy Surfer said...

Hawkeye in a cowboy hat and a loud Hawaiian shirt is my spirit animal...

- CS

DBenson said...

MASH was in many ways a stealth liberal show. The setting slotted nicely with the growing nostalgia craze, which leaned into Republican fantasies of good old days. More importantly, the men and women of the 4077 were genuinely dedicated to saving soldiers' lives; they weren't hippies or radicals (they even had conservative hair). They'd indulge in frat boy antics, but the moment Radar heard the choppers they were all about duty. Bad guys were usually bureaucrats and officers who put other goals ahead of the wounded soldiers.

Also, one could argue that doing a tough job under lousy conditions resonated with midwesterners, more deeply than low-stakes sitcoms set in the slightly upper middle class.

The show rarely challenged the politics of the Korean War (or the Vietnam War); the focus was on the indisputable hell of war itself. Defiance of authority was a natural reaction for doctors and nurses who regularly lost patients or saw them sent back into combat. It couldn't be dismissed the way you could dismiss a stateside dissenter. Hawkeye could say things that would cause trouble on a Norman Lear show.

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

I think you're referring to "For Want of a Boot," which concerns Hawkeye's attempt to get a new pair of Army boots. It aired on Jan. 12, 1974, during the show's second season.

Angela said...

God, yes, thank you for this post. As someone born and raised in Iowa, and who's also spent years living in other states smack dab in the middle of the country, it has always, ALWAYS irritated me the way some in the industry seem to think we here in middle America/"flyover country" are a bunch of backwards bumpkins who can't possibly be sophisticated or progressive enough to enjoy shows that espouse liberal viewpoints and a variety of diverse stories and characters. That attitude is all the more amusing and ridiculous when you consider how many liberal-leaning celebrities have come from this part of the country (and they were liberal before they ever got to Hollywood or New York, too). I'm quite liberal myself, and I know plenty of other people here who are as well-and they don't just live in the bigger cities, either. I wish more people would acknowledge that fact, both in entertainment and in politics. We're here! We exist! We deserve to be heard, too!

VincentS said...

Your friend Matthew Weiner said that one of the great things about writing MAD MEN was that it gave him and the other writers an excuse to talk to their parents (for research purposes) and looking back it was great when we gathered around the TV to watch MASH and I or my brother or my sister turned to our parents and asked them what a particular joke or reference meant: What's Sensen? What did Hawkeye mean when he said, "Always trust you car to the man who wears a star," to that general?

LaBarge said...

Ken, just discovered your blog from a mention on the Frasier subreddit. I'm learning a lot and enjoying your behind-the-scenes anecdotes. I especially liked your nice tribute to Allan Burns.

As just a casual TV viewer, can you please tell me exactly what a showrunner is? Does that role change from season to season, or from show to show within a season? I see that term used a lot and wonder how that role differs from a producer or director. Maybe you could explain those terms in a Friday posting? Thanks.

Roger Owen Green said...

Just one more aspect of the residual question you obviously must answer: do you still actually receive checks in the mail, or does anyone use automatic deposit?

Liggie said...

Irony: I've come across two people here in the liberal Left Coast who either didn't want to watch "MASH", or actively hated it.

One was one of my college professors in Seattle, who taught a summer class on analyzing films and their symbolism, the kind of things you would hear on a Roger Ebert DVD commentary on "Casablanca". (If a character's face is half in light and half in shadows, he's conflicted; if he appears in a doorway or behind a window, he's metaphorically trapped; etc.) This professor thought the Robert Altman "MASH" was such a perfect movie, and that Donald Sutherland was so perfect as anti-authoritarian Hawkeye, that of course the TV show would be a letdown, and he didn't want to watch for fear of letdown. He was aware that Alan Alda got strong praise as the TV Hawkeye, but that wasn't enough for him to watch an episode.

The other was a Facebook friend's father (who passed away a few years ago) in Los Angeles. Said father was a proud veteran of the Korean War, and the anti-war stance of the TV "MASH" absolutely infuriated him. If your country called you to serve in war, you did that with dignity and honor in unfailing service to your country, full stop. So for a veteran on the the tail end of the Greatest Generation, the existence of a TV show set in Korea questioning why we were even in Korea was simply inexcusable.

Notes: It's been ages since I've seen the TV "MASH", but I recently saw the Altman movie, and I thoroughly enjoyed it (except for the football game, which I thought added nothing to the plot). Also, to be fair, I never met my Facebook friend's veteran father (he died a few years after our FB connection), but from all accounts he was a sweetheart of a man, even serving as the best man for his son's wedding. I just heard that you simply never mentioned the TV "MASH" around him in the same way you don't mention barbecues to vegans.

SummitCityScribe said...

MASH had great writing, direction, and cast without question, but we shouldn't underestimate the mass appeal of the "service comedy", especially as when the series premiered, nearly every adult male in the country had served in uniform in some capacity at one time or another. I had relatives that served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam and they all laughed at the MASH's jokes about military bureaucracy, army food, etc...

You'll Never Get Rich, McHale's Navy, and Gomer Pyle probably all succeeded at least in part because of this factor, although since the draft ended the military experience has become less universal, and less funny, on TV. The last service sitcom I can remember is Major Dad.

Prairie Perspective said...

Gotta admit, that suit did look good on Henry. Helluva fit, especially since the tailor had to work off a tracing by Radar.

D McEwan said...

"Liggie said...
Notes: It's been ages since I've seen the TV "MASH", but I recently saw the Altman movie, and I thoroughly enjoyed it (except for the football game, which I thought added nothing to the plot)."

The football game gave the movie a climax. It's a very episodic movie, and has no actual plot. It needed something to climax the movie, so they went with the football game.

Edward said...

In December 2016, The NY Times ran a story and graphics showing what areas of the country television shows are popular or unpopular based on Facebook 'Likes.'

Here is the link. Be prepared to scroll


Dave H said...

I have watched Mash so many times over the years that I am burnt out on it. It doesn't help that the chopped up versions are all that air. I have watched the uncut ones and once you watch those there is no going back to the edited ones because you know what you are missing.

A interesting thing I have noticed is that during it's peak years there are jokes or funny lines that I don't get because they are way before my time but it does not ruin the show for me. Sometimes it will make me look up references or historical figures to understand the jokes better.

Jahn Ghalt said...

When I first heard the term "flyover state" - probably in The New Yorker - or by someone "in the industry" (TV, Film), it was couched with an implicit assumption that the "flyovers" were unsophisticated.

My reaction was automatic - that the user of the term was unjustifiably snotty.

As one born and raised in a certain northerly "fly by state", I had a snotty attitude about "midwesterners" - engendered by certain "backward" attitudes and behind-the times cultural differences. Five college-years in Indiana (1977-82) cured me permanently of that fleeting impression.

Anyone still reading these comments should seek out Ken's free-wheeling, two-part conversation with "Roz Doyle" - the luminous Peri Gilpin - who turns out to be far more than another pretty face.


(and Ken, this should get notice the next time you publish a Best of Podcast list)

(FWIW, I could listen to her lower-pitched sultry voice recite the alphabet)

Among the many topics of interest was the lament that Fraiser was the last sophisticated sit-com on network TV. It's top-notch ratings could never have sustained without the support of those "un-sophisticated" fly-over folks.

King Rong said...

I appreciate MASH but can't love it because, well, I don't like Hawkeye. In fact, I'd like to punch him.

Politics. Yeah. But more than just disagreeing with him; it's that he rarely gets challenged or outdone. Knocking down paper pushers who can't see beyond the corner staple. Fine. Throwing mud on glory hounds who glamorize war. Fine.

But where's his ire for the communist monsters who are putting bullets in the men he's operating on? It's as if the choice faced is simply between war and not-war. Living as a slave to communism? Not mentioned. But that's okay because Hawkeye has his martini's, his wordplay, and his self-satisfaction.

The problem isn't the viewpoints. The problem is that the contest is unfair. That's what energizes the polarization. People on the right know that their views won't get a fair hearing. They will be straw-manned, never steel-manned. So, rather than show up, stick around, and watch, people just summarily dismiss Colbert, Kimmel, and a host of other hosts, shows, and movies.

I'll show up and play the game if I think I can sometimes win. But when the game is rigged...I'll find a new hobby and I'll never show up. Not unity.