by William H. Benson
February 28, 2002
The television show outclassed all of its competition. Of course, MASH had great actors playing great characters: Hawkeye, Trapper John, Col. Blake, Radar, Hot Lips Houlihan, Klinger, and Frank Burns, and then later B. J. Hunnicutt, Col. Potter, and Major Winchester.
But it was the writers for the 4077th MASH Unit–Larry Gelbart, Burt Metcalfe, and on occasion even Alan Alda–who were the exceptional ones. In an industry noted for its simplistic and trite formulas and cheapshots, those MASH writers strove for something exemplary and classy, for content, for electric scripts that soared, and for the dramatic tension at those moments of human connections. The writers produced comedy that mixed tenderness alongside the blood and carnage of an Army operating room.
The background was the quintessence of absurdity–Korean war zone surgeons and nurses laboring dilligently and professionally to put bodies back together again so they could be thrust back into the combat thresher. The comedy grew out of the characters’ screwball efforts to maintain their sanity while swept up in constant life and death decisions.
It was unusual then, and still would be, for television to produce a dark comedy filled with gallows humor set in the midsts of tragedy. Such a theatre form requires intelligence and the hard work of thoughtfulness, a rare commodity for television.
Having lost the battle for content, the television executives then demanded that the writers begin to inject farcical elements that had worked for other shows, and the writers protested and won. However, the executives did get their way on at least one issue–the use of the ubiquitous and silly laugh track, standard equipment for all comedies, but the show’s producer Gene Reynolds refused to run the laugh track while the actors stood in the operating room.
MASH began on September 17, 1972 when the Vietnam War was winding down and the POW’s were about to return home. Someone needed to say something to begin the process of healing a torn and wounded national spirit, and so television reached back to the prior war–Korea. The show ended on February 28, 1983–250 episodes over eleven years.
And the theme throughout was “the futility of war”. Alan Alda’s Hawkeye seemed a true pacifist, something that the real Hawkeye Pierce, Dr. H. Richard Hornberger of Crabapple, Maine disliked. He wrote the book MASH in the 1960’s, and he even liked the movie starring Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould. But about the television show he said, “Nobody is in favor of war, but the series seems to make the North Koreans heroes and the Americans the bad guys.”
Today the MASH reruns seem oddly out-of-style in our country’s current pro-America and pro-war posture, but then again this current war in Afghanistan is a just war, a stature that both Korea and Vietnam failed to achieve. Hawkeye’s flippant attitude about war runs counter to today’s current ideology. But this demonstrates that the nation’s attitude about war moves in a twenty-five year cycle, much like fashions.
However, what does not change is really superb humor.
Wearing a brilliant red evening gown, Klinger asks Col. Potter, “How about it sir? Any chance for a psycho discharge?” Potter answers, “Klinger, there are seventeen other guys wearing dresses ahead of you. And what they have on is better looking.”
And Frank Burns wonders out loud, “What I don’t understand is why do people take an instant dislike to me?” Trapper John replies, “Well Frank, it saves time.”