Hawkeye: War isn’t Hell. War is War and Hell is Hell. And out of the two, War is worse.
Father Mulcahy: How do you figure, Hawkeye?
Hawkeye: Easy, Father. Tell me, who goes to Hell?
Father Mulcahy: Sinners, I believe.
Hawkeye: Exactly. There are no innocent bystanders in Hell. War is chock full of them-little kids, cripples, old ladies. In fact, except for some of the brass, almost everybody involved is an innocent bystander.
The General’s Practitioner (Season 5)
Man, I love the writing in this show!
Along with The Muppets, M*A*S*H is more than likely to keep cropping up on this blog. It’s been a staple of my life since I was about seven. I remember my parents bringing home the first season of the show. For them, this was all about the nostalgia factor. For me, it was about absolute boredom. Why would I want to watch an old medical show about a bunch of doctors in the army? My memory fails me on how and when, but after a while, as most things do, it began to grow on me. Soon enough, watching our way through all eleven seasons became a family event. Not very exciting, I know, but sometimes the most mundane stories end up being the most significant.
It’s hard to believe that a show that began so comedy-oriented would end up being one of the most emotionally driven, reality-checking programmes of all time. I’m not sure what the casting process entailed, but I’m going to take a stab and guess that the casting people were looking for actors with great comedy chops. Of course Alan Alda fit that bill perfectly, along with Wayne Rogers, Larry Linville, Loretta Swit, McLean Stevenson and Gary Burghoff as the main cast. Jamie Farr and William Christopher weren’t considered a part of the main lot until much later in the series. While they didn’t always play off each other that well, the cast for the first few seasons had great chemistry.
A great portion of M*A*S*H consists of the 4077th dealing with their frustration of being stuck in a constantly perilous situation. Comedy seems to be the company’s top means of venting and it’s both fun and interesting to watch the jokers in the camp clash with the hard-nosed opposition of Frank, Hotlips and the Upper Brass. When BJ, Potter and then Winchester came onto the scene, things became a little darker with the writing, but they still had their own unique quirks to bring into the mix. Mike Farrell as BJ wasn’t as outrageous as Trapper, but he was clever about his humour, being seemingly clean-cut and innocent while hiding his prankster skills. Harry Morgan as Potter was a much stronger leadership force then Henry, but he was just as caring and knew how to have a laugh if said laugh was well earned. David Ogden Stiers as Charles can take a little while to adjust to, but his slow adjustment to both his pompous attitude and the camp is endearing to watch.
One of M*A*S*H‘s biggest strengths was the ability of the writers to make these transitions as smooth as possible for the audience. In cases like Wayne Rogers, who walked away from the show, the change in casting was abrupt, but definitely not painful. By the time Radar was sent home by Potter, it almost seemed natural. The first episode after Radar’s departure was even called ‘Period of Adjustment’ with Klinger becoming frustrated with having to live up to Radar’s legendary efficiency. It was all clever writing and something I have come to admire, even attempting that kind of writing in my own work.
M*A*S*H has assisted me academically in more ways than I can count. I like to think of myself as rather imaginative, but all throughout my high school years I sometimes found myself with a bad case of ‘ideas block’. Believe me, if there was a way I could use M*A*S*H as a guideline, reference or even a topic of conversation, you could bet I’d find a way to warp it into something useful. In Drama class, I used one of Hawkeye’s many long-winded monologues when we were focusing on our vocal performance. Two of my highest marked essays in English were based on different episodes. One of which referred to the Season Five episode ‘End Run’ when the essay required literary arguments in favour of controlled human euthanasia. I’m sure I’ll come to talk about this episode in due time considering it touches on one of many issues which wasn’t discussed much during the time of the show’s original run.
Let’s talk about those issues for a moment. Off my top of my head, I can think of:
- Un-romanticized war and violence
- Mental health
- Bigotry and Racism
You know- for laughs!
It would be easy to pin the majority of these topics being explored well after the ‘dramedy’ phase of M*A*S*H began. In actual fact, even in the show’s early slap-stick driven seasons, the writers were already pushing the boundaries of what could be shown on television. A perfect example is the Season Two episode ‘George’. The plot consists of Hawkeye and Trapper John protecting an unwittingly outed wounded solider from Frank Burns, who wants to turn the Private in due to his homosexuality. The writing by John W Regier and Gary Markowitz is far ahead of its time. During the episode’s time of release in 1974, homosexuals portrayed in TV shows typically served as the butt of crude jokes. M*A*S*H goes in the opposite direction, having Private George as the centre of the conflict, but attacking the bigotry of Frank Burns instead. While the show hadn’t always been above a cheap shot or two, it’s clear that the writers seemed determined to shed a new perspective on things that the world during that time condemned.
The last thing that has always stood out on M*A*S*H for me, again due to great writing, was the style of comedy. It seemed to be a kind of Vaudeville, pun-oriented, pop-culture and literature-oriented mix of laughs. It’s the type of humour I’d imagine The Muppets would’ve wielded if they were more adult-oriented during The Muppet Show years. That type of comedy could easily get boring, but when you have such a great cast to perform it, it never gets old. I highly recommend the Season Four episode ‘Hawkeye’ where said character has to monologue his way through a concussion in the care of a South Korean family who can’t understand a word he is saying. Its twenty-two minutes of Alan Alda at his best, working with some of the most profound dialogue I have ever heard. There’s a three-minute piece about the human thumb which left me stumped for several minutes. The comedy isn’t just chuckle-provoking, it often makes you think about it too.
Hawkeye: I will not carry a gun, Frank. When I got thrown into this war, I had a clear understanding with the Pentagon: no guns.
Hawkeye: I’ll carry your books, I’ll carry a torch, I’ll carry a tune, I’ll carry on, carry over, carry forward, Cary Grant, cash-and-carry, carry me back to Old Virginia, I’ll even ‘hari-kari’ if you show me how, but I will not carry a gun!
Officer of the Day (Season Three)
M*A*S*H has been my all-time favourite show for the longest time. Somehow, I doubt that’s going to change any time soon. The cast is brilliant, the directing is top-notch, the writing is sensational and it all comes together in a wonderful mix of timeless comedy. I admire it for its audacity to touch upon subjects in a way no one else would have dared during its time of production. There’s a reason why M*A*S*H has never been off-air since its debut as it jumps from channel to channel, continuing to entertain its audience. Hopefully, it will continue to bring in a new generation of fans, such as myself. If any show deserves the chance to last forever, it’s M*A*S*H and the staff of the 4077th.
Muppet Enthusiast, Film Lover, Book Adorer. No one original, but (hopefully) providing brand new perspectives for the world to process. Currently a Bachelor of Arts undergraduate at Deakin University.