M*A*S*H

U.S. Comedy

M*A*S*H, based on the movie of the same name (Director Robert Altman, 1970), aired on CBS from 1972-1983 and has become one of the most celebrated television series in the history of the medium. During its initial season, however, M*A*S*H was in danger of being canceled due to low ratings. The show reached the top ten program list the following year, and never fell out of the top twenty rated programs during the remainder of its run. The final episode of M*A*S*H was a two and one half hour special that attracted the largest audience to ever view a single television program episode.

In many was the series set the standard for some of the best programming to appear later. The show used multiple plotlines in a half-hour episodes, usually with at least one story in the comedic vein and another dramatic. Some later versions of this form, e.g. Hooperman (ABC 1987-1989) and The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd (NBC 1987-1989), would be known as the dramady, half-hour programs incorporating elements of both comedy and drama. Other comedies would forego the more serious aspects of M*A*S*H, but maintain its focus on character and motive. And some dramatic programming, such as St. Elsewhere and Moonlighting, would draw on the mixture of elements to distinguish themselves from more conventional television.

M*A*S*H was set in South Korea, near Seoul, during the Korean War. The series focused on the group of doctors and nurses whose job was to heal the wounded who arrived at this "Mobile Army Surgical Hospital" by helicopter, ambulance or bus. The hospital compound was isolated from the rest of the world. One road ran through the camp; a mountain blocked one perimeter and a minefield the other. Here the wounded were patched up and sent home--or back to the front. Here, too, the loyal audience came to know and respond to an exceptional ensemble cast of characters.

The original cast assumed roles created in Altman's movie. The protagonists were Dr. Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce(Alan Alda) and Dr. "Trapper" John McIntyre (Wayne Rogers). Pierce and McIntyre were excellent surgeons who preferred to chase female nurses and drink homemade gin to operating and who had little, if any use for military discipline or authority. As a result, they often ran afoul of two other medical officers, staunch military types, Dr. Frank Burns (Larry Linville) and Senior Nurse, Lieutenant Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan (Loretta Swit). The camp commander, Lt. Col. Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson), was a genial bumbler whose energies were often directed toward preventing Burns and Houlihan from court martialing Pierce and McIntyre. The camp was actually run by Corporal Walter "Radar" O'Reilly (Gary Burghoff), the company clerk who could spontaneously finish Blake's unspoken sentences and hear incoming helicopters before they were audible to other human ears. Other regulars were Corporal Max Klinger (Jamie Farr) who, in the early seasons, usually dressed in women's clothing in an ongoing attempt to secure a medical (mental) discharge, and Father Francis Mulcahy (William Christopher), the kindly camp priest who looked out for an orphanage.

In the course of its eleven years the series experienced many cast changes. McIntyre was "discharged" after the 1974-75 season because of a contract dispute between the producers and Rogers. He was replaced by Dr. B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell), a clean cut family man quite different from Pierce's lecherous doctor. Frank Burns was given a psychiatric discharge in the beginning of the 1977-78 season and was replaced by Dr. Charles Emerson Winchester (David Ogden Stiers), a Boston blueblood who disdained the condition of the camp and tent mates Pierce and Hunnicutt. O'Reilly's departure at the beginning of the 1979-80 season was explained by the death of his fictional uncle, and Klinger took over the company clerk position.

Perhaps the most significant change for the group occurred with the leave-taking of Henry Blake. His exit was written into the series in tragic fashion. As his plane was flying home over the Sea of Japan it was shot down and the character killed. Despite the "realism" of this narrative development, public sentiment toward the event was so negative that the producers promised never to have another character depart the same way. Colonel Sherman Potter (Harry Morgan), a doctor with a regular Army experience in the cavalry, replaced Blake as camp commander and became more both more complex and more involved with the other characters than Blake had been.

Though the series was set in Korea, M*A*S*H, both the movie and the series, was initially developed as a critique of the Vietnam War. As that war dragged toward conclusion, however, the series focused more on characters than situations--a major development for situation comedy. Characters were given room to learn from their mistakes, to adapt and change. Houlihan became less the rigid military nurse and more a friend to both her subordinates and the doctors. Pierce changed from a gin-guzzling skirt chaser to a more "enlightened" male who cares about women and their issues, a reflection of Alda himself. O'Reilly outgrew his youthful innocence, and Klinger gave up his skirts and wedding dresses to assume more authority. This focus on character rather than character type set M*A*S*H apart from other comedies of the day and the style of the show departed from the norm in many other ways as well, both in terms of its style and its mode of production.

While most other contemporary sitcoms took place indoors and were largely produced on videotape in front of a live audience, M*A*S*H was shot entirely on film on location in Southern California. Outdoor shooting at times presented problems. While shooting the final episode, for example, forest fires destroyed the set, causing a delay in filming. The series also made innovative uses of the laugh track. In early seasons, the laugh track was employed during the entire episode. As the series developed, the laugh track was removed from scenes that occurred in the operating room. In a few episodes, the laugh track was removed entirely, another departure from sitcom conventions.

The most striking technical aspect of the series is found in its aggressively cinematic visual style. Instead of relying on straight cuts and short takes episodes often used long shots with people and vehicles moving between the characters and the camera. Tracking shots moved with action, and changed direction when the story was "handed off" from one group of characters to another. These and other camera movements, wedded to complex editing techniques, enabled the series to explore character psychology in powerful ways, and to assert the preeminence of the ensemble over any single individual. In this way M*A*S*H seemed to be asserting the central fact of war, that individual human beings are caught in the tangled mesh of other lives and there must struggle to retain some sense of humanity and compassion. This approach was grounded in Altman's film style and enabled M*A*S*H to manipulate its multiple story lines and its mixture of comedy and drama with techniques that matched the complex, absurd tragedy of war itself.

M*A*S*H was one of the most innovative sitcoms of the 1970s and 1980s. Its stylistic flair and narrative mix drew critical acclaim, while the solid writing and vitally drawn characters helped the series maintain high ratings. The show also made stars of it performers, none more so than Alda, who went on to a successful career in film. The popularity of M*A*S*H was quite evident in the 1978-79 season. CBS aired new episodes during primetime on Monday and programmed reruns of the series in the daytime and on Thursday late night, giving the show a remarkable seven appearances on a single network in a five day period. The series produced one unsuccessful spin-off, After M*A*S*H, which aired from 1983-84. The true popularity of M*A*S*H can still be seen, for the series is one of the most widely syndicated series throughout the world. Despite the historical setting, the characters and issues in this series remain fresh, funny and compelling in ways that continue to stand as excellent television.

-Jeff Shires

 


M*A*S*H*
(first season)

CAST

Capt. Benjamin Franklin Pierce (Hawkeye)....... Alan Alda Capt. John McIntyre(Trapper John)(1972-1975)..................................................... Wayne Rogers Maj. Margaret Houlilhan (Hot Lips)................ Loretta Swit Maj. Frank Burns (1972-1977)...................... Larry Linville Cpl. Walter O Reilly (Radar) (1972-1979)..... Gary Burghoff Lt. Col. Henry Blake (1972-1975)........ McLean Stevenson Father John Mulcahy (pilot only).............. George Morgan Father Francis Mulcahy.................... William Christopher Cpl. Maxwell Klinger (1973-1983) ....................Jamie Farr Col. Sherman Potter (1975-1983) ...............Harry Morgan Capt. B.J. Hunnicut (1975-1983)................... Mike Farrell Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester(1977-1983)................................................David Ogden Stiers Lt. Maggie Dish (1972) ...............................Karen Philipp Spearchucker Jones (1972)..................... Timothy Brown Ho-John (1972)....................................... Patrick Adiarte Ugly John (1972-1973)............................... John Orchard Lt. Leslie Scorch (1972-1973)................ Linda Meiklejohn Gen. Brandon Clayton (1972-1973)............... Herb Voland Lt. Ginger Ballis (1972-1974)............... Odessa Cleveland Nurse Margie Cutler (1972-1973)......... Marcia Strassman Nurse Louise Anderson (1973) .............Kelly Jean Peters Lt. Nancy Griffin (1973)........................... Lynette Mettey Various Nurses (1973-1977).................... Bobbie Mitchell Gen. Mitchell (1973-1974)...................... Robert F. Simon Nurse Kellye (1974-1983)...................... Kellye Nakahara Various Nurses (1974-1978)................... Patricia Stevens Various Nurses (1976-1983)......................... Judy Farrell Igor (1976-1983)......................................... Jeff Maxwell Nurse Bigelow (1977-1979).............................. Enid Kent Sgt. Zale (1977-1979)............................. Johnny Haymer Various Nurses (1978-1983)........................... Jan Jordan Various Nurses (1979-1983)........................ Gwen Farrell Various Nurses (1979-1981)......................... Connie Izay Various Nurses (1979-1980) ......................Jennifer Davis Various Nurses (1980-1983) ..........................Shari Sabo Sgt. Luther Rizzo (1981-1983).................... G. W. Bailey Roy (1981-1983)....................................... Roy Goldman Soon-Lee (1983)...................................... Rosalind Chao Various Nurses (1981-1983).................. Joann Thompson Various Nurses (1992-1983).................. Deborah Harmon

PRODUCERS      Larry Gelbart, Gene Reynolds, Burt Metcalf, John Rappaport, Allan Katz, Don Reo, Jim Mulligan, Thad Mumford, Dan Wilcox, Dennis Koenig

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 251 Episodes

CBS
September 1972-September 1973         Sunday 8:00-8:30 September 1973-September 1974       Saturday 8:30-9:00 September 1974-September 1975        Tuesday 8:30-9:00 September 1975-November 1975             Friday 8:30-9:00 December 1975-January 1978             Tuesday 9:00-9:30 January 1978-September 1983             Monday 9:00-9:30

FURTHER READING

Alda, Arlene, and Alan Alda. The Last Days Of M*A*S*H. Verona, New Jersey: Unicorn, 1983.

Budd, Mike, and Clay Steinman. "M*A*S*H Mystified: Capitalization, Dematerialization, Idealization." Cultural Critique (New York), Fall 1988.

Clauss, Jed. M*A*S*H, The First Five Years, 1972-1977: A Show By Show Arrangement. Mattituck, New York: Aeonian, 1977.

Dennison, Linda T. "In the Beginning .... (interview with Larry Gelbart)." Writer's Digest (Indianapolis, Indiana), April 1995.

Freedman, Carl. "History, Fiction, Film, Television, Myth: The Ideology of M*A*S*H." The Southern Review (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), Winter 1990.

Heard, A. "The M*A*S*H Era." The New Republic (Washington, D.C.), 4 April 1983.

Kalter, Suzy. The Complete Book Of M*A*S*H. Introduction by Larry Gelbart. New York: Abrams, 1984.

Marc, David. "The World of Alda and 'Hawkeye.'" Television Quarterly (New York), Fall 1988.

Reiss, David S. M*A*S*H: The Exclusive, Inside Story of TV's Most Popular Show. Foreword by Alan Alda. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1983.

Sawyer, Corinne Holt. "'If I Could Walk That Way, I Wouldn't Need the Talcum Powder': Word-Play Humor in M*A*S*H." Journal of Popular Film and Television (Bowling Green, Ohio), Spring 1983.

_______________. "Kilroy Was Here--But He Stepped Out for a Minute! Absentee Characters in Popular Fiction (With Particular Attention To M*A*S*H)." Journal of Popular Culture (Bowling Green, Ohio), Fall 1984.

Winther, Marjorie. "M*A*S*H, Malls and Meaning: Popular and Corporate Culture in In Country." Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory (New York), 1993.

 

See also Alda, Alan; Comedy, Workplace; Gelbart, Larry; Vietnam on Television; War on Television; Workplace Programs