- Dan Connors
M*A*S*H- The most watched television show of all time
Comedy and war seem like unlikely companions. War is a brutal, dark, and violent endeavor that brings out the worst in people, while comedy at its best is a light-hearted nudging of our fragile existence and its inconsistencies. There were a few attempts in the 1960's, as television became the entertainment of choice for so many American households. McHale's Navy and Hogan's Heroes both tried to find unlikely comedy in the midst of World War 2, but it was M*A*S*H that gave America the laughs and cries that shaped a generation.
The wars that followed WW2, in Korea and Vietnam, presented a much muddier and more frustrating picture to Americans, and the fact that both ended up costly and not accomplishing much in the end made them even more painful. The fact that M*A*S*H could have been made at all, and then go on to become one of the most beloved television comedies makes it exceptional in so many ways. It found laughter amid pain, much wider viewing audiences than reports on the actual war itself, and hit a nerve with 1970's America that needed to be hit. 50 years later, how does this show hold up? After a month-long binge I would have to say very well.
M*A*S*H got its beginnings as a book series by an actual army doctor, Richard Hornberger, who wrote fictional tales about three doctors in a mobile surgical hospital during the Korean War. That book was turned into a full-length Hollywood movie starring Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland in 1970. The movie was funny in parts, dark in many others, and mean-spirited in how it portrayed the doctors and nurses of the 4077th. But because of the enormous success of the movie, creator Larry Gelbart was able to sell this unlikely comedy as a television show to CBS in 1972, where it began its amazing run.
While the Korean War only lasted roughly 3 years, M*A*S*H stretched it out into 11, thanks to a talented cast, excellent writing, and stories inspired by the people who had returned from the war and consulted on the show. The show ended up being nominated for 109 Emmy awards, winning 14 of them, and landing on the top of the television ratings for a long stretch of time. Even better, M*A*S*H became one of the most popular syndicated shows after its cancellation, showing up as reruns all over the world for decades. Now with streaming (all shows are on Hulu), and DVD's (all seasons are currently available), there's no shortage of ways to catch up with this monumentally important sitcom.
The M*A*S*H of season 1 was very different from the movie. Hawkeye, played by Alan Alda, was given an important voice that would carry through to the very end. Alda played Hawkeye as a clown, modeled after Groucho Marx, and he reliably was able to lighten up even the most tense of situations. He would be the voice of outrage at the evils of war, and it's no accident that his emergence coincided with the ending of the Vietnam War right about the same time. Hawkeye's anti-war stances made the originator of the books, Richard Hornberger, furious, as his political views were much more conservative than Alda's Hawkeye, and he hated the direction that most of the scripts led in.
But then the M*A*S*H of season 11 was very different from that of season 1, due to a large change in personnel both in front of and behind the cameras. While the early seasons played off of the bumbling Frank Burns character as the comic foil, the later seasons took more chances and gave its characters more depth and complexity. Most notable here would be the head nurse, Margaret Houlihan, played by Loretta Swit. Houlihan was the villain of the first few seasons, and the show poked fun at her illicit relationship with Burns and devotion to doing things by the book. But as the series went on, she became more of a layered character, showing strength, vulnerability, and wisdom as the doctors and patients around her dealt with their own problems. The nurses also evolved, from being there only as Hawkeye's romantic pursuits, to being more what you would have expected nurses to be back then.
Hawkeye's womanizing is one of the main things that don't hold up 50 years later. He doesn't seem to evolve at all in his relationships with women, but at least he's not as brazen in later years. The other thing that doesn't hold up too well is the lack of diversity. Koreans are given only bit parts in the show, (and usually played by non-Korean actors.) The only black doctor in the show, (named Spearchucker, from the movie) got quietly removed early in the first season. Still, there are several episodes that put racism in its place, which was not that common back in the 1970's. And then there's Klinger, the cross-dresser.
Corporal Klinger, played by Jamie Farr, was played for laughs as a cross-dressing heterosexual who only wore dresses to get out of the army and go back to his home in Toledo. I'm not sure if a character like Klinger could get away with that behavior today, but his motives are understandable and Farr's comedic talents bring it off. As the show evolved, Klinger became company clerk and the dresses were de-emphasized, letting him show his true talents as an actor and comic. Interestingly, Farr actually served in Korea in the army, and Klinger ended up staying in Korea during the finale to marry a local woman and help her find her family.
Another thing I loved about M*A*S*H was that it was the first show I can recall that showed psychiatry and mental health in a good and healthy light. Dr. Sidney Friedman, played by Alan Arbus, was a semi-regular who popped up when characters were going through war-related mental illnesses. Many episodes, especially the finale, featured Dr. Friedman talking to his patients just like you would think a therapist would talk to them. The sessions are exaggerated in their success ratio, but it's refreshing to see that side of the war showcased in a world where mental illness is still shrouded in stigma. For that time period, this was groundbreaking.
M*A*S*H was able to go back and forth between scenes of hilarity and silliness to gut-wrenching scenes of life and death. That ability to tug at your heart from all angles made it an immortal part of American culture. It's been pointed out that the show and its scripts were more shaped by 1970's Hollywood than 1950's Korea. The war in Vietnam ended up being a costly and fruitless war, and the period in which the show aired was an anti-war period. M*A*S*H would never have been made during the War on Terror of 2001-2021. While the show tried to treat the military with respect at times, it also poked fun at generals, bureaucracy, and politicians when it saw the need.
Still, M*A*S*H has endured, some 50 years later, and those of us who lived through the 70's will never forget it. Since the show ended in 1983, there have been no comedies that dared to poke fun at the wars that followed- Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan or the War on Terror. (The United States of Al, which just debuted in 2020, is the only one that comes anywhere close). Being able to laugh at danger, death, and tragedy gives them less power over our lives, and is intensely therapeutic. M*A*S*H helped heal an entire war-weary post-Vietnam generation. With the world as polarized and tense as it is today, we could use a few hundred Hawkeyes to poke holes in our anger and outrage. Binge this show and it could help.
Here, then are some random facts about M*A*S*H:
- The theme song for the show, called "Suicide is painless", came from the movie and was written by director Robert Altman's 15 year old son. The son ended up getting over $2 million in residuals while his dad only made $75,000 for directing the movie.
- Gary Burghoff, aka company clerk Radar O'Reilly was the only actor from the movie that was also hired for the tv show. Burghoff ended up leaving the show in season 8, and was not a popular person with rest of the cast, though his character was very lovable on screen.
- The finale episode, Goodbye, Farewell, Amen, remains the most watched tv episode of all time. A fire destroyed one of the sets during filming, which was written into the show. Each character gets a chance to shine and get some closure, and it's one of the best finale's I've ever seen.
- M*A*S*H was filmed on two sets. An indoor set was on the studio lot, where most operating room and tent scenes were filmed. An outdoor set also existed for the helicopter and outdoor scenes, and that set was burned in a 1982 fire that's shown in the finale. The location of the outdoor set is now a state park, Malibu Creek State Park, and a few signs of the show's past can be found there.
- Wayne Rogers, aka Trapper John from seasons 1-3 supposedly left because he resented being second fiddle to Alan Alda in most scripts Rogers was able to leave because it turned out he'd never officially signed his contract.
- McLean Stevenson, aka Henry Blake, also left after season 3 to star in a series of doomed comedies- Hello Larry, In the Beginning, and the McLean Stevenson show. His character was written out as dying in a shocking helicopter crash at the end of season 3 that surprised cast and audience as well.
- There is supposedly a lost episode of the show that was filmed, rejected by the network and never shown, with all copies supposedly destroyed. It portrayed a true story of GI's intentionally standing out in the cold to get themselves sick enough to get sent home. This was too dark even for M*A*S*H.
- There were no openly gay characters on the show, but David Ogden Stiers, (Charles Winchester) did come out as gay 25 years after the show ended.
- The only two characters to appear in the show from start to end were Alda's Hawkeye and Swit's Houlihan. They parted in the finale with a lengthy and heartfelt kiss in front of the other characters. Jamie Farr technically also appeared in the pilot episode and finale, but only as the PA announcer of the pilot.
There were three sequels to the show after it ended, the most successful of which was a drama, Trapper John MD, starring none of the original castmates. Harry Morgan (Colonel Potter), William Christopher, (Father Mulcahey), and Farr's Klinger starred in AfterMASH, a comedy sequel that lasted two seasons and showed the characters back in the states. W*A*L*T*E*R, starring Burghoff's O'Reilly, never made it past the pilot episode.
Here is a list of essential episodes, all top rated on IMDB.com , by season.
1Yankee Doodle Doctor
1Sometimes You Hear the Bullet
2Deal Me Out
2Five oclock charlie
3General Flipped at Dawn
4Welcome to Korea
4Late Captain Pierce
6Fade Out, Fade In
7Point of View
8Goodbye Radar 2
9Death Takes a Holiday
10Where theres a will there's a war
11As Time Goes By
11Goodbye Farewell Amen