‘M*A*S*H’ at 50: War Is Hell

Five decades ago, “M*A*S*H” anticipated today’s TV dramedies, showing that a great comedy could be more than just funny.

The pilot episode of “M*A*S*H,” which aired on Sept. 17, 1972, on CBS, lets you know immediately where and when you are. Sort of. “KOREA 1950,” the opening titles read. “A HUNDRED YEARS AGO.”

The Korean War could indeed seem a century away from 1972, separated by a gulf of cultural change and social upheaval. But as a subject, it was also entirely current, given that America was then fighting another bloody war, in Vietnam. The covert operation “M*A*S*H” pulled off was to deliver a timely satire camouflaged as a period comedy.

The year before, CBS had premiered Norman Lear’s “All in the Family,” a battlefield dispatch from an American living room. But “M*A*S*H” was another level of escalation, sending up the lunacy of war even as Walter Cronkite was still reading the news about it. The caption acknowledged the risk by winking at it: Who, us, making topical commentary?

Today, “M*A*S*H” also feels both like ancient history and entirely current, but for different reasons

On the one hand, in an era that’s saturated with pop-culture nostalgia yet rarely looks back further than “The Sopranos” or maybe “Seinfeld,” “M*A*S*H” is often AWOL from discussions of TV history. Sure, we know it as a title and a statistic: The 106 million viewers for its 1983 finale is a number unlikely to be equaled by any TV show not involving a kickoff. But it also gets lost in the distant pre-cable mists, treated as a relic of a time with a bygone mass-market TV audience and different (sometimes cringeworthy) social attitudes.

Yet rewatched from 50 years’ distance, “M*A*S*H” is in some ways the most contemporary of its contemporaries. Its blend of madcap comedy and pitch-dark drama — the laughs amplifying the serious stakes, and vice versa — is recognizable in today’s dramedies, from “Better Things” to “Barry,” that work in the DMZ between laughter and sadness.

For 11 seasons, “M*A*S*H” held down that territory, proving that funny is not the opposite of serious.

Alda’s Hawkeye was a forerunner of the modern dramedy antihero.
Credit…CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

The characters serving in the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in Korea were professionals whose vocation was to save lives. But their assignment was to patch up soldiers so that they could return to the front lines and kill other people or get killed themselves. This was the eternal, laugh-till-you-cry joke of “M*A*S*H.”

“M*A*S*H” stepped into, and outside of, a tradition of military sitcoms. “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” and “The Phil Silvers Show” poked fun at the hardships and hustles of life in uniform; “Hogan’s Heroes,” which preceded “M*A*S*H” from 1965 to 1971 on CBS, was about shenanigans in a Nazi P.O.W. camp. But as for the abominations of war, these sitcoms, like the bumbling Sgt. Schultz of “Hogan’s,” saw nothing.

Only three years earlier, CBS had canceled the successful “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” amid controversy over its antiwar stances. But by the early 1970s, even die-hard anticommunists saw Vietnam as a lost cause. Pop culture was changing, too, as evidenced by the success of “All in the Family” and of Robert Altman’s 1970 film “M*A*S*H,” based on a novel by Richard Hooker (the pseudonym of H. Richard Hornberger).

The show’s creators, Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds, imagined a version of the story that was more pointedly political than Altman’s dark-comic film, and certainly more so than Hooker’s cheerfully raunchy book.

The staff of the 4077th, mostly draftees, channeled their frustration with their situation into pranks, drinking, adultery and gallows humor. The insubordinate-in-chief was Capt. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce (Alan Alda), who was dead-serious about surgery and dead-sarcastic about every other aspect of the wartime experience.

Casting Alda as the ensemble’s moral center and chaos agent was key. He could caper on set like the love child of Bugs Bunny and Groucho Marx (Hawkeye would imitate the latter while making rounds with patients). He gave Hawkeye’s flirtations with nurses a bantering lightness (though from a half-century’s distance, they can come across more like straight-up harassment).

But Alda also conveyed Hawkeye’s exhausted spleen, which the doctor poured into letters to his father in Maine, a frequent episode-framing device: “We work fast and we’re not dainty,” he writes in the pilot. “We try to play par surgery on this course. Par is a live patient.”

“M*A*S*H” borrowed bits from its sitcom predecessors. It was a workplace comedy, with a goofy boss, Lt. Col. Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson), and uptight antagonists, like the gung-ho lovers Maj. Frank Burns (Larry Linville) and Maj. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Loretta Swit). The staff wrestled with bureaucracy and gamed the system, as when the hyperefficient company clerk, Cpl. Walter “Radar” O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff), mailed a jeep home one part at a time.

But the zaniness came with constant reminders that the realities of war could intrude at any moment, like the incoming choppers ferrying the wounded. The producers pushed CBS to dump the laugh track — what’s a studio audience doing in the middle of a war zone? — and eventually compromised on shutting off the yuk machine during operating-room scenes.

The show earned its belly laughs and its quiet. Even the sitcom-standard high jinks — dealing with the black market for medicine, inventing a fictional officer in order to donate his pay to an orphanage — were forms of protest.

In Season 1’s “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet,” Hawkeye meets a writer friend, doing research on the war, who later turns up on the operating table with a mortal wound. The executive producer Burt Metcalfe told the Hollywood Reporter that a CBS executive said, at the end of the season, that the episode “ruined ‘M*A*S*H.’”

The show would run for another 10 years.

“M*A*S*H” shows its age in various ways, including in a subplot in which Farr’s Klinger sought discharge from the Army by dressing in women’s clothes.
Credit…CBS Photo Archive/Getty Image

“From any angle, ‘M*A*S*H’ is the season’s most interesting new entry,” the critic John J. O’Connor wrote in The Times in September 1972. Audiences came around in Season 2, after CBS moved the show to a better time slot. It spent most of the next decade in the ratings Top 10 (even as its own timeline hopscotched among different points from 1950 to 1953).

The early seasons worked in a vein of joke-heavy dark comedy, branching out into more story forms and social issues. A Season 2 episode involved a gay patient, decades before Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, who had been beaten up by other soldiers in his unit. (“M*A*S*H” had its share of gay-tinged jokes — as well as a long-running subplot about Jamie Farr’s Cpl. Max Klinger trying to win a discharge by dressing as a woman — but they usually played as banter rather than gay panic.)

Then, in the Season 3 finale, the series exploded a land mine. Stevenson had signed a deal with NBC, and Henry was written off in affectionate sitcom style, with goodbyes and a party. In the episode’s closing moments, Radar — a farm kid who saw Henry as a father figure — walks into the operating room to read a bulletin: “Lt. Col. Henry Blake’s plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan. It spun in. There were no survivors.”

Henry’s death kicked off the series’s peak era, in which it evolved from a lacerating comedy into something closer to what we would recognize today as dramedy.

The new commanding officer, Col. Sherman Potter, was a career Army man, played by Harry Morgan, once Jack Webb’s stoic sidekick in the revival of “Dragnet.” (Morgan played a crackpot general earlier in “M*A*S*H.”) More competent and less malleable than Henry, Potter had a gravitas befitting a show that was growing in ambition.

The Kafkaesque absurdism deepened, too, as in “The Late Captain Pierce,” in which Hawkeye is declared dead in a bureaucratic mix-up and tries to exit the war on a morgue bus. “I’m tired of death,” he says. “I’m tired to death. If you can’t lick it, join it.”

The experimental episode formats became more daring. “Point of View” is shot from the vantage of a wounded soldier whose throat injury renders him mute. In a repeated format, a reporter visits the 4077th for the new medium of television. The unit’s chaplain, Father Francis Mulcahy (William Christopher), described seeing surgeons cut into patients in the winter cold. “Steam rises from the body,” he says. “And the doctor will warm himself over the open wound. Could anyone look on that and not feel changed?”

Just as important, the show evolved its supporting characters, especially Margaret, spoofed as a harpy and sex object in the early seasons. In a Season 5 episode, she vents to her subordinate nurses about the pressures that have made her into the stickler they know. Eventually, she becomes a more complex foil and ally.

Swit and Larry Linville in the first season of “M*A*S*H.” Her character, Margaret, became more complex as the show went on.
Credit…CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

The hilarious but one-dimensional Frank even earns some sympathy before his eventual exit, as Margaret throws him over for a fiancé. He’s replaced by the snobby, intelligent Boston Brahmin Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester (David Ogden Stiers), while Hawkeye’s partner-in-pranks Capt. “Trapper” John McIntyre (Wayne Rogers) makes way for the dry, laid-back family man Capt. B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell).

Even in the matured version of “M*A*S*H,” a lot has aged badly. A largely male story, it subscribed to the kind of counterculturalism that saw sexual freedom mostly as license for men. For much of the show’s run, various minor nurse characters were so interchangeable that they were repeatedly named “Able” and “Baker” — literally, “A” and “B” in an older version of the military phonetic alphabet.

Ironically, Alda — an outspoken Hollywood feminist and co-star of “Free to Be … You and Me” — became a disparaging shorthand for “sensitive men” among gender reactionaries in the “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche” era. Late in the show’s run, “M*A*S*H” intermittently interrogated its own attitudes toward women, as in “Inga,” a Season 7 episode with Mariette Hartley as a Swedish doctor whose brilliance Hawkeye finds threatening.

Those later years of “M*A*S*H” could be didactic, and few fans would consider them among its best. The camp got cleaner and the hairstyles suspiciously modern. The show’s heart got as soft and the stories as shaggy as B.J.’s mustache. But the final seasons are interesting as a model for how TV would find ways to tell stories pitched between comedy and drama.

In the movie-length finale, which aired on Feb. 28, 1983, the laugh track, which had been scaled back over the seasons, was gone entirely. And while the scenario — the war finally ended, after three real-life years and 11 TV seasons — yielded the expected sentimental goodbyes and even a wedding, the core story was as dark as any the series had ever done.

Hawkeye is in a psychiatric hospital after a traumatic experience whose repressed memory his psychiatrist, Maj. Sidney Freedman (Allan Arbus), is trying to tease out of him. Hawkeye recalls a carefree day trip to the beach, a bottle being passed around on the bus ride home. Then the booze becomes a plasma bottle; the bus had taken on a group of civilians and wounded soldiers. One Korean woman holds a chicken, whose noises threaten to expose the stopped bus to a passing enemy patrol. Hawkeye urges her to quiet the bird, and she ends up smothering it.

Finally — as you will never forget if you’ve seen the episode — the memory clears: The “chicken” becomes a baby. “You son of a bitch,” Hawkeye says, “Why did you make me remember that?”

Is it melodramatic? Sure. A downer? Of course. It is also, on rewatching, a striking bit of filmmaking for an ’80s sitcom. Hawkeye’s memory unfolds with the uncanny clarity of a dawning nightmare. No music cues you in to the horror; the images just grow more unsettling and the scene more grim. It is, in a way, like the journey of “M*A*S*H” over the years: A romp in the midst of a war zone goes, bit by bit, deeper into night and the heart of darkness.

And 106 million people came along for the ride. A year and a half later, Ronald Reagan, a Cold Warrior who was elected partly on a backlash to post-Vietnam sentiment, won a second term in a landslide. Yet more Americans than voted in that election tuned in to watch a big old liberal antiwar TV show.

For most of its 11 seasons, “M*A*S*H” was one of TV’s most popular comedies. But its style went mostly unimitated for decades.

It’s not really until the 2000s that you see its heirs emerge. The British version of “The Office” shares its ability to turn from blistering comedy to seriousness. (Stephen Merchant, a creator, has talked about the influence of watching “M*A*S*H” episodes without laugh tracks in Britain.) The mockumentary format of the American “Office” and other comedies hark back to the news-interview episodes (while Dwight Schrute is a kind of Frank Burns of the paper-business wars).

Cable and streaming especially became fertile ground for finding laughs in grim situations. “Rescue Me” made trauma-based comedy in a post-9/11 firehouse, “Getting On” in a hospital geriatric wing. The Netflix prison series “Orange Is the New Black” was as thoroughly female as “M*A*S*H” was dominantly male, but it brought anarchic ensemble humor to a deadly dangerous setting.

In Hawkeye, meanwhile, you can see a forerunner of the modern-day dramedy antihero, charismatic but damaged and driven by anger. As a kid watching “M*A*S*H” reruns religiously, I loved Hawkeye’s rascally wit, his principles and his pranks. (One of my elementary-school music pageants had us sing the theme song, “Suicide Is Painless.” The ’70s were complicated.)

Rewatching episodes as an adult, I enjoy all that still. But he’s also kind of a jerk! He’s self-righteous, attention-seeking, snide and, if you’re on his bad side, a bit of a bully. In a Season 5 episode, Sidney Freedman diagnosed him succinctly: “Anger turned inward is depression. Anger turned sideways is Hawkeye.”

This describes not a few difficult modern dramedy protagonists, human and otherwise. In one of the best episodes of “BoJack Horseman,” built entirely around the self-destructive equine protagonist’s eulogy at a funeral, you can hear the echo of the episode “Hawkeye,” in which Alda’s character, concussed in a jeep crash, spends nearly the full half-hour monologuing manically at a perplexed Korean family, to stave off unconsciousness.

Making serious comedy is a feat of balance, and some might argue that the legacy of “M*A*S*H” was to give sitcoms license to be self-important, unfunny bummers. In a 2009 episode of the TV-biz sendup “30 Rock” — a proponent of the joke-packed school of entertainment if ever there was one — Alda made a tongue-in-cheek version of that critique himself.

Playing the biological father of the NBC executive Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), he witnesses Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), a performer on the sketch-show-within-a-show, crying over the memory of being too “chicken” to dissect a frog in high school, which he’d covered up with a phony story of having been asked by a drug dealer to stab a snitch named “Baby.”

“A guy crying about a chicken and a baby?” Alda’s character says. “I thought this was a comedy show.”

Of course, if you got the joke, it was precisely because “M*A*S*H” did its job. It proved, memorably, that a great comedy could cut deep and leave scars. A half-century later, “M*A*S*H” has had the last laugh, or lack thereof.

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