M*A*S*H did something that not many shows could do. The series took the hellscape of war and turned it into a comedy. Not only did the show find comedy in the darkness of the Korean War, but it also did it well. The series was one of the first to employ dark humor on television. It had to be that way, though.
Jamie Farr, best known for the role of Klinger on M*A*S*H, talked to a Canadian radio station about the show back in 1995.
M*A*S*H Star Jamie Farr on the Show’s Morbid Setting
The interviewer, Peter Anthony Holder, asked Farr about the dark subject matter of the show. He asked if Farr anticipated the success and following of the show. After all, he points out, the show lasted three times longer than the actual Korean war. At the same time, it was an awfully dark subject to make a comedy about.
M*A*S*H took place in a military hospital. So, things could get pretty grim. Holder wasn’t the first person to pose this kind of question. In fact, Farr noted that it was something he had heard many times before. They were asked how they could make fun of people on the frontlines of the war. Folks coming through their hospital unit were injured or worse. Many people didn’t see how you could get comedy out of that situation.
The M*A*S*H star pointed out that it was that combination of tragedy and comedy that made the show special. The show, above everything else, was about people who felt like they were trapped. His character, Corporal Klinger may have been the best example of that feeling. However, the other characters felt it, too. They had no choice but to be there, thousands of miles from home. There was no choice but to care for the injured and dying that came through. So, the characters had to find a way to keep themselves sane.
Sometimes, that meant employing gallows humor. The setting of M*A*S*H didn’t allow for much else, at times. So yes, it was a grim place to be. However, sometimes people in dire situations have to find humor wherever they can. The same is true for real-life situations. Sometimes, you have to laugh to keep from crying. That bit of truth ran through the show’s core.
Jamie Farr went on to say that shows like M*A*S*H are rare. Not many shows are going to be able to so perfectly balance the darkness and light like they did. Over two decades later, no show has come close to balancing tragedy, truth, and humor as well as Farr and his castmates did.