When MASH premiered in September 1972, nobody knew what a giant smash the distinctly different sitcom would be. In fact, MASH risked cancellation after its first season was met with less enthusiasm than CBS expected. It was actually with a little help from Archie Bunker that the series survived and plan that CBS may have had to surgically remove the show from its line-up. Once MAS*H began airing after All in the Family, the military sitcom jumped to the Top 10 in Nielsen ratings, where it pretty much stayed through the rest of its 11-season run.
Whatever it was that was ailing MASH’s viewership in the first season seemed to be magically cured after that, and the show was instantly revived for audiences—in large part thanks to the biting wit of that impressively competent surgeon Hawkeye Pierce. It went on to hold a record that to this day has remained untouched by any other series: 125 million viewers tuned in to watch the MASH season finale. That makes the end of MAS*H the only TV event that rivals the Super Bowl in viewership.
But since it took some fans an entire season to find M*A*S*H on the dial, many viewers may have a foggy memory of that very first episode of M*A*S*H, simply titled “Pilot.” If you’d like to revisit the premiere for yourself, you’re in luck: MeTV is airing the episode tonight at 7PM | 6C.
For everyone else, we invite you to stroll with us into the surgical tent for the first time as we head back to get a second opinion about the early beginnings of this mega-hit series.
The very first thing we see when the M*A*S*H pilot starts is a closeup of a golf ball being teed up next to a soldier’s boot. A driver drops down beside the ball, then the shot opens up so we can watch the soldier swing. A caption appears on the screen as his arms follow through the shot, and it manages to immediately establish the show’s unique humor: “Korea, 1950,” it says at first. Then another line is added: “A hundred years ago.” And just like that, M*A*S*H delivers its first laugh.
The three characters in this opening scene have not yet been introduced, but we know them well by now: Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, Captain “Trapper John” McIntyre and Ho-Jon, the camp houseboy.
As the scene shifts, we get a glimpse in the surgical tent to see a doctor and nurse with drawn faces attending to a patient. But then quickly, the song “My Blue Heaven” (sung in Japanese) takes the audience through dose after dose of the show’s signature goofy humor.
We see Father Mulcahy dozing in a chair, disturbed by a fly he waves away, after which his hand naturally follows through the sign of the cross as his eyes stay clamped shut.
Next, they show Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, cozily reading the Bible with Major Frank Burns, only to then follow the camera under the table where the couple is playing footsie.
A football’s lobbed at Radar, who falls backwards as he attempts to catch it, then it’s back to the surgical tent where the same doctor and nurse we saw earlier reveal they weren’t in fact operating on a patient, but trying to crack open champagne.
Finally, the camera whirls back to Trapper John who drives his golf ball straight into a mine field. An explosion is heard, and John shouts, “Fore!”
By the end of this establishing scene, the screenwriter Larry Gelbart’s trick has worked: We’re intrigued by just about every character in camp. As if on cue (because it was), Radar points to the sky and yells, “Here they come!” And the opening credits roll, reminding us that the choppers we’re desensitized to seeing in the show’s intro sequence are actually carrying the first patients we ever saw on M*A*S*H.
The premise for the pilot is this: Hawkeye is having a hard time getting close to a nurse he fancies: Lieutenant Maria “Dish” Schneider. He also has formed a friendship with Ho-Jon. On a mission to help Ho-Jon attend the same school he did, Hawkeye hatches a scheme to raffle off a date with Lt. Dish to raise enough money for the boy’s tuition. This sets the stage for Hawkeye and Trapper John to throw their first party in the camp. “Happy Days Are Here Again” blares out from the loudspeaker.
But before we learn any of this, M*A*S*H takes a breather from the belly laughs to remind us that the soldiers we are watching are stationed on a very serious mission. Hawkeye introduces the audience to the surgical tent with a somber message that, despite its wordplay with the establishing shot, had the potential to really move viewers in just a few words. Hawkeye describes the whole operation in his camp with statements like, “We work fast and we’re not dainty. A lot of these kids have been standing two hours on the table and just can’t stand one second more.” Then he follows it with the memorable lines, “We try to play par surgery on this course. Par is a live patient.”
Of course, in true M*A*S*H fashion, the sobering reality doesn’t hang in the air long before a joke is applied like a bandaid. Hawkeye turns to the nurse and says with a wink in rogueish fashion, “Want to play a little doctor after we finish this?”
This is precisely the sort of behavior that lands Hawkeye on Burns’ bad side, which unfortunately for Hawkeye’s party plan, ultimately gets his big night cancelled. As usual, Hawkeye goes just a bit too far joking around in the barracks and rifling through Burns’ Bible for extra cash for Ho-Jon when Hawkeye gets caught red-handed by his more conservative bunkmate. Burns complains to Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake, and Blake is forced to revoke Hawkeye’s permission. Further, Blake puts Burns in charge of the camp when he leaves for the night (conveniently absent when the party is taking place).
More hijinx ensue once Blake’s chopper takes off, starting with Hawkeye and Trapper John tricking Burns into bending over a patient so they can stick him with a needle full of sedatives. They wrap gauze around the rule stickler’s face and hide him in plain sight, allowing them to party on.
As the party rages, Margaret confronts Hawkeye, who utters her nickname “Hot Lips” for the first time as he dismisses her threat to have him arrested. This only further antagonizes Hot Lips, who calls a higher ranking officer, Brigadier General Charlie Hammond, to rat out Hawkeye and the whole party. Just when Hawkeye’s announcing that the party successfully raised enough money to help Ho-Jon go to college, Radar detects in the distance the sound of choppers. Blake has returned early. And he’s not alone.
Once it’s revealed that Father Mulcahy has somehow won the raffle (his surprised face is priceless), Blake discovers the party with Hammond at his side. Without missing a beat, Hammond spots Margaret and calls her “Hot Lips,” too. She doesn’t seem to mind the nickname from the commanding officer we’ve already learned is her former boyfriend. Hammond promptly places Hawkeye and Trapper John under arrest, but before they can be punished, more choppers arrive with a more serious mission: Soldiers are injured and they need help.
Hammond agrees to let Hawkeye and Trapper John do their duty and by the end of the sugeries, finds himself so impressed by their talents as surgeons that he cannot follow through on their court marshaling. Hammond says, “Those two maniacs are the best surgeons I’ve ever seen,” then tells Blake, “Make sure you don’t lose them.”
Hammond exits the camp, and we watch as Trapper John and Hawkeye learn of their saving graces while still handcuffed together—implying they’d conducted their surgeries with one hand.
The episode fades out to the delightful sounds of Hawkeye and Trapper John bantering as “The Japanese Farewell Song” plays over a wide shot of the camp.
It’s a place that viewers returned again and again to follow a remarkable ensemble of standout characters whose complexity proved cause to keep tuning in for more social commentary, sure, but perhaps more importantly: the laughter that has always served as the best medicine.