"The most common characteristic of all police states is intimidation by surveillance. Citizens know they are being watched and overheard. Their mail is being examined. Their homes can be invaded." ~ Vance Packard
M*A*S*H Redux: New Relevance for the 4077th
I have avoided writing about my experiences with the groundbreaking television show M*A*S*H for 26 years. But after last Sunday, I find that I can no longer shun the issue, even at the risk of exposing that I was once a *gasp* young, brash, arrogant, and wholly ignorant wanna-be writer who thought that he had a firm grasp on Hollywood 's tender nether regions.
Eleven-thirty on Sunday night is No Man's Land for television. There was a time before the saturation of cable and satellite when you could catch an old Bogart flick on Movies Til' Dawn or Laurel and Hardy shorts sandwiched between infomercials for the latest kitchen gadgets from the hard-working geniuses at Popeil. Today it seems like every sitcom ever produced is marched out on the Sunday late night slot, and you're lucky indeed if Turner Classic Movies has opted to air The Big Sleep over The Big Lebowski.
Last Sunday night, my pitiful late night viewing choices came down to syndicated reruns of M*A*S*H and E.R. I reluctantly chose M*A*S*H as the lesser of two evils.
Now, before I am deluged with hate mail from M*A*S*H purists, allow me to explain why the choice was so painful. By contemporary production standards, M*A*S*H looks like a low-budget series produced by Roger Corman (the exteriors were filmed at the Fox Ranch in Calabasas and the interiors were shot at a soundstage on the 20th Century-Fox lot on Pico Boulevard). The canned laughter is grating, and so can be Alan Alda's over-the-top Groucho Marx persona.
And let's face it: 255 episodes is a lot of variation on a single theme. As the old showbiz joke goes, the 11-year run that M*A*S*H enjoyed on the CBS network was longer than the Korean War itself.
As I've already suggested, too, I have some history with the show that makes it difficult for me to watch.
In 1979, I was a 19-year old writer being mentored by the gentle comedic genius Ronny Graham. A frequent Mel Brooks collaborator--he wrote the parody tune The Inquisition for Brooks' History of the World, Part One--Ronny was Story Consultant for M*A*S*H.
Once a week for months on end I would meet Ronny Graham for lunch either in the M*A*S*H production offices on the Fox lot or at one of the neighboring delis on Pico or Westwood Boulevard . He was bringing me along slowly, teaching me the finer points of television writing, encouraging me to pitch him ideas for episodes. I was far too green to even be considered for a script assignment, but if I came up with a good enough pitch, I was guaranteed a sale and a 'story by' credit.
I admired Ronny Graham. His talent was limitless. With his frizzy hair, rubbery face, and animated gestures, he was a natural comedic actor. Like most comics, Ronny was deathly serious off-screen and did not suffer fools gladly.
Ashamed as I am to admit it, I was living with my mother in 1979 during those wonderful meetings with Ronny Graham. Mom had every faith in my dreams to make it big in Hollywood , had absolutely no doubt that I would, and had no problem supporting me while I made inroads. But she was also a natural-born paranoiac who became suspicious over Graham's intent. Behind my back, she dropped a dime to the Writer's Guild, mentioned that a certain story consultant on a certain hot TV show was meeting with her son every week, soliciting ideas from him with no offer of remuneration, and, well, was this kosher? The WGA rep she spoke to suggested a letter be dropped in the mail to Mr. Graham insisting on remuneration for my 'time and effort' ' I still remember the exact wording of that letter to this day ' or I would start sniffing the alfalfa in a greener field.
She wrote and mailed the letter ' again, behind my back. Ronny was less than pleased. Like I said, he didn't suffer fools gladly, and I was a fool in his eyes after that little missive was dispatched to the M*A*S*H offices.
Ronny Graham and I never spoke again and I--perhaps understandably--have a problem watching M*A*S*H reruns.
Until last Sunday. Until I enjoyed, if that's the correct word, a M*A*S*H episode for the first time in years.
The episode opens with a bus laden with injured rolling into the 4077th mobile medical compound. Major Pierce (Alda) immediately attends to the wounded and finds among the U.S. soldiers a severely wounded North Korean man. The North Korean has a gushing chest wound and will most certainly die if surgery isn't immediately prioritized, a decision that enrages Colonel Flagg (the brilliant character actor Edward Winter). Flagg is with military intelligence, driven by hysterical paranoia and a relentless support of democratic ideals. Flagg would rather see the North Korean 'Commie' die on the bus rather than receive care from the best surgeons the U.S. military can provide.
Confronting Pierce in post-op after the successful surgery on the North Korean, Flagg, a jingoistic sadist, insists on interrogating the man for military intelligence. Shades of Abu Ghraib? You bet. When Pierce overrides Flagg's blood thirst for the fallen North Korean, the CIA dupe becomes convinced that Pierce is a Communist sympathizer and embarks on a mission to expose him as such.
Watching this suddenly relevant episode of M*A*S*H reminded me with the force of a hammer blow to the skull that the madness of war is timeless, the barbaric methods engaged in by "the good guys" everlasting.
I plan on making the Sunday night M*A*S*H reruns part of my regularly scheduled programming from here on out. So what if the show looks dated and Alda's pretensions get annoying? Behind the canned laughter and the less than stellar production budgets, M*A*S*H was a powerful and brutal indictment of war and the idea of telling the story in comedic form ' originated with Robert Altman's 1971 film of the same name--only compounded the force of the indictment.
As for my friend Ronny Graham--he passed away in 1999 after an illustrious career. I never had the chance to tell him that I was sorry for being a stupid 19-year old kid with a mercenary stage mother. But I'll be thinking of him every Sunday night for many nights to come.