MASH has always been one of my very favourite TV comedy programmes. You may have read in another post about how I used to record the programme back in the early seventies with my cassette tape recorder. Later when video tape recorders appeared I used to tape many episodes of the show and now, here in the DVD age I have a number of box sets of the series.
One of the things I have always loved about the show was how they could take zany and surreal humour, not unlike that of the Monty Python guys, and set it down in a real place; Korea in the 1950s. Some of the lines that came from the mouths of the characters were not only zany and funny but also very witty and clever. Apart from that, the characters themselves, Hawkeye, Trapper John, Frank Burns, Hotlips, Colonel Blake and Radar were interesting and likeable and I, like most viewers, began a strong emotional attachment with the cast.
Now, you might be wondering about that other part of this post’s title, the bit about the emotional indicator. Yes, I thought you might. It’s not so easy to explain but here goes. Most TV shows and movies have a sort of standard emotional indicator that stays pretty constant throughout the show. Take a look at the graph over to the left and let’s put some numbers up. Say a baseline of zero for a standard, calm emotional level. Now, when the show gets funny that level goes up to something like 15 for instance and I’d even say that in a movie like Police Academy that 15 or higher would be a constant throughout the film, well for me certainly. The original Police Academy movie is one of my favourites and I tend to start laughing round about the start of the film with the scene in the parking lot where Steve Guttenberg says the parking lot is full and then the guy comes in and says ‘park the car dirt bag!’ I usually stop laughing round about the end credits but on a normal film there’s a constant up and down: up when the film gets funny and down to nil when we get back to normal.
Now in MASH, where surreal humour is combined with drama, it’s a different ball game. Many times not only does the viewer hit a 20 or higher and then drop down to zero, he also drops down further, perhaps down to a -10 or lower in the really sad moments. In the graph you can see a really funny moment that comes before a really sad moment. Here’s a prime example from my favourite ever MASH episode, it was called ‘Sometimes you Hear the Bullet.’
Hawkeye’s friend Tommy comes to visit the 4077th MASH. He’s a journalist who wants to write the story of the Korean War from the point of view of the soldier, not the journalist. So he’s not a correspondent, he’s a fully signed up member of a platoon. He stops in and visits with Hawkeye for a while and the usual zany humour ensues. Tommy then has to return to the war. A side story is one where a wounded young lad (played by future film director Ron Howard) admits he is under age but joined up to prove to his girl that he was a man. In one scene he tells Hawkeye that he is out to get him some ‘gooks’ and Hawkeye replies calmly that another word for gooks is people.
Hawkeye and Trapper plan to steal Major Frank Burns’ Purple Heart- he had an accident and because it happened in a war zone he is eligible for the award -and pass it on to the young lad so he can impress his girl back home. Anyway, later in the episode, Tommy the journalist returns to the MASH, only this time he is seriously wounded. He was planning on writing a book called ‘They Never Hear the Bullet’ but this time he heard the bullet. ‘Never mind’ says Hawkeye, ‘just change the name. Sometimes you hear the bullet, it’s a better title anyway.’ Tommy is anaesthetised and Hawkeye gets to work. Sadly, Tommy dies on the operating table. Colonel Blake has to remind Hawkeye about the queue of wounded and Hawkeye, tragedy etched on his face (an outstanding performance by Alan Alda) has to carry on with his next patient. Every time I watch that episode I sob my heart out, just as I did years ago when I first saw that episode on my Mum and Dad’s old black and white TV. Now I know why; because it wasn’t a case of just dropping down from 0 to minus 36 on the emotional scale, I was already up there on +45 so I had to drop way, way down. That’s why I love MASH: Humour, drama, and tragedy, all mixed into one.
Mash ran for 11 seasons and an incredible 256 episodes. Trapper, played by Wayne Rogers, was my favourite character after Hawkeye and he left the series after season three to be replaced by Mike Farrell playing new doctor B J Hunnicut. Colonel Blake (McLean Stevenson) also left at the end of season three. His character was discharged but right at the very end of the episode news came through to the MASH that the Colonel’s aircraft had crashed with no survivors. This episode prompted an outpouring of grief and resentment from fans at the death of the character. I could understand perhaps Colonel Blake dying part way through the episode and the second part showing the sadness and grief of the rest of the characters but it seemed to me that Colonel Blake’s death was almost an afterthought, just tagged on to the end of the episode. As time went on many of the other series regulars left including Gary Burghof (Radar) and Larry Linville (Frank Burns) and for me personally, the series was never the same.
The last ever episode was aired in 1983 and became the most watched TV episode ever in the USA at the time.
Keep an eye out for Sometimes You Hear The Bullet. It’s well worth watching!