As I write, either on TV Land or the Hallmark Channel, the inevitable strains of Johnny Mandel’s “Suicide Is Painless” are beginning, the chopper is coming down, and the men and women of the 4077th are getting ready for another session of OR drama and off-hours hijinks. Sooner or later Cpl. Klinger will be showing up in his heels and skirt, dog tags clinking around his neck in lieu of pearls. (There’s plenty of M*A*S*H* trivia on Wikipedia so I’ll just limit myself to mentioning that Jamie Farr, who played Klinger, really served in the Army in Korea, albeit a few years after the end of the war in 1953, and that the dog tags he wore when stationed there were the very same ones that were seen on all eleven seasons of the show and, of course, in today’s reruns.)
The difference is that tonight, Larry Gelbart, the main creator of M*A*S*H* the series, will not be around. He died in Los Angeles this morning at the age of 81.
Gelbart had a long and successful career in most of the branches of entertainment that involve comedy. He got his start working on Danny Thomas’s radio show, moved on to television when he worked on Caesar’s Hour (the followup to Your Show Of Shows), co-wrote the book for the hit Broadway show A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, and wrote the screenplays for Oh, God and Tootsie. He always had a knack for the offhand, rib-tickling line. (My favorite is from Forum, when Zero Mostel, as a slave sometime in the first century A.D, examines a bottle of wine and hesitantly remarks: “1 was a good year, right?” This was cut during the show’s out-of-town tryouts because it was thought some theatergoers might think it blasphemous, but restored in the film.)
But it was a trip to Korea with Bob Hope, when the latter was entertaining the troops for Christmas, that gave Gelbart the background he needed over two decades later to make a success of the project that came his way in 1971: the adaptation of Robert Altman’s antiwar comedy M*A*S*H* as a television series. The show premiered in September 1972, while the Vietnam War was still going on. During its first season, it got only middling ratings, but its network, CBS, decided to stick with it. During the summer of 1973, viewers looking for something to watch besides Watergate coverage.started to tune into the reruns, and by the fall of that year, as the fortunes of President Nixon declined, those of M*A*S*H* steadily rose, until it entered the top 10, then top 5, of the ratings, and never left.
Over the next decade, the show became, as they say, an institution. Gelbart was its mainstay during its first four seasons (back in the days when Wayne Rogers was Trapper John, before that Hunnicutt guy showed up); he wrote nearly every episode of the series during that time. He smoothed the abrasive edges of the characters as they appeared in the Altman film, and the outlines of all the supporting characters – Father Mulcahy, Klinger, Radar, Maj. Burns, and “Hot Lips” Houlihan – did not change much from the way in which he (and the cast members) delineated them. His “Hawkeye” Pierce was more Grouchoesque and less annoyingly earnest than was the case after Alan Alda wrested more control of the series following Gelbart’s departure.
Well, I see that, like many people of my generation, at the drop of a pin I can launch into as complete an analysis of early M*A*S*H* as the next person – and I only used to watch every other episode of the show in those days, since I was finishing high school and starting college. But my point is that anyone who was around back then can attest that the show was a big, big part of American life – both during its original run and through the remainder of the 1980s.
James Poniewozik at Time.com lovingly recalls how he found common ground with his blue-collar father (a cross between Archie Bunker and Hank Hill, by his account, who also “grip[ed} at Richard Nixon on the TV news during Watergate”) when they watched M*A*S*H* together. As Poniewozik says, the show was anti-war in tone throughout its run, but it was not anti-soldier. Like innumerable shows before it, it poked fun at pomposity and hypocrisy among officers (both as personified 24-7 by Frank Burns and periodically by visiting generals). But for all his perplexity, McLean Stevenson as Col. Blake was a decent, warm man doing the best for his unit that he could, and Harry Morgan as Col. Potter, of course, embodied the best of the American officer corps – firm, yet always thoughtful and understanding.
Regular TNN readers will remember the occasional discussion here last year of the role that the movie Bonnie And Clyde plays in Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, in which he presents it as emblematic of the mood of rebellion in the late 1960s. As he works on his new book, which takes the story of American life from RN’s re-election in November 1972 until the triumph of Ronald Reagan eight years later, he might want to take a look at the way in which M*A*S*H* helped to inspire better understanding of the American military during the 1970s, and helped to bring about reconciliation after the traumas of the Vietnam era. A quarter-century after the final episode of the show aired, that finale still has the highest Nielsen rating on record – 125 million people tuned in for it, more than for any Super Bowl or even any American Idol finale. And Larry Gelbart was the indispensable man in that story.