Episode Spotlight: The Incubator


Every Monday, I spotlight a random episode of M*A*S*H, providing a brief review and asking readers to offer their thoughts.

“The Incubator” (#36, 2×12)
Originally Broadcast: Saturday, December 1st, 1973
Written by: Larry Gelbart & Laurence Marks
Directed by: Jackie Cooper

Capsule Summary: After a particularly impressive bender, Hawkeye and Trapper rededicate themselves to medicine. Deciding the 4077th needs an incubator, the two attempt to get one through military channels only to hit a stone wall. As they move up the chain of command, the Army’s responses become increasingly bizarre.

This is a classic example of an episode from the early years of M*A*S*H. Hawkeye and Trapper are on a mission, Henry is trying to stay out of the way, the military isn’t having any of it and Radar saves the day. The opening sequence in which Hawkeye and Trapper wake up in the Swamp surrounded by the evidence of a massive party is terrific. I especially like the blown up surgical glove with a face on it, topped by what appears to be one of Henry’s hats, and the beer can on the record player.

Also great are the early scenes with Radar, who was too tired to be sacrificed as a virgin, and Frank, who is unwilling to give his Swamp mates the tongue-lashing they so richly deserve because he doesn’t want to enable their behavior.

Trapper has an admirer

Trapper has an admirer

Aside from Henry’s comments about the two being unable to top their recent party and his surprise that four people could fit in a sleeping bag, plus a nurse giving Trapper a few knowing glances, we never learn anything about what happened during the party. But that wasn’t really the point of the episode.

M*A*S*H got a lot of mileage out of by-the-book, corrupt or incompetent Army personnel over the years. This episode had them all: Captain Sloan can’t see past his regulations, Colonel Lambert is corrupt and General Mitchell is the height of incompetence. Major Morris is just plain stubborn (and potentially obsessive compulsive).

“The Incubator” doesn’t really have a B story unless you count Henry’s barbecue. To be honest, having Radar trade the barbecue to get the incubator felt a little too much like “To Market, To Market” when Hawkeye and Trapper traded Henry’s desk for hydrocortisone.

The nurse who seems to be very interested in Trapper is played by Sheila Lauritsen in an uncredited role.

This episode includes a rare reference to the passage of time. Hawkeye says “the war’s been running for two years” when arguing with Henry about the incubator. It may also feature the only appearance of the 4077th’s laboratory. Was it seen before or since this episode?

23 Replies to “Episode Spotlight: The Incubator”

  1. Were Hawkeye and BJ in the lab when they discovered that Patrick Swayze had leukemia? I know they were looking through a microscope.

    1. Two episodes come to my mind where the lab is seen: The one where Margaret thinks she is pregnant and Hawkeye analyses her ovaries and the Episode where Charles uses amphetamines. He is seen working in the lab when Klinger Comes to him.

      1. The episode where they are looking for Presidents faces in the picture to win a pony.

    2. Hawkeye is in the lab looking through the microscope when BJ comes in. Hawkeye tells him to “look all you want it’ll still be leukemia”

    1. This episode does have some classic lines!!

      Hawkeye: We’re not asking for a jukebox or a pizza oven.
      Captain Sloan: Oh, those I can let you have.
      Henry: No kidding! Hey, those would be great on movie nights. You got any pizza requisition forms?
      Captain Sloan: Just use the standard S stroke 1798 and write in “Pizza” where it says “Machine Gun”.


      Hawkeye: Thank, you Colonel. Sorry, Captain. Sorry, patient, you have a temperature of 109 stroke 10. I’m afraid you can’t have an incubator but you can have a pizza with everything on it to go. Unless, of course, you go first.
      Henry: Let’s stay on the ground, shall we, Pierce?
      Hawkeye: Does the book allow us any ground, Captain? Otherwise I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you all to take a step up.
      Trapper: Into Limbo!
      Hawkeye: No, you can’t have any Limbo. In fact, you can’t have – anything – stroke nothing, which is not approved by STATQUOPAC. Which is enough to make you reach for AIRSICKBAG.
      Henry: Well everybody, happy days, stroke cheers.


      Henry: Holy cow! “Insubordination! Conduct unbecoming officers! Violations of Articles 13 through 27 with a repeat on 26!”
      Hawkeye: That must be altering salute by placing thumb on nose.
      Trapper: Henry, there’s something you should know about those charges.
      Hawkeye: Yes. We’re guilty.
      Henry: I’ll tell you what else you are: You are under arrest. General’s orders.
      Hawkeye: Swell. What do we tell the casualties? We only operate on visiting days?
      Trapper: You gonna lock us up Sheriff?
      Henry: If you guys didn’t outclass every bit of surgical talent in Korea, your tails would have been in handcuffs a long time ago.
      Hawkeye: Henry its no crime, or it shouldn’t be for doctors to try to get decent medical equipment.
      Henry: Did you really yell “Give me an incubator or give me death”? Wow. Did you really call a one-star general a “NINCOMPAC”?

      And finally – The General at the Press Conference – “This is a Press Conference!” The last thing I want to do is answer a bunch of questions!!!!

      1. My favorite episode. The exchange between Hawkeye, Trapper, Blake and Capt. Sloan is priceless!

      2. Another thing I’ve always thought was interesting is the mention of Articles….it’s got to be the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or UCMJ, as we military types like to call it. The articles mentioned are instructions on Courts-Martial, not violations.

      3. I’ll tell you this much.That General who had Hawkeye and
        Trapper placed under arrest for disrupting his press conference.Well,if his son was a patient at the 4077th and had
        the same illness as that other guy,you think that General would wait there patiently while they shipped his son’s sample
        to the lab and await for word on what the diagnosis was and how to treat it?HELL NO!That General would get a incubator
        to the 4077th in two minutes so his son could be treated ASAP.

  2. I know this is considered one of the best episodes of the entire series (or, at least, one of the best of Season Two), but I personally find this one mediocre at best. There’s a number of really funny moments and lines, but the episode as a whole just doesn’t really stand out for me.

  3. Can anybody explain to a German lady what NINCOMPAC exactly stands for? In our German dubbed version they call the general something completely different. I think COM = commander, but what about the rest?

    1. It’s not a real military term – it’s a pun on nincompoop (which means idiot) and any military term ending with COMPAC (commander, Pacific). What did they call him in German?

      1. Thanks a lot, Andrew. That makes perfect sense to me. In German it’s just some sort of insult: “General mit zugeschissener Hose” (not a very intelligent joke). I do not like the German translations very much, that’s why I am grateful for the DVD and I watch the episodes always in the original version now.

  4. This is probably my favourite episode…absolutely classic.

    “Did you really call a two star general a NINCOMPAC?!” Priceless. Great line from a episode full of great lines.

  5. What is the reference to bushytail while Trapper and Hawkeye were handing out drinks? I’ve tried googling the term and all I get are references back to this episode. I assume by the dialog it is some kind of 50s anti drinking program.

    1. The episodes are often edited in syndication. I haven’t seen the complete episode in decades but when Hawkeye and Trapper are cleaning up after the wild party, lolling about with their hangovers, Frank comes into the tent and tut-tuts about what’s become of “those bright bushytailed young surgeons he used to know.” Or words to that effect. It’s one of Frank’s few sympathetic moments. That’s when Hawkeye and Trapper determine to reform themselves.

  6. Is the autoclave seen in later episodes like “Hey Look Me Over” supposed to be the same device as the incubator seen here?

    1. No, an autoclave is for sterilizing surgical instruments, and would definitely be considered required equipment for a hospital. An incubator is for helping germs grow, which is the exact opposite of the purpose of an autoclave.

      Whether they might have recycled a prop is a different story.

  7. Awesome writing. One of my top 5 episodes. I guess I just totally understand how they felt in the opening scene. I also have felt like I needed to shave my tongue.

  8. There were no survivors…

    “Did you really yell ‘Give me an incubator, or give me death?'”

    Hawkeye: “Radar, I have the distinct impression that we came to see you at two in the morning last night.”
    Radar: “It was two thirty.”
    “Did we say why?”
    “You wanted to sacrifice a virgin.”
    “Did we?”
    “I was too sleepy.”

    The scene with Captain Sloane was featured in “Our Finest Hour.” Also Sloane doesn’t seem to be an entirely bad guy, he certainly seems to know his way around Army paperwork if he knows how they can get a pizza oven: “Just write in ‘pizza’ where it says ‘machine gun.'”

    The General would have made a great politician: “That’s a lie!”

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