Book Review: MASH FAQ

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It’s too bad there’s already a book called The Complete Book of M*A*S*H (by Suzy Kalter, published back in 1984) because that would make a much better title for Dale Sherman’s comprehensive look at the MASH franchise than MASH FAQ. It’s called that because it’s part of the FAQ series published by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, an imprint of Hal Leonard. Others in the series include The Twilight Zone FAQ, Star Wars FAQ, Three Stooges FAQ, and Seinfeld FAQ. Most of these books feature a variation on the same subtitle, in this case “Everything Left to Know About The Best Care Anywhere.”

Don’t be turned off by the title. This book isn’t a list of frequently asked questions about MASH. The back cover calls it “the first book on the entire history of MASH” and as far as I know that’s an accurate description. Quite a few books have been published about M*A*S*H the television series over the past four decades, including two scholarly studies, but I can’t think of any others that examine every incarnation of MASH, from novel to film to stage play to TV series and beyond.

Cover to MASH FAQ
MASH FAQ (Courtesy of Applause Theatre & Cinema Books)

MASH FAQ is a hefty book. There are 34 chapters and 391 pages counting an appendix, bibliography, and index. The first chapter offers an overview of the Korean War, which will surprise readers not expecting a history lesson. The second chapter examines how an actual MASH unit worked. Only then does Sherman dive into the novel that started everything.

All About The Novel

I read MASH: Novel About Three Army Doctors just once almost two decades ago. I remember nothing about it nor can I recall whether I liked it. Sherman devotes five chapters to Richard Hooker’s (a pseudonym for H. Richard Hornberger and W.C. Heinz) novel and its various sequels: the two written by Hornberger and the 12 novels penned by William E. Butterworth (the “MASH Goes to…” series).

I haven’t read any of the sequels, and though I doubt I ever will, I’ve developed such an aversion to spoilers that I actually skipped over the sections about the other novels. I don’t want to know what happens just in case I ever do decide to read them all. Sherman provides a plot summary of each novel and also lists the returning characters and how they developed. He also points out inconsistencies between novels and offers a critical review.

This section of the book ends with a chapter comparing the plot and characters as depicted in the novel, film, and TV series. It’s interesting to see just how much of the novel eventually made its way to television. Also, I didn’t realize Lt. Dish wasn’t in the original novel.

All About The Film

Another five chapters are devoted to MASH the film. I actually haven’t seen it. I started watching it once with my parents when I was in middle school but after the first 30 minutes they decided it was too adult for me. Since then, I’ve never had much interest in seeing it although I do own it on DVD (only because it was included in the Martinis & Medicine collection).

This section of the book starts with a lengthy look at the making of the film–writing, directing, casting, filming–and how it was received by critics. This is followed by a short chapter on the history of the film’s theme song (“Suicide is Painless”), a chapter consisting of short biographies of the cast, a chapter comparing Ring Lardner’s original script to the finished film, and finally a chapter about how the film is connected to other movies and TV shows.

The chapter comparing the script to the film is impressive. Sherman breaks the film down scene by scene and explains how director Robert Altman stuck to or changed Lardner’s script. Of course, anyone who has actually seen the film will probably get more out of this chapter than people like me who haven’t seen it.

About The Stage Play

Most people probably don’t know that the novel MASH was adapted for the stage. Sherman spends only one chapter discussing the play, which exists in both one-act and two-act versions, because there really isn’t that much to say about it. For the most part, he compares and contrasts the play and novel, pointing out how it had to be altered due to its expected use in schools.

About The TV Show

The rest of the book, roughly half of it, is about M*A*S*H the TV series. Sherman starts by discussing five sitcoms that he thinks influenced M*A*S*H: The Phil Silvers Show, McHale’s Navy, F Troop, Hogan’s Heroes, and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. It’s almost unbelievable how many directors and writers from these shows later worked on M*A*S*H. The same goes for how many actors from M*A*S*H earlier made appearances on one or more of these sitcoms.

Sherman spends the next two chapters writing about the creative team and the main cast. Most fans will recognize names like Gene Reynolds, Larry Gelbart, and Burt Metcalfe but might not know who William Self, Allan Katz, Stanford Tischler, Jim Mulligan, or Mark Evans are. I’ll admit there were one or two names I wasn’t familiar with. The biographies of the cast are lengthy, covering their lives before, during, and after their time on M*A*S*H. I can’t say there were any surprises here, but then again I’ve read most of the books Sherman references.

Other chapters discuss the actresses from the opening credits, recurring characters who disappeared from the show, minor characters who stuck around, unusual episodes, famous guest stars, the show’s time slots over the years, filming locations, character arcs, spin-offs, parodies, and memorabilia.

With a few exceptions, Sherman sticks to fact rather than opinion. The chapter on the ten best pranks naturally reflects the author’s opinion about which pranks were best. Likewise, some might disagree with the episodes he includes in the chapter about experiments like “O.R.” and “Hawkeye” and “Life Time.” There may even be those who are upset that a particular famous guest star isn’t among the 30 he lists in another chapter.

I will point out that Sherman has apparently developed an unusual theory about “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” that he writes about in two chapters, which might confuse or amaze some readers. I also get the impression he might not be the biggest fan of Charles Emerson Winchester but I could be wrong.

I didn’t come across any factual errors. I noticed a proofreading error on one page (which the author actually mentioned in an e-mail) but that can be forgiven, as can a few other minor editing issues.

Should You Buy This Book?

If you’re looking for an exhaustive analysis of the production of M*A*S*H drawn from studio or network memos and other archival material, you’re not going to find that in MASH FAQ. That’s not what the book is about. Nor are there any new interviews, unless I’m mistaken, but Sherman does quote from a wide variety of sources. I think it’s safe to say that this is a book aimed at casual fans. Yet it also has something to offer those of us whose interest in the series is more than casual. Does it cover AfterMASH as thoroughly as I would like? No, but I’m one of maybe two or three people in the world who would read an entire book just about AfterMASH.

Some of the regular readers of my blog are truly hardcore fans of M*A*S*H, even more than I am. If you’ve seen every episode a dozen times, watched all the documentaries and specials, read every behind-the-scenes book and every autobiography, there may not be much new information in MASH FAQ. However, because it covers the entire franchise and not just the TV show, I think it still has value. Unless you’re also an expert on the novel(s) and film, there are going to be chapters you’ll find interesting and you will learn more about other incarnations of MASH.

At just $20, MASH FAQ is an inexpensive way to learn all about the MASH franchise. I know I learned a lot about the novel and the film. If you’re not quite convinced, you can take a look at the table of contents and some sample pages at the Hal Leonard Books website.

Disclosure: Dale Sherman and I corresponded briefly via e-mail while he was researching and writing MASH FAQ. My website was used as a reference and I am mentioned in the Acknowledgements. I was a sent a review copy by the publisher but the decision to review it was my own and this review has not been influenced by the author or the publisher.

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