Making M*A*S*H

Thanks to Larry for some clarification on this topic.


Without a doubt the best documentary about M*A*S*H and one of the best documentaries about a television series ever, “Making M*A*S*H” was a documentary in the truest sense of the term: it documented the creation of an episode of the series from conception to post-production. “Making M*A*S*H” was the brainchild of Michael Hirsh, who produced and wrote the ninety-minute program for WTTW, a Chicago-based public television (PBS) station. It was shot during the production of two episodes from Season 8 (“Old Soldiers” and “Lend a Hand”) which originally aired in January 1980.

Mary Tyler Moore served as narrator for “Making M*A*S*H” when it was originally broadcast on Wednesday, January 21st, 1981 on PBS stations across the country.

Loading the player…

It began with the following text: “This program is dedicated to the millions of television viewers who see M*A*S*H as proof that the vast wasteland can be made to bloom. And who week after week ask, ‘How do they do that?’.” And thus, the genesis of “Making M*A*S*H” is exposed: a documentary attempting to explain how the series that had captivated American audiences for nine years was made. Featuring in-depth interviews with the creative staff, including Alan Alda, Larry Gelbart, Gene Reynolds and Burt Metcalfe, as well as behind-the-scenes footage, it was a fascinating look at the creation of a television series.

Writer/Director/Actor Alan Alda

Writer/Director/Actor Alan Alda

The title of the documentary was taken from the scenes within, the actors, crew and production staff at work making M*A*S*H. Behind the scenes footage from the filming of the aforementioned episodes from Season Eight was interspersed with interviews featuring both the cast and crew, along with a healthy dose of clips from past episodes.

In The Beginning

As the documentary began, Alan Alda talked about the reservations he had about joining M*A*S*H and Larry Gelbart discussed how the network reacted to the series.

“While the network displayed the typical sort of fears about language and permissiveness to a certain degree, they were always very supportive about the series politically. There was never any attempt to say let’s tone it down in terms of criticizing the military, the government. They knew what we were up to, very quickly, and never challenged that.”
Larry Gelbart

Everyone involved with the series realized that they owed a great debt to the film version. Without it, no network would have picked up the series. Alda gave thanks to Robert Altman and his film version for giving them a “visual style” and “setting” which allowed them to take the concept and run with it.

Of course, given the differences between a film and a television series, it was impossible to recreate some of the aspects of the film on the small screen. Gene Reynolds spoke of the how the network had discouraged the use of the OR, or operating room, because the small screen didn’t allow for such a gory depiction of surgery.

Executive Producer Gene Reynolds

Executive Producer Gene Reynolds

On the other hand, Reynolds knew that they had to show the surgeons doing what they did best, saving lives, in order to create a balance for the show between hilarity and drama. The episode that changed everything came midway through the first season, “Sometimes You Hear The Bullet.” During the course of the episode, Hawkeye loses a good friend and he breaks down. The severity of the subject matter was a change of pace for M*A*S*H.

The Wonderful Cast & Crew

One unique thing about M*A*S*H is the fact that everyone involved, both the cast and the crew, love what they do. According to Kellye Nakahara, who played Nurse Kellye, “To have a tense day on this set, occurs, but it is the occasion, it is not the usual thing.” And not only are they loving what they do but the folks at M*A*S*H want to make the show better, every moment of every day. M*A*S*H was always about the characters and thus the writers always took an interest in making the characters real, in making the characters feel like real people, three-dimensional people, people that could exist outside the world of television.

McLean Stevenson Leaves

It took three years for the series to become a hit but M*A*S*H did it. And after those three years, McLean Stevenson wanted to leave. With him would go his character, the beloved Henry Blake. The writers saw an opportunity and seized it. The tragic, and senseless, death of Henry Blake became a cornerstone of the series. The response to the episode was intense and immediate. Both Reynolds and Gelbart spoke of how the show received letters and phone calls from people who thought the episode was “cheap” or “exploitative,” because M*A*S*H was a situation comedy. Nobody expected to see a character die like that. Some of the letters were from people who understood. Many were from people who didn’t.

Loading the player…

At first, Reynolds and Gelbart began to hand write responses to the letters. Gelbart himself wrote three or four hundred. Eventually, the volume of response was such that a form letter was created and the two simply signed the letters. In all, probably more than one thousand letters were received.

And it wasn’t just the viewers who were upset. The network was upset. According to Gelbart, in one repeat broadcast of “Abyssinia, Henry,” CBS cut off the end scene. And 20th Century Fox was upset as well, saying that killing off a character the way Henry Blake was killed off simply wasn’t right. Following McLean Stevenson’s departure, Wayne Roger also left. Was M*A*S*H coming to an end? Could the series recover from two actors, and two pivotal characters, leaving the show? It could and it did.

The Laugh Track

The producers of M*A*S*H fought tooth and nail against the laugh track on their series. Reynolds and Gelbart felt that the laugh track was inappropriate. During the fourth season, CBS actually considered dropping the laugh track. One of M*A*S*H‘s most famous episodes didn’t have a laugh track: “The Interview.” It was actually a last minute episode, ordered by the network at the end of the season. Gelbart and Reynolds remembered seeing a documentary produced during the actual Korean War in which a journalist went to Korea and asked lots of questions. Taking that idea and applying it to M*A*S*H, the two began to write down questions.

Cast and Crew Reading Over a Script

Cast and Crew Reading Over a Script

The episode was shot and produced and delivered to CBS. And then the script was written. The entire episode was improvised, with the actors answering questions themselves, in character. Several of the writers for M*A*S*H spoke of how easy it was to write for the series. They could write dialogue knowing that the actors could take those lines and make them their own.

Crafting an Individual Episode

Typically, scripts for M*A*S*H were written and then taken to a story conference, where they were hashed out and broken down. Following the story conference, the scripts go to the read through stage, where the actors and actresses read through the script, in character. The cast had the option, if they felt something could use improvement or needs to be worked on, to ask for rewrites.

Alan Alda and Mike Farrell spoke about the seventh season episode “Preventive Medicine.” In their opinion, the episode contained one of the best scenes of the season. In the episode, Hawkeye decides to operate on a healthy soldier, so that the man will lose his battalion and thus be unable to send additional causalities to the 4077th, saving lives. This idea of taking something healthy out of a healthy person disgusts B.J. It also disgusted Mike Farrell. The episode, which was based on a real event, became an intense confrontation between the two character. Hawkeye, stressed and tired, does what he thinks is right and goes through with the operation. B.J. can’t agree with his friend’s decision and sits it out. The fight became a moot point when more causalities showed up.

An episode of M*A*S*H typically took two or three months to go from a story idea to a completed product. The director was only on the set seven or eight days: preparing for two days, rehearsing for one day, and shooting for three or four days. Charles S. Dubin directed the episode “Point of View,” which was shown from the point of view of a wounded soldier. Unlike most episodes of M*A*S*H, this episode rested more on the shoulders of director than anyone else.

Executive Producer Burt Metcalfe

Executive Producer Burt Metcalfe

One often overlooked aspect of M*A*S*H was the actual editing of the film. One second took up a foot and a half of film. And it took an average of six working days to fully edit an episode. Stan Tischler, also an associate producer, worked on the pilot episode and stuck with the series for the rest of its run. Part of his job was to cut bits and pieces out of an episode to make sure it clocked in at the right length. If he was given an episode and told that three minutes had to be taken out, he had to find a way to take out those three minutes without hurting the episode.

Odds & Ends

Jamie Farr talked about “the gripe session,” a behind-closed-door opportunity for the actors to talk about any gripes they may have with the way their character is being written, the way the group is working together. The crew isn’t involved, only the cast. They can get together and talk about problems.

Mike Farrell then spoke of how the cast and crew are incredibly supportive. In his case, when he wanted to direct an episode he was allowed to do so and was helped every step of the way. When he wanted to write an episode he was allowed to, and the people at M*A*S*H had him write the episode alone without even realizing it.

“I get a lot of letters from people thanking us for making them laugh and cry at the same time. To me, that’s the best kind of drama, because that’s what life is. Life is enjoying it and wondering how you’re going to get through the next ten minutes, all at the same time.”
Alan Alda

To close out the documentary, Gelbart, Alda and Metcalfe talked about how the networks haven’t learned, despite the quality and success of M*A*S*H. The three agreed that the networks are too commercial and that the networks won’t take chances. Metcalfe actually came out and said that if M*A*S*H were a pilot under consideration in 1980 it probably wouldn’t sell.

Critical Reception

Mike Drew of The Milwaukee Journal called the documentary “a special treat,” “worthy of its subject” and “a fascinating view of one of television’s finest half-hours” [1]. The Hartford Courant‘s Owen McNally pointed out that the documentary was never critical of M*A*S*H yet noted that it “still yields an invaluable portrait of one of television’s most extraordinary programs” [2]. John J. O’Connor of The New York Times called it “an unusually illuminating glimpse into the processes of television” that “captures some of the pain and all the exuberance connected with ‘M*A*S*H'” [3].

In a March 1981 review The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette lavished praise upon the documentary, noting that it was “beautifully-crafted, so that you’re not stuck with a lot of talking heads” and referring to it as “an intense, rich portrait of one of television’s enduring series” [4]. “Making M*A*S*H” was nominated for a 1981 Emmy Award for Outstanding Informational Special but lost to a CBS special called “The Body Human: The Bionic Breakthrough,” originally broadcast in May of 1981.

TV Guide Advertisement

TV Guide Advertisement [1]

Special PBS measurements revealed that “Making M*A*S*H” averaged 17% of the viewing audience in four cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco. That was almost four times higher than the 4.2% typically drawn by PBS programming in those cities [5]. The documentary was repeated on individual PBS stations throughout 1981.

According to producer Michael Hirsh, part of the agreement made with 20th Century Fox to create “Making M*A*S*H” gave the production company the right to syndicate the documentary. Unable to come to an arrangement with Mary Tyler Moore for use of her narration, 20th Century Fox had Hirsh provide a completely new narration [6]. The syndicated version included commercial breaks and was edited for time. The original PBS versions runs approximately an hour and 28 minutes. The syndicated version, on the other hand, runs just an hour and 13 minutes. Exactly how extensively it was syndicated is unknown.

When the “Martinis & Medicine Collection” DVD collection was released in November of 2006, several M*A*S*H specials and retrospectives were included. “Making M*A*S*H” was not one of them, likely due to licensing issues; 20th Century Fox does not own the documentary (WTTW does) and would have to pay a fee to release it.

Works Cited:
1 Drew, Mike. “Channel 10 shows why ‘MASH’ is a smash.” Milwaukee Journal Accent. 21 Jan. 1981: 7.
2 McNally, Owen. “PBS Gives ‘M*A*S*H’ Grew Snappy Salute.” Hartford Courant. 21 Jan. 1981: B4.
3 O’Connor, John J. “TV: The Panoply of the Inauguration.” New York Times. 21 Jan. 1981: C23.
4 “Tonight in preview: Film speaks to dilemma of women.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 13 Mar. 1981: 30.
5 Holsopple, Barbara. “‘Paper Chase’ Fails to Find Benefactor On PBS.” Pittsburgh Press. 2 Jun. 1981: B-19.
6 From e-mail correspondence with Michael Hirsh, July 2010.

Image Credits:
1 From TV Guide, September 17th, 1981, Page A-76.

Published January 2nd, 2005
Last updated December 16th, 2015

34 Replies to “Making M*A*S*H”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.