Saturday, June 26, 2010

"Tomorrow He Starts Getting Taller"

My Fellow Comedists,

This week marks the 60th anniversary of the invasion of South Korea by the communist North. For historians, this is a key moment in the heating up of the Cold War. For Comedists, the Korean police action brings one thing to mind -- M*A*S*H.

The 1970 movie was ostensively about a mobile army surgical hospital in Korea during the conflict, but it's real subject was Vietnam. Written by Ring Lardner, the Academy Award winning screen writer who was blacklisted during the McCarthy madness, it did something Hollywood rarely did, turn a critical eye towards war. War and soldiers were untouchable heroes, the brave men defending liberty and war films glorified battle itself and those who fought in it. But M*A*S*H followed Duck Soup in making the war itself seem as absurd as the characters in the film. (Yes, Laurel and Hardy were in the French Foreign Legion and Abbott and Costello were in the army, but the hijinx there never questioned the nature of war, just put misfits or con men in military situations.)

It made the move to the small screen two years later when Larry Gelbart (one of the collection of comic geniuses who wrote for Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows) developed the concept along with the director of the film version the all around genius Robert Altman, and Gene Reynolds, and it changed television sitcoms forever. Among the innovations was plot architecture. Early episodes followed the template for all other sit coms. Strange circumstances arise, jokes are made as it works itself out. But Gelbart's wife remarked to him in an off-hand manner that the show lacked realism because life never has only one thing happening. From that point on, the show always featured parallel plot lines, much like a soap opera, in which you had two stories being told at the same time, interweaving, finding a common conclusion at the end of the episode. After M*A*S*H this became the standard approach to sitcom writing.

The writers also led the initial charge against the laugh track, arguing that the audience was smart enough to know what was funny. They won a partial victory, being allowed to omit the pre-recorded laughter in some scenes and leaving it out altogether in certain more serious episodes.

The theme song of both the movie and tv series, "Suicide is Painless" was written by Johnny Mandel, an Academy Award and Grammy winning composer and is one of the more ironic pieces of film music. When Robert Altman approach Mandel to write the music for the film, Mandel decided that the theme should be as absurd as the war it was discussing. At the time, Altman's 14 year old son fancied himself a folk singer in the Bob Dylan mold. So Mandel asked him to write lyrics, figuring whatever a junior high school kid would think is deep would indeed sound absurd. And so Michael Mandel's lyrics became the basis for the song which earned him millions of dollars thereafter with lyrics that many held to be "so deep." If that isn't ironic enough, the money he made from the song was many times more than his father, the master director, made from the film in which it appears.

So, the question for this week is what was the best and/or funniest M*A*S*H episode? I say it was "Dear Sigmund" in which Sidney Freedman, the psychiatrist who appeared from time to time, writes a letter to Freud describing the coping mechanisms of the staff.


Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve