Writers and Creative Personnel
All told, the series had seventeen regular writers in addition to any number of freelancers. But one can reasonably divide the series roughly into two eras that match the sensibilities of the two men who perhaps exerted the greatest creative influence: Larry Gelbart, who wrote ninety-seven episodes (and produced and directed many others), and Alan Alda, who wrote and directed over forty episodes.
Larry Gelbart, who was brought in to write the pilot and who stayed for four seasons, was considered the most brilliant writer in the industry (Knight, 83). He has written for television (including Your Show of Shows ), Broadway (including A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and the recent City of Angels ), and film (including Tootsie ). Judging from the episodes on which he is given writing credit, his imprint on M*A*S*H includes: 1) hilarity (he was by consensus the funniest writer the show ever had
[Swerdlow, 6]), 2) a love of formal experimentation, 3) a political edge, and 4) a tendency to prefer sketch formats to dramatic unity.
The departure of Gelbart after four seasons was one of the catalysts for changing the show's sensibility. According to producer (and, often, writer) Gene Reynolds, "The tone of the comedy had to change when Larry left, because we just couldn't equal his comic genius. We were forced to explore other areas, areas that he had not had to bother with, because he was so gifted, so skillful in straight comedy" (Reiss, 116).
Gelbart always said that the character who represented his values and mind-set was Hawkeye. By the time Gelbart left the show, Hawkeye was universally considered the heart of the series. By this time the distinction between the personas of Hawkeye and Alan Alda was getting blurred. Alda was as much a galvanizing force behind the scenes as his Hawkeye was on screen (Waters, 48). Not surprisingly Alda's writing contributions as well as his conscious and unconscious identification with the character he played tended to make Hawkeye both more sensitive and more complex.
Over the years Hawkeye becomes less of a drinker and womanizer and more actively compassionate. His greater sensitivity (as well as the increased introspection of the other characters) was generally attributed to Alda's own self-image. Indeed, as David Marc suggests, "Psychological introspection established itself as M*A*S*H 's primary text during the late seventies" (199).
Although it would be impossible to prove the direct links between Alda the person and Alda the writer, one can infer a certain amount from interviews and credits. In 1974 he told the New York Times, "All we're attempting is to deal with reality with a sense of humor, to find the fun of behavior and character. I think that's where the best of TV is moving—humor with feeling. . . . To me, only the things that really count are funny, not those old earthshaking questions like should sonny boy tell dad he bent a fender on the family car" (Berkvist, 19). Episodes that appear to reflect Alda's sensibility tend toward: 1) introspection, 2) valuing vulnerability as a character trait, 3) sanctimoniousness, and 4) formal experimentation. Alda's activism as a feminist and his love of pranks also seem to have permeated the show.
Despite individual sensibilities, producers, writers, and performers were apparently pretty much in sync; they were united against a common enemy. Their frustration at having to fight the networks was transposed via the scripts into annoyance with army intransigence. Gelbart once wrote that "[a]lthough turning out a mini-movie on a three-day shooting schedule . . ., battling compromise and complacency all the way, is not of course, in any sense as dangerous or serious as risking one's life in combat, the pressures of making the series gave those of us responsible for it something of the sense of madness, the feelings of frustration and fatigue shared by the surgeons and nurses of the 4077th " (Gelbart, 26). So, for example,
when the network censors made the writers remove the word "virgin" from the dialogue, they mischievously introduced a solider in the next episode from the Virgin Islands (Kalter, 29). This petty kind of reprisal is typical of the rebellion against authority that takes place within the plot.