M*A*S*H was one of the funniest TV series ever. But as the years went by, a few good actors left, the tone changed, and Alan Alda got behind the camera. It is a case study of how to turn comedy gold into a tired, worn out “serious sit-com.”
The cast of Seasons 1-3
The years 1972 to 1975 saw M*A*S*H hit its stride right from the get go. It wasn't long before America became enamered with Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John McIntyre. After all, the shit they did was just plain hilarious. Besides meatball surgery and sleeping, all they ever seemed to do was screw every nurse in the camp, pull off absurd schemes and pranks, inhale martinis like they were going out of style, and make life a living hell for the most unlikely couple in the history of television: Frank Burns (Larry Linville) and Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan (Loretta Swit).
Watching Hawkeye and Trapper fuck with Frank never got old because he was a Mcarthyist bigot from Indiana with no surgical skill and no concern for those around him and he tended to act like a damn two year old when he didn't get what he wanted. Plus, he constantly said and did stuff that, if put all together, would have made for a good Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode. He was the perfect comedic foil: the audience never had any sympathy for him when he got boxed into a shipping crate or when he was denied a promotion and he cried in Hot Lips' arms, it was always funny.
Then there was Maxwell Q. Klinger (Jamie Farr). He went from being a minor, one-time character to becoming a part of the main cast. And he fucking deserved it. If you can't find something funny about a Lebanese guy wearing a dress and trying to eat a jeep in order to get a Section 8, then you probably can't feel much of anything i.e. you are fucking dead!
Also, there was Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) the incompetent drunk of a commanding officer who was constantly being outwitted by the child like "Radar" O'Rielly (Gary Burghoff). Henry couldn't do anything right. He couldn't salute without either getting a finger caught in a fishing hook in his fisherman's hat or spilling his glass of brandy. He even forgot that he had an office once for God's sake. Plus he was easy to push around since it always seemed like everyone but him was running the 4077th. In short, Henry was always good for a laugh.
M*A*S*H had the perfect comedic formula right from the start, a rarity in television since most shows can't even manage to pull off a single joke over multiple seasons (I'm looking at you Two and a Half Men). If they could have kept this same cast for 11 seasons, it would have been even better than it turned out to be. But, sadly, this formula was not destined to last.
The cast of Seasons 4-5
Season 3 ended with the departure, and later the death of, Henry Blake. For those who don't know, and I'm sure you won't, McLean Stevenson died in 1996. Rest in peace you actor who portrayed a drunken and incompetent, but loveable, bafoon from Bloomington, Illinois a little too well.
Frank Burns took over as commanding officer for all of 3 episodes, and then had a great hissy fit when he eventually lost command. Then came the horiffic start to season 4. Apparently Wayne Rogers was tired of playing second banana to Alan Alda so he...left. Thus one of the greatest duos in TV history was over. But the fine folks behind M*A*S*H decided to rub salt in the wound by adding Mike Farrell to the cast. What the hell were they thinking?!
Wayne Rogers was perfect for the show; he portrayed a six foot tall drunken sleaze from Boston who fit in perfectly with Alda's portrayal of an insecure nutcase from Maine. Mike Farrell portayed an honest family man from California. There's nothing funny about that!
But at least they got something right when they brought in Colonel Sherman T. Potter (Harry Morgan) to replace Henry. He was an old warhorse and a stern man at that. He wasn't as funny as McLean Stevenson, but he did manage to be humorous in the way that old people can be, which is still pretty darn funny. In essence, he was a nice blend of a stern military type and a funny old guy. But it still doesn't compensate for Mike Farrell's addition to the cast.
But most of the old elements were still there. Hawkeye was still as funny as ever. Klinger was still in dresses and went at odds with Colonel Potter which made for some hilarious moments. Hot Lips was still there and was still hot. Radar was around to provide his own child like brand of comedy.
Most importantly, Frank Burns was still in the cast. Even though Mike Farrell wasn't really funny at all, he could still manage to produce a laugh when he pulled a prank on Frank, like when he filled his air raid hole with water and made Frank dive in it. That's because Frank, as we should know by now, was a horrible person and deserved whatever kind of abuse he receieved.
Season 5 saw Frank's shining moment when he went off of the fucking wall after Hot Lips got engaged to another man while she was on leave in Tokyo. He decided to got out fully armed to capture "enemy guerillas" to prove himself, but wound up capturing a Korean family and marching them back to camp for interrogation and then decided to hold Col. Potter, Hawkeye, BJ, and Radar hostage in his delusional state. The only thing that stopped him was a call from his mother that wound up making him fall asleep. As long as Frank was around, the comedy never seemed to end. For those of you who don't know, and again you won't, Larry Linville died in 2000. Rest in peace you great comedic foil you.
But with Mike Farrell's addition to the cast, and the departure of some of the writers from the earlier seasons, we started to see a change in tone from pure comedy to serious anti-war territory. It wasn't very visible, but it was starting to show itself. The magic that was the first three seasons had already been declared dead when Wayne Rogers and McLean Stevenson left. Damn them and their selfishness! Damn you both! Seasons 4-5 were still funny, but not quite as funny as those three glorious years. But the worst was yet to come...
The cast of Seasons 6-11 (minus Radar, who left in season 8)
The big blow to the great comedy formula came when Larry Linville left the show after feeling that he could not do anything more with the Frank Burns character. After all, he portarayed a static character for 5 years. But it was the character that made most of the humor possible. His exit would have been great if they could have shown it. Apparently, he went bat shit crazy after Hot Lips' wedding, going around Seoul trying to find the happy couple, stalking people that look like them and causing numerous incidents that could be best described as disturbing the peace before landing in jail. He then gets sent stateside to a VA hospital in Indiana, leaving another void in the cast that the folks behind M*A*S*H proceed to fuck up in filling.
Charles Emmerson Winchester III (David Ogden Stiers) is sent in to replace the now departed Frank Burns. There's just one problem. He's not a complete asshole like Frank was, he's just a rich prick from Boston with a few redeeming qualities and some shining moments. The comedy doesn't quite work with him. Sure he gets more than his fair share of pranks and jokes, but he's smart enough to actually give BJ and Hawkeye a taste of their own medicine. And it's not that funny when the funny guys are the ones getting pranked.
Then Gary Burghoff decided to split in Season 8 because he was burnt out from playing the exact same character for so long. Of course there was a drawn out and very tearful farewell when he left the show (it took 2 episodes to do it). But at least they didn't bother replacing him because that would have...oh shit, they did.
Klinger was sent in to replace Radar as the comapny clerk. By this time, Jamie Farr didn't want to wear women's clothes anymore or try to be funny by doing crazy shit to get that Section 8. So his character becomes a by the book Corporal, and later Sergeant, who just tries to do the best he can with his job. God damnit! The dresses and the fake insanity were why he became a break out character in the first place! Taking those qualities away from him would be like telling John Elway to go out there and throw picks because he's just too good at being one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play! What the hell were they thinking?! But I digress because comedy was the last thing on the minds of the M*A*S*H writers at this point.
By Season 6, the show changed from a great comedy into a "dramedy" which is supposed to be a comedy set within drama. They should have just dropped the fucking "medy" and just called it a drama because that's it turned into. Sure there was the occassional episode that was comedy based, but those were few and far between. Entire episodes were now being devoted to transplanting a Vietnam era anti-war view around Korean War issues; basically it was revisionism. How the hell did that come about?
One key reason was that Alan Alda took over as both a writer and a director and injected his own liberal and feminist views into the show. In essence the show became less about knee-slapping comedy and more about Hawkeye's anti-war viewpoints (which would make sense considering the character had to stitch up kids day in and day out). It also began to revolve around his appreciation of women which makes no sense considering that in the good years he was either screwing or sexually harrassing almost every nurse in camp. For the last few years it was all about this serious look on life. Not to say that it wasn't good and enlightening, which it very much was, it's just that it was nowhere near as good as the early seasons.
Thus the funny died. But that didn't stop people from watching the show. It somehow became even more popular as it kept chugging along until it lasted 11 years, nearly 4 times the actual length of the Korean War. And when the show ended, boy did it end in style.
The final episode of M*A*S*H was a monumental TV moment. CBS sold 30 second advertising space during the 2 1/2 hour show for $450,000. To put that in perspective, that was a higher cost than for Super Bowl XVII the same year. The finale, almost entirely devoid of any laughs, was viewed by nearly 125 million Americans, making it the most watched televison event in American history.
Despite the fact that the show had lost its ability to make people laugh, it still managed to attract viewers who found the seriousness of the show interesting. While the serious nature of the later seasons and the finale were still good, they were nothing compared to those glorious early years when Trapper John, Henry Blake, Radar, and Frank Burns were around and delievered laughs time and time again.
The average Cracked follower could appreciate the early years of M*A*S*H simply because they are funny. Then again the average Cracked viewer might not enjoy the early years of M*A*S*H because they don't involve any dick jokes. Regardless, the early years were definitely the best.
The average Cracked viewer would dislike the later years of M*A*S*H because they are way too serious and this sentiment is shared by more than a few die-hard M*A*S*H fans. Not to say that they weren't good seasons, they just were not as entertaining as years 1-3.
The average Cracked viewer would probably like M*A*S*H if it were filled with 11 seasons of letting us see Hawkeye and Trapper fucking every nurse in camp, doing blow to go with their martinis, and surgically removing Frank's left year and yelling "Hot Lips is fucking everyone including the camp dog Frank!" and "You're a fag Ferret Face!" into it and then putting it back together because they had to. Essentially, this is how Cracked would have written M*A*S*H: a Nip/Tuck type dark comedy show on HBO that's set during the Korean War. That would have made for an awesome show, no doubt, but we can't always get what we want now can we?