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Saturday, September 17, 2022

September 17-18, 2022: War is Hella Funny: M*A*S*H

[50 years ago this coming weekend, the pilot episode of M*A*S*H aired. So in honor of that ground-breaking sitcom, this week I’ve AmericanStudied wartime comedies in various media, leading up to this special post on M*A*S*H itself!]

On AmericanStudies takeaways from each of the three iterations of M*A*S*H.

1)      The Novel: I can’t be alone (at least among us born post-1970) in not having been aware that the entire MASH franchise originated with a book, Richard Hooker’s (a pseudonym for military surgeon H. Richard Hornberger) MASH: A Novel about Three Army Doctors (1968). That was just the beginning of the literary franchise, as Hooker followed it up with two sequels over the next decade, M*A*S*H Goes to Maine (1972) and M*A*S*H Mania (1977). When we remember that Monday’s subject, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, was published just seven years before Hooker’s book, the two novels become part of a longer conversation (along with Wednesday’s subject Dr. Strangelove) about 1960s wartime comedies and satires. Interestingly none of those works focuses on the decade’s ongoing war in Vietnam, but of course all of them were at least implicitly in conversation with that contemporary event.

2)      The Film: Just two years after the publication of Hooker’s novel, journalist and screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. adapted it into a screenplay that was then directed by the young filmmaker Robert Altman as M*A*S*H (1970). Both Lardner Jr. (in tandem with his dad Ring Lardner Sr.) and Altman have plenty to tell us about American culture and pop culture across the 20th century, as does the fact that the film is apparently the first studio movie to feature audibly the word “fuck.” But what’s particularly interesting to me is the way in which the film’s main changes from Hooker’s novel involve the two characters of color: in the book the main Black character is known as “Spearchucker” Jones and is the target of significant stereotyping, whereas he gets a more three-dimensional portrayal in the film; and in the book the young Korean soldier Ho-Jon is killed off, whereas in the film (and later the TV show) he survives. Close in time, but quite distinct in tone, are these two texts.

3)      The TV Show: Just two years after that film (and thus only four years after the novel—this franchise exploded very fast), on September 17, 1972, that hyperlinked opening scene of the pilot episode aired on CBS, launching what would become one of the most successful TV shows in history by the time its hugely prominent finale aired in February 1983. Of course a show that ran for 256 episodes across 11 seasons diverged in all sorts of big and small ways from the book and film alike; but the core characters remained the same, a striking testimony to their appeal across all these genres and media. But one thing that’s specific to the show’s more than a decade-long timeline is how much the world changed across those years—from the Vietnam War ending to the changes in the Cold War between 1972 to 1983, and with many concurrent changes to the medium of television itself, a show like M*A*S*H can help us track and analyze contexts well beyond its characters and plots.

Next series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think? Other wartime comedies you’d highlight?


  1. I like "Kelly's Heroes". I'd call it black humor, mocking war, the military, as well as the counter-culture. Critics didn't know quite what it was, so doesn't score real high on rotten tomatoes.

  2. Thanks, Bill--not sure I've seen and need to check it out (again) in any case!