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11 “Suicide Is Painless” Larry Gelbart was in London at the turn of the 1970s when Gene Reynolds asked if he would write the pilot for a TV version of M*A*S*H. From the standpoint of Reynolds’s employer, Twentieth Century-Fox Television, there was some urgency to the matter. M*A*S*H had done terri‹cally well as a theatrical ‹lm, and the word was that the heads of Fox’s ‹lm division were considering a sequel. Bill Self, head of Fox’s TV operations, had another idea. He wanted to launch a network TV series of M*A*S*H. And he wanted to do it fast enough to head off any sequels by the theatrical division that might derail his plans. Reynolds, a successful TV producer for the company, got the assignment. His ‹rst concern was ‹nding someone to write the pilot. Coming up with a good script would be a challenge if the series were to keep the complex ›avor that had caused the movie to receive so much attention. M*A*S*H was the story of a mobile army surgical hospital (a MASH unit) during the Korean War. Richard Hornberger, a surgeon who had worked in one, had transformed his recollections into a book that attempted to re›ect the mixture of pride, amusement, and horror that remained in his memory. Helicopters brought in wounded by the score for emergency surgery. The youthful surgeons, many of them draftees, worked long, hard hours in makeshift operating rooms. The emotional toll on the physicians was severe, and outside the O.R. they blew off a lot of steam. 248 “Our philosophy was do the job well and after that—do as you please,” Hornberger recalled. “We were out there in the middle of nowhere. What could they do, ‹re us?”1 Under Robert Altman’s direction, undoubtedly in›uenced by the rising agony over the contemporary Vietnam con›ict, the movie had given Hornberger’s tale a startling cinematic spin, alternating between the gore of the operating room and the manic humor of the surgeons needing some relief from the continual agony. The movie’s theme song, “Suicide Is Painless,” re›ected the desperate edge to the comedy. It was the desperate shift between comedy and horror and the curious reason for the shift that Reynolds felt he wanted to bring to the home tube. The writer who would help him get there, Larry Gelbart, was an old friend. Gelbart was known as a comedy writer in the class of Neil Simon. In fact, he and Simon had been two of the enormously talented team that had worked on the classic Caesar’s Hour television program during the early 1950s. Reynolds contacted Gelbart in London, where he had settled after the London premiere of the hit musical he had coauthored, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Gelbart agreed with Reynolds that bringing M*A*S*H to television had intriguing possibilities, but only if they could keep the tone and implications of the original ‹lm. He emphatically did not want to be a party to a service gang comedy or a high-jinks war. Underlying the comedy , and alternating with it, had to be an awareness of the seriousness of the physicians’ work and the reasons for their antics. Reynolds and Gelbart both saw that awareness as an irony that would become their central theme in working on the series. “What [the M*A*S*H physicians are] doing is absurd, it’s futile,” Reynolds said. “They’re in the middle of a war where everything is designed to destroy, to tear bodies up, to maim, to kill. They’re in the business of putting these bodies back together again, only to have them sent back—sort of like recycling people—which becomes like shoving a rock up a hill only to have it roll down.”2 Gelbart wrote the pilot while in England. Reynolds and Fox sold it to CBS, whose programmers at the time took pride in their ability to identify successful situation comedies with controversial or unusual angles (All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show). The network scheduled the premiere in September 1973 at 8 p.m. It “Suicide Is Painless” | 249 started off slowly but then gained strong critical acclaim and heavy ratings power, despite the networks’ tendency to change its time slot almost every year for the ‹rst...


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MARC Record
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