Friday November 18, 2022
M*A*S*H Note: Seinfeld Before Seinfeld
There was this thing that “Seinfeld” did pretty much throughout its run where characters would talk over each other. It wasn't in that Woody Allenish simulacrum of everyday conversation, where dialogue was a series of fender benders. No, in this, each character was involved with their own concerns, their own minidramas, and would voice them, and the other side would voice their own, and it seemed like they were having a conversation but they were actually having two separate conversations. Each was talking and neither was listening. It felt a bit like the way the solipsistic world ran. I'd never seen a TV show, or a movie for that matter, do something similar.
Turns out, “M*A*SH” did it two decades earlier.
Last night I watched the episode “Life With Father” (Season 3, Episode 8), and that's pretty much what happens throughout. There's a mail call and Father Mulcahy learns his sister, the sister, wants to leave the nunnery to have children. This upsets him. Henry's wife sends him a letter giving him permission to have an affair, and, initially buoyant, he slowly realizes, and then conclusively finds out, it's because of a guilty conscience. “An orthodontist, Lorraine?” There's a subplot about a half-Korean, half-Jewish baby needing a bris, and how Frank and Hot Lips object and try to document it. Meanwhile, our heroes Hawkeye and Trapper walk through the episode trying to find 10 presidential faces in a barnyard scene in order to win a pony. They become like the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of their own show.
I'd already noticed this solipsistic tendecy developing in the mess tent but it really plays out when Henry visits Father Mulcahey, each airs their own concerns, neither listens to the other, and in fact Henry thinks the Father gave him great advice he never gave him. It's totally “Seinfeld” two decades before “Seinfeld.”
The writers of the episode were Everett Greenbaum and James Fritzell, who worked together in television for 30 years, writing episodes of “Mister Peepers,” “The Real McCoys,” “The Andy Griffith Show” and 24 episodes of “M*A*S*H,” including “The General Flipped at Dawn,” “Abyssinia, Henry,” a lot of the transitional ones (Col. Potter's arrival, Margaret's marriage), as well as several other mail call episodes. In case this is ever helpful to anyone doing a history of sitcoms.
Don't know if I've mentioned this here, on my own blog, but in my run through the first few seasons of “M*A*S*H,” the actors who have consistently made me laugh out loud are: 1) McLean Stevenson and 2) Jamie Farr. Oh, and Loretta Swit does the best drunk on the show. Hands down. Overall, the show is shockingly undated for something 50 years old.