I’m not a big fan of contemporary comedies. In fact, I don’t think there’s been much on TV that induces a laugh since “Seinfeld.” In my view, “Seinfeld” owned the 1990’s, “Cheers” was tops in the 1980’s, and the decade before featured the king of them of all, “M*A*S*H.” It began with Robert Altman’s feature film M*A*S*H which became a surprise hit in 1970, motivating CBS to adapt it for the small screen. Whereas the movie was rated R, the network believed it could create a more family-friendly version of war.
Why does “M*A*S*H” rule? Because it takes a very serious situation — the Korean War — and turns it into a comedy, all without losing an ounce of the topic’s severity. You can be laughing your ass off one minute, and then next you have a (sad) tear in your eye. (Nevertheless, as the show progressed into its waning seasons, beginning in season #7, gone was the laugh track and with it much of the witty writing that made it great.)
For me, “M*A*S*H” seasons 2 and 3 are without a doubt the best television comedy ever: hilarious, intelligent writing, perfect casting, and a wide range of scenarios. Even the most mundane of topics (see my #1 selection below) was turned into a comedic tour de force.
#10. “Alcoholics Unanimous” (season 3). Temporary base commander Frank Burns orders the MASH 4077 to become bone dry — that is, alcohol is no longer permitted. After Burns has Hawkeye and Trapper’s still disassembled (at gunpoint), the latter duo sneak into the store room looking for some hooch. Lo and behold, Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan also comes in looking for same, and what follows may be the series’ single funniest scene: Hawk, Trap, and Margaret hilariously give (a very angry) Frank the run-around after he catches them with the booze.
#9. “The General Flipped at Dawn (season 3). Before Harry Morgan assumed the role of Colonel Potter the very next season, he showed up as one of the most memorable MASH guest stars ever: General Hamilton Steele. It’s obvious right from the start the general has several screws loose, but the kicker is that he’s an overt racist: Before a hearing gets underway in which Hawkeye may get sent to the stockade, Steele asks a black helicopter pilot to sing a “number” before his testimony — because he’s “got it in his blood.”
#8. “A Smattering of Intelligence” (season 2). Featuring my favorite recurring character, CIA officer Colonel Flagg, a pair of intelligence officers begin investigating each other for … who knows what. Naturally, Hawkeye and Trapper decide to have a little fun with Flagg and his counterpart, Captain Pratt — in particular by “doctoring” up Frank Burns’ personnel file. Included: Burns was “an usher at a Bund meeting in 1939,” and had donated $25 to “a Martin Borman telethon in Argentina.” If you have no idea what the hell that’s all about, look it up like I did as a young kid. Then laugh your ass off.
#7. “Dear Dad 3” (season 2). One of the things MASH did so well in its early seasons was get a message across without being preachy, even though ripping racism can certainly use some preaching. Enter a non-com who, before going under for surgery, asks Hawkeye to make sure he gets “the right color blood.” So, what do Hawk and Trapper do? Paint him with a type of mercurochrome that turns his skin dark temporarily. As the guy is frantic after waking up thinking he got the “wrong blood,” in comes Trapper with the lunch the soldier “ordered”: fried chicken and watermelon.
#6. “House Arrest” (season 3). Throughout seasons 1 through 5, it’s no secret that Hawkeye can’t stand Frank Burns. In one of the instances where their feud reaches a breaking point, Hawk punches Frank in the jaw after receiving a rat tail from his nemesis. Confined to his tent as a result, Hawk is nonetheless treated like a king for what he did — the camp movie is held in his quarters, and the cook makes him a special meal. Still, Frank teases him about the meaning of “freedom”; that is, until he falls victim to a visiting nurse who accuses him of rape!
#5. “Henry in Love” (season 2). Colonel Henry Blake returns from a sojourn in Tokyo and proclaims to Hawkeye and Trapper that he’s in love — with a 21 year-old girl. The quips from Hawk and Trap are endless, leaving Henry at one point to yell “Can the wisecracks, uh?” … whereupon Hawk starts right back up again! Radar constantly drops hints to the colonel about his wife and kids, and thankfully he listens … never knowing that with whom he thought he was in love had made a move on Hawkeye (giving him a “tonsillectomy you wouldn’t believe”).
#4. “Crisis” (season 2). It’s freezing cold and the 4077’s supply lines have been cut. This means the camp’s occupants have to squeeze together in cramped tents to save power (and heat), all the while doing their jobs — saving soldiers’ lives — with rapidly depleting blood and supplies. Colonel Blake’s snoring (and enlarged prostate) keep the men awake at night, Father Mulcahy’s cross keeps sticking Radar, and Hawkeye and Trapper go after Frank for his battery-powered hunting socks.
#3. “Abyssinia, Henry” (season 3). McLean Stevenson (Colonel Blake) attempted to capitalize on MASH’s smash success at this point by moving on to his own show on another network. It was a bad move; he never found the success he had on MASH (and ended up a regular on the original “Match Game”). This, his swan song, is what MASH is all about: You spend most of the half-hour laughing your ass off, then boom — you’re punched in the gut. Henry Blake, husband and father of three, never makes it home as his plane gets shot down over the Sea of Japan.
#2. “Deal Me Out” (season 2). The weekly “conference” is underway, which is actually a poker game featuring two recurring characters: psychiatrist Sidney Freedman and Captain Sam Pak. The game is subject to numerous interruptions, not the least of which is Colonel Flagg’s first-ever appearance (as Capt. Halloran): He’s investigating why Hawkeye and Trapper operated on an intelligence officer without permission. Meanwhile, Radar allegedly hits an old Korean con man with a jeep.
#1. “Adam’s Ribs” (season 3). The king of them all, the writing for this episode is unsurpassed … and it’s not even close. Hawkeye gets a hankering for spare ribs from a joint in Chicago (especially since only liver or fish have been available in the camp mess hall the last eleven days), and he’ll do whatever he has to to get ’em. Thankfully, Trapper once had a fling with a Chicago girl, and she ends up believing the ridiculous story Trap tells her as to why they need 40 pounds of ribs and a gallon of sauce (“anatomy practice”). The ribs make it to Korea, but Hawk and Trap encounter a snag: The supply officer, from Joliet, Illinois, is a fan of the same rib joint as Hawkeye … and wants a cut of the ribs. The final scene is absolute perfection.
“M*A*S*H” remains the gold standard for TV writing; in 2013, the Writers Guild of America voted the fifth best written TV series of all time. There are some television shows that transcend time and genre—and leave an indelible mark on culture long after they’ve left the airwaves. “M*A*S*H” is one of those shows. You can watch M*A*S*H via streaming services now on Hulu, or Youtube, or check out less reputable websites like Daily Motion for a few episodes.