Tuesday, 22 June 2010
Get Some Attitude
M*A*S*H is a really important sitcom for me. It's not just that it's brilliant, well-written, and has lots of decent jokes. It's also not just that it's got the most original and interesting setting. For me, it's the fact that the show even exists. It's a sitcom, set in a medical unit during the Korean war. Let me repeat that. It's a sitcom - a comedy - set in Korea, during the war in which young men and women were wounded and killed. It's not set on a cushy base in the USA, like The Phil Silvers Show. It's not even set in an uninvaded England, like Dad's Army. Bombs go off. Bloodied men come in. Limbs are cut off. Snipers turn up. People die.
It's as unlikely as Life is Beautiful - a comedy drama about an Italian concentration camp. M*A*S*H and Life is Beautiful are, to some extent, about the same thing - coping with horror. For the comedy to work, and the characters to be real, the horror has to be real. And it is.
But what M*A*S*H means to me is that it demonstrates that anything is possible. Anything. There isn't one single place where you couldn't set a comedy. And for that comedy to stand at least a chance of success. We know this in our heart of hearts, but do we believe it? Maybe we veer towards safe places because they're easier to write. Plus difficult settings require hard work, research and reading - which sounds like the real graft that most of us writers are trying to get out of doing. That's why we're writers. So we don't have to read and do real work.
M*A*S*H is carefully written, based on real experiences (since the original movie is based on a non-fiction book), and has an ring of truth to it. When Hawkeye is making light of calamity, we know he's only doing that because if he doesn't, he won't be able to cope. Klinger wears a dress because he really wants to get out of that hell hole. Some people are up tight. Some people not tight enough. It feels right.
The TV series M*A*S*H did have one key advantage. A two-hour pilot. When the original movie, the idea of making it into a TV show was not even on the table, but having made the movie, and turned it into a TV series, they had plenty to go on. And plenty of mistakes to learn from. As I like to constantly point out on this blog, failure is good. Banality is the enemy.
I mention this because I saw the movie for the first time the other day. It was made in 1970, when the parallels with the war in Vietnam were very obvious. And the subversive tone of the film carries everything. The film has attitude. In my opinion, it doesn't have much else. I could barely make out what they were saying to each other, so I had to have the subtitles on; I couldn't follow the plot, until I realised that there wasn't one - it's just a series of incidents, which felt like for 4 episodes of a sitcom whammed together (so no wonder they turned into a sitcom); and I couldn't really distinguish between the three main characters.
But the film has some magic dust - and I think that dust is ground out of the solid attitude of the movie. It tackles the nature of all things military head on. It shows how people cope with the horror of war, and seeing its casualties. It shows the cost of those survival techniques. There were shades of Catch-22 in it. And all of it was successfully captures and turned into a highly successful, long running sitcom.
Thinking about it has inspired me to work harder to find better, harsher, more interesting settings for comedies; and having an attitude that carries the show along. A good setting and some guts will cover a multitude of sins.