Loretta Swit said M*A*S*H cut to the heart of war

M*A*S*H had its fair share of silly moments, but Swit wanted to make sure viewers knew that war was no laughing matter.

Image credit: The Everett Collection

M*A*S*H was set during the Korean War, but the series also directed some of the jokes and references towards the Vietnam War. According to a 1981 interview with The News and Observer, Swit said M*A*S*H could have taken place anywhere, on any front, and the message would have stayed the same: War is not fun. 

"I think all wars are the same." Swit said. "They're all ugly and awful, and they shouldn't be. And that's been our comment all along."

Looking back, it's hard to believe that a series like M*A*S*H survived the political and artistic land mines in its path.

M*A*S*H cut right to the heart of what war is while still remaining upbeat and endearing. Swit said it was a fine line to walk; Show the horrors of war, but not too much or the people in charge would be upset. 

"There was that constant pressure that first season," Swit said. "In the beginning, we were constantly under the gun — no pun intended — to keep it light and funny. I think the network was a bit afraid. I mean, after all, we're supposed to be a comedy, but we were never a comedy about the war."

Instead of focusing on the war, M*A*S*H focused on its people. Alan Alda (Hawkeye), Swit (Houlihan), Jamie Farr (Klinger) and the rest of the 4077th crew became fan-favorites as the show progressed.

Just like with All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, it needed some time to find the right audience. After a year, the ratings justified the gamble. 

Swit and her co-stars wanted people to know that the pranks and hijinks on the series were just a way to cope with war rather than forget its horrors.

"Then, little by little, as people accepted what we were doing, we were given more leverage to say what we wanted to say," Swit said. "But we did have to tone down the blood, and, yes, their preference was to have as few OR (operating room) scenes as possible."

The cast and crew on M*A*S*H had to do a lot of fighting for what they believed in. It's safe to say that throughout the series' long 11 season run, they were able to do just that. 

"We fought to have no laugh track in the operating room, and we won that battle," Swit said. "Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart fought for years to remove the track completely. But they lost. You can see the show in England without a laugh track, but not here."

Many fans believed that M*A*S*H would never end. Even some of the cast members had a hard time accepting its end. Swit said the diverse audience accounted for the longevity.

"Kids love M*A*S*H," Swit said. "Every day they're pounding on the door to get onto the set. And oldsters like it, too. M*A*S*H succeeds because it has intelligent, meaningful humor, and the scripts are consistently literate."

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5 Comments

CoreyC 7 months ago
I believe that if Wayne Rogers and McLean Stevenson had stayed I doubt M*A*S*H would have lasted as long as it did.
NickG 7 months ago
I don’t think any show liked itself more, and that smugness really showed.
Adamtwelvia NickG 5 months ago
Ya mean ALAN ALDA liked himself more
Andybandit 7 months ago
LS was right. It is good to have some fun. But you have to take the war seriously.
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