Rewatching “The Office” and “M*A*S*H”

Julie was out of town for a month, and I rewatched the first couple of seasons of “The Office” and “M*A*S*H.”

When people talk about a classic old comedy, they will often say, “You couldn’t make that today!” These people are referring to the comedy’s offensiveness to contemporary sensibilities. Primarily racism and sexism.

I have often been skeptical of that statement—but boy you could not make either “The Office” or “M*A*S*H” today.

I’m a few episodes into Season 3 of The Office and a big part of every episode is Michael Scott saying and doing appallingly sexist and racist things.

I’m a couple of episodes into the second season of MASH (I’m not going to type those asterisks anymore). In the pilot episode, Hawkeye and Trapper just straight-up grab nurses and grope them, and it’s portrayed as good fun. This continues through the first season, though it steadily declines. Radar likes to peek into the nurses’ shower. The first half of the first season is hard to watch. But I pushed through.

There’s also a Black surgeon in the tent with Hawkey and Trapper, nicknamed Spearchucker. He disappears midway through the first season.

Truly tasteless jokes

The podcast Decoder Ring recently talked about racist, sexist, and otherwise offensive humor.

The podcast said that in the 60s and 70s, the left began to adopt those jokes as a way of mocking racism and sexism. That’s exactly why that surgeon was nicknamed Spearchucker—he’s not a stereotype. He’s a good surgeon and a full member of the gang.

Later, the political right picked up those jokes. The left said the right adopted those jokes because the right was racist and sexist. The right said they were mocking the left’s heightened sensitivity to racism and sexism.

Regardless, racist and sexist jokes went through a period of a couple of decades when they often were acceptable in pop culture, which leans left. Then they weren’t, leaving shows like MASH and The Office looking awkward.

Decoder Ring places the racist/sexist humor transition in the 80s, with the “Truly Tasteless Jokes” series of novelty books.

However, the leftist view of racist/sexist humor is still going strong in the mid-2000s, in “The Office,” where Michael Scott is ridiculous.

A few more observations about MASH

Spearchucker disappears from the show midway through the first season, apparently because the writers don’t know what to do with him, leaving only one other recurring, very minor, Black character, the nurse Ginger. There are almost no Asian characters—odd for a show set in Korea.

Barely into the second season, Margaret Houlihan is already a great character. Hawkeye and Trapper are awful to her and Frank. Frank deserves it, but she does not. She’s a great nurse, courageous, and fierce, and has latched onto Frank because she’s terribly lonely. She knows he’s a simp, but he’s all she has. I think Loretta Swit already knows all this in the first season, and is playing the character that way. As I recall from later seasons (which I have not seen since the 80s), the writers eventually catch up.

Loretta Swit was a hell of a good character actress. There’s one great scene where she does a talent show with Hawkeye, Trapper, and Radar. She stands in front, screeching the lyrics to a song—you can’t call it singing—and dancing energetically and gracelessly, with a big grin on her face. She is obviously having such a great time that she is a joy to watch. It’s a good gag, and good characterization for Margaret, hinting that she’s more than just a martinet.

Gary Burghoff is a talented jazz drummer in real life. In one otherwise forgettable storyline, he takes the drums when a band comes to entertain at the camp, and proceeds to wail on them for a couple of minutes. He’s really very good.

Some great character actors appear as guests in that first season of MASH: Jack Soo, famous for “Barney Miller” and “Flower Drum Song;” Leslie Nielsen; Ron Howard, still billed as Ronny; and Sorrell Booke, who later appeared as Boss Hogg in “Dukes of Hazzard.”

Around 1990, I read a newspaper article talking about how the show had been considered a classic while it aired, but the young people then weren’t watching it in reruns. One young person interviewed for the article said the characters were always talking about how terrible war is, but the characters all seem to be having a great time. There is a lot of truth to that.

Larry Linville played Frank Burns brilliantly. I recall interviews with the other cast, particularly Loretta Swit, talking about how Linville was completely the opposite of his character—intelligent, kind, well-read, and he loved to discuss ideas. Linville left MASH after the first few seasons; he reportedly felt the character had become one-dimensional and that Linville had taken Frank as far as he could go. As I recall, Linville was typecast as a weasel after MASH. He died in 2000.

McLean Stevenson, who played Col. Blake, also left MASH early in the series run. He reportedly felt the cast was disrespected by the studio, and didn’t like the way the show had evolved to make Alan Alda the star. Stevenson wanted to be the star of his own show, and he achieved that goal, four times. Every show was badly reviewed, and failed. His name became a joke in entertainment journalism, as did the title of one of his failed sitcoms, “Hello, Larry.” That’s a shame, because Stevenson proved himself on MASH to be a talented comedic actor—look at his goofy moves in the Loretta Swit clip above—and capable of the dramatic moments MASH required.

Another reason you couldn’t make MASH today: Americans love war and the military now. The military is the only institution Americans support and have faith in.

A few more observations about The Office

A superfan of the show told me that Michael Scott’s character changes, and becomes more sympathetic, after the third season. That’s kind of how I remember the show too. We can already see inklings of this by the first few episodes of the third season, which is how far I’ve rewatched. He’s legitimately a great salesman. In glimpses when he leaves the toxic workplace environment, the toxicness drains from him and he becomes a nice guy. His encounter with Jan—which happens almost entirely offscreen—comes across as sweet and tender in descriptions.

Pam and Jim are as sweet as I remember them from my first viewing of The Office. Jim twice goes over the line with Pam, but he’s genuinely sorry. Unlike that dastard Roy.

As “The Office” progresses through S2 and S3, we see Jim and Pam becoming protective of Michael Scott. He’s still horrible, but he’s their horrible little brother. They like him, despite everything.

For an interesting theory about The Office, see here:

The author divides corporate workplaces into sociopaths, who run things, clueless middle management, and losers at the bottom of the hierarchy who actually do the work. Jan and later Ryan are sociopaths, Michael Scott is clueless, and the entire rest of the staff are losers. Including Jim and Pam

Also, Severance

A third show I watched while Julie was out of town: “Severance,” on Apple TV, a science fiction drama about a workgroup of four people at a company where they erase your memory every day when you come in to work, and every day when you leave. Your work self only remembers your work life and knows nothing about what you do outside of work, and your out-of-work self knows nothing about what you do when you go into the office.

As with “Mad Men,” the visual design of “Severance” plays as prominent a role as the acting and writing—the sets and props in particular.

“Severance” is brilliant.

You could make a case that all three shows I watched in Julie’s absence were workplace comedies and dramas. But if you want to argue MASH is a workplace show, then pretty much every drama and comedy on TV is either a workplace show or a family show. I don’t know if I’m prepared to go to that extreme.

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