David Hoppe

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:: How MASH became The Office

by David Hoppe

I woke up the other day realizing an entire entertainment genre has gone the way of the dodo bird.

Whatever happened to the service comedy?

Unless you were born in the couple of decades after World War II, the odds are you don’t know what I’m talking about. But from the 1950’s through the early ‘70s, comedies about serving in our country’s armed forces were a go-to form of popular diversion.

There was the Phil Silvers Show, better known as Sgt. Bilko, about a haplessly scheming noncom; McHale’s Navy, which made serving on a PT Boat seem like an endless frat party; The Wackiest Ship In the Army, with a title that pretty much explains itself; and, of course, Hogan’s Heroes, a long-running series that made being a prisoner of war look like summer camp.

The genre reached a kind of pinnacle with the mordant movie, MASH, about a hospital unit in Korea, which was then recycled as one of the most popular TV series of all time. For its final episode, in 1983, MASH’s television version attracted 125 million viewers, making it the most-watched single television episode in history at that time.

Service comedies were about making the best of bad situations. You took a bunch of guys (they were predominantly guys, since it was uncommon for women to serve) and put them in a setting not of their choosing. Things that were supposed to be organized weren’t, which created plenty of openings for personal resourcefulness (aka hijinx) aimed at creating a semblance of normalcy in conditions that might otherwise be construed as crazy. Service comedies championed nonconformists. They promoted the idea that a person’s best defense might be a sense of humor. 

It occurred to me, at first, that the volunteer army accounted for service comedies’ fall from favor. When people have to serve whether they want to or not — what you get with a draft — humor seems more available. Our volunteer military emphasizes sacrifice. Under these circumstances, the goldbrick, a soldier always looking for an easy way out, is not an absurdist hero, but a dangerous liability. Not funny.

But then I began to see that the service comedy hasn’t gone away so much as morphed into something else. Stories that used to play out in military settings have migrated to the workplace.

We may not be drafted into the world of work, but let’s face it: in this society it’s get a job, or else. Work is what almost all of us do; but only the lucky can claim to love it.

Americans, we are told, take fewer vacations, retire later, and work more hours. Compared to our peers in other industrialized countries, we work more, period.

No wonder, then, instead of service comedies, we watch shows like The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Scrubs (a peacetime MASH). The characters in these various workplaces — their schemes, longings, delusions of grandeur and, most of all, cock-eyed attempts to try and make life a little more bearable — are instantly recognizable. Only the uniforms have changed.