Dealing with network censors was something “M*A*S*H” creator Larry Gelbart did regularly. One time, though, he outsmarted them.
Alan Alda regales SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris with this and other hijinx involving censors at CBS during a 2019 interview.
“In the beginning, we were heavily censored,” Alda said of “M*A*S*H” episodes. “‘Radar’ [Gary Burghoff] had a line in one show that he wanted to express the fact that he didn’t understand something at all. And he said, ‘I’m a virgin about that.’ No sexual content, just that it was all new to him.”
CBS censors told the show that they could not say the word “virgin.”
“Even in a non-sexual context,” Alda adds.
“So the next week, Larry Gelbart, the head writer, had a very short nothing scene that came out of nowhere,” he said. “A guy’s coming by on a stretcher and I say, ‘Where’re you from, son?’ He said, ‘Da Virgin Islands, sir.'”
‘M*A*S*H’ Actor Recalls Network Not Wanting ‘Full Spectrum Of Life’ Covered
Score that victory for Gelbart. Yet network censors found other places to pick at on “M*A*S*H” during its 11-season run.
“When the time came when a soldier died on the operating table in one of the stories, they went crazy with opposition to it,” Alda told Carteris. “The head of the network [CBS] said, ‘What is this? A situation tragedy?’ Because they didn’t want the full spectrum of life.”
Carteris asks, “Well, did they not want the full spectrum of life because it wouldn’t sell?”
“Oh sure,” Alda replies.
“So when they saw it did, they said do more or…” she said.
“Once we got popular, we could do anything we wanted,” Alda said. “M*A*S*H,” centered during the Korean War, would tackle issues around soldiers’ mental health and others.
Show Creator Won Emmy Award In 1974 For Outstanding Comedy Series
Larry Gelbart, who died on Sept. 11, 2009, at 81 years old, was not a newbie to TV writing when “M*A*S*H” hit CBS. He was part of a slew of comedy writers for comedian Sid Caesar that included Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Carl Reiner, and Neil Simon.
“M*A*S*H” did bring Gelbart an Emmy Award for “Outstanding Comedy Series” in 1974.
Now Gelbart was not only a writer “M*A*S*H” but he was a co-creator of it along with Gene Reynolds.
He also was busy with film work, too. His 1982 screenplay for “Tootsie,” starring Dustin Hoffman, was nominated for an Academy Award. Gelbart co-wrote it with Murray Schisgal.
“M*A*S*H” remains a smash hit all these years later thanks to the wonders of reruns. People all over the world can watch Alda, Burghoff, Wayne Rogers, Mike Farrell, McLean Stevenson, Loretta Swit, and others all the time. The show, which originally was a movie starring Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, and Sally Kellerman, would bring CBS lots of viewers.