During the filming and writing process of “M*A*S*H,” the show’s writers ran into a good number of censorship issues.
Specifically, there were a couple of words that CBS told show writers they could not put into the show. The words are not ones we would even think about censoring today but were an issue in the 1970s while the show was being filmed.
Alan Alda on Censored Words in ‘M*A*S*H’
The two words that were especially odd to censor were “virgin” and “circumcision.”
In an interview with Television Academy, Alan Alda, who played Hawkeye Pierce on the show, spoke about the show’s experience with censorship from an acting perspective.
“In the early days, there were some ludicrous examples of this. Radar at one point, in one of the early shows, said he was a virgin. This word was excised by the censor … I thought being a virgin is something they would like,” Alda said.
Alda shared that when the show was first on and wasn’t as popular, CBS was far more strict with them on what could be said.
One of the “M*A*S*H” writers, Larry Gelbart, liked to get even with the network when they made these unnecessary choices. Alda said that to get even with CBS he had one soldier be asked the question, “Where are you from?”
His response was that he was from the Virgin Islands. It was a petty and childish way to get the word in there so the network couldn’t take it out. Although it seems like an odd and small victory, it helped the show exert some control and dominance over the network.
Alda said they were always strict about specific words. Specifically, the number of curse words in each episode as well. Today, this is far more lenient and television shows are given more liberty on how they allow characters to express themselves on the screen. It is a more accurate representation of our culture today.
“They say stuff you couldn’t even say in private then … I think language should all be demystified. I don’t think gutter language should have the power over us that it does,” Alda said.
Writer Larry Gelbart on Dealing with Censorship
As a writer, maneuvering around censorship can be frustrating, especially if it’s a constant battle.
That’s exactly how writer Larry Gelbart explained the writer versus CBS dynamic that was at play in an interview with Television Academy. He said that CBS as a network was more “nervous” and would be very strict in everything regarding a script. This went beyond just the language itself.
“Every script had problems in it for them, whether it was language or storyline or relationship … so most of our dealings were with CBS,” Gelbart said.
However, “M*A*S*H” was a landmark show of the time. Not just in eventual ratings and viewership, but in content. The writers delved into conversations about politics and war that were considered taboo at the time. The show walked on a fine line trying to comment on the war without appearing they were protesting the Vietnam War.
“CBS could be very annoying and were, but in the big matters, allowing us to say what we wanted about the war, the political aspect, never a word. For that I will always be grateful,” he said.
Gelbart on ‘M*A*S*H’ Gaining Traction
At the end of the day, CBS was seemingly biased. If a show was successful and gave them money or even broke-even, censorship was less strict. During the first two years, writers and the actors had to constantly prove themselves and hold their ground.
“In the first or second year, they wouldn’t let us use the word circumcision. In the fourth year, we did a circumcision. We had proved we were a commercial hit, therefore we could be given greater latitude,” Gelbart said.
Gelbart admitted he would often get into “child’s play” with the network. He never could accept being censored and would always find a way to get back at CBS, even if it was years later.
Clearly, whatever he and others that worked on the show did ended up working. “M*A*S*H” was a massive success with 11 seasons and the most-watched series finale in history. Gelbart was no virgin to a little censorship battle and refused to let the show be circumcised by a controlling network.