Ah, the stories of writers facing a TV network’s rules department are many. One show which butted heads a lot with it is CBS’s “M*A*S*H.”
Three of the show’s writers, Alan Alda, Ken Levine, and Dan Wilcox, shared their experiences with the Standards and Practices Department over the years. Alda, of course, also starred on the show as “Hawkeye” Pierce. They spoke at length during a 2018 interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
“I wrote an episode where Margaret (Houlihan, played by Loretta Swit) sees a jockstrap on the table and starts going nuts,” Alda said. “‘How dare you parade that thing before me?’ Standards and practices said we couldn’t show a jockstrap.”
Alda said he “got really angry” since previous “M*A*S*H” episodes had brassieres and women’s panties. “Hawkeye had walked through a clothesline and had them slapping him in the face,” he said. “Is there something holy about the male genitalia? They never gave a reason why. They just stuck to it.”
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Levine recalls getting a regular weekly note about profanity in the show’s scripts.
“Every week we got the same note, ‘Cut the casual profanity in half,'” Levine said. “If we wanted eight hells and damns we’d put 16 into the script. We tried to slip one by when we had Radar (O’Reilly, played by Gary Burghoff) say to a visiting general, ‘Your tent is ready your VIP-ness.’ We got caught.”
Wilcox recalls a “M*A*S*H” episode where Hawkeye said another “b” word.
“We did an episode in which Hawkeye yells, ‘You b-stard!’ at a South Korean officer who is taking a North Korean female guerrilla away for questioning and probable torture,” he said. “The censor said we couldn’t say ‘b-stard,’ but we could say ‘son of a b—h.'”
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Wilcox said the writing team wasn’t thrilled with the ruling. Yet they did have a chance to use strong language in a spot.
He also shared a similar experience in the next season of “M*A*S*H.”
“The next year, we had a similar moment and the same thing happens,” Wilcox said. “In the final season, we went directly to ‘son of a b—h’ and the censor comes back and says, ‘That’s strong language, would you mind if you say ‘b-stard’?”
Talk about your no-win situation for those “M*A*S*H” writers. Nevertheless, they persevered in writing some of the most compelling scripts in TV history. That’s even with a heavy-handed Standards and Practices Department overlooking all the words.