We understand that 40 years is a long time, but in TV time, it’s an eternity. Forty years ago this fall, Gunsmoke and Bonanza were still on the air. So was Mission Impossible, and Dean Martin and Julie Andrews starred in variety shows. But 40 years doesn’t seem all that long when you think of it this way: 40 years ago tonight, M*A*S*H premiered on CBS.
Most of the new fall premieres that year quickly vanished from history. Who remembers Anna and the King or The Sandy Duncan Show—which bracketed M*A*S*H on Sunday nights that first season—or The Little People, or Banyon, which premiered on other networks? Three new shows that fall would earn the status of television classic: M*A*S*H, The Waltons, and The Bob Newhart Show; The Rookies had a successful run for several years, and Kung Fu would become a cult favorite. I haven’t done the research to determine what sort of batting average that is, but it strikes me as decent.
But back to M*A*S*H. During its first season, it ranked 46th among all primetime shows. It wasn’t until its second season, when it was moved to Saturday nights between All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show that it vaulted into the top 10, where it would rank for nine of its next 10 seasons. (It was never #1 for a whole season; it reached #3 during its final year, 1982-83.)
During its first three seasons, M*A*S*H never forgot the prime directive for a television comedy: be funny. It could be serious—and it was at times more serious than any comedy show had ever tried to be—but it wasn’t until later seasons that its commitment to seriousness replaced belly laughs with sanctimony.
During Season 3, the producers of M*A*S*H found a unique way to combine seriousness and humor. They added a character named Calvin Spalding, played by Loudon Wainwright III. He appeared in only three episodes, during which he and other actors sang a number of songs Wainwright wrote especially for the show. Although the show’s roots in the 1970 Robert Altman film were growing ever harder to see by 1974, the Wainwright songs provide some of the series’ most Altmanesque moments.
The only Internet videos I can find look like hell, so I won’t embed them. “North Korean Blues” is used to set and comment on the episode “Rainbow Bridge.” The episode “There Is Nothing Like a Nurse,” in which all female personnel are evacuated from the unit, features an untitled song containing the refrain, “I wonder if they miss us / Now wouldn’t that be funny / Now that we’re without them / We can hardly stand ourselves.” That same episode ends with the single oddest tag in the history of the series, one that’s often omitted from the butchered episodes seen on commercial TV: Spalding, Hawkeye, Trapper, and other members of the cast sing “Unrequited to the Nth Degree” while dancing across the compound.
The Spalding character vanished after the season, and other, more prominent characters would also be written out at the end of Season 3. M*A*S*H would never be the same after that, although its next couple of seasons remain pretty funny today. It’s not until Season 6 that the show begins its long slide into unwatchability. Forty years ago tonight, however, all of that was in the future. The M*A*S*H pilot, about a fundraising raffle to send the surgeons’ houseboy to college in America, is remarkably vulgar for 1972 (and a Sunday night at that), and while it’s not one of the series’ great episodes, the potential is visible. What no one could see then was that M*A*S*H would become one of the most honored and popular shows in TV history.