This Saturday, September 17th, marks 50 years since the first episode of the sitcom M*A*S*H aired on TV. Very few people actually saw that episode, or any other episode that first season. In the Nielsen prime time ratings, M*A*S*H finished a dismal 46th that year. That’s the kind of ranking that would make even the New York Jets say, “Whoa, dude, that’s embarrassing.”
That first year, CBS ran M*A*S*H in the 8 p.m. Sunday timeslot, opposite popular shows “The Wonderful World of Disney” on NBC, and “The FBI” on ABC.
There have been many terrific TV sitcoms over the years, but my favorite is M*A*S*H, the story of Army doctors and nurses trying to save lives only a few miles from the fighting during the Korean War. Featuring memorable characters such as Hawkeye, Trapper, Hot Lips, Radar, and Klinger, the show was clever and witty, and successfully balanced war-time horrors with wacky hijinx.
Legend has it the show was going to be cancelled because of poor ratings, but the wife of CBS founder William Paley told him she liked the show, so it stayed on the air. M*A*S*H finally started drawing larger audiences by the third season, and it became one of the most popular TV shows of all time, running for 11 years. (Which is kind of interesting since the Korean War lasted three years.)
The thing I loved most about M*A*S*H was the witty dialogue. As a socially timid high school kid, I thought it would be so cool to be able to fire off quick and hilarious comments, just like Hawkeye. At the time, I didn’t realize his clever comebacks were painstakingly crafted by a team of writers.
I’d love to be able to say I was one of the few people who watched the pilot episode of M*A*S*H back in September, 1972. But like most folks, I never even heard of the show until a year or two later. However, between the blizzard of M*A*S*H reruns over the decades, and my prized collection of DVDs, I’ve seen that episode — plus every other one — countless times.
This Saturday, I plan to break out the “Season One” DVDs, just for old times sake.