Larry Gelbart Cyclops - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

They killed off Henry … the other Tuesday night on "M∗A∗S∗H."… Henry was to have returned from Korea to the United States, to his wife and children. His plane crashed. There were no survivors….

[The] end of Henry hurt. I can't recall another sit-com's solving a personnel problem in such a drastic fashion, especially when the character is dear in our affections. On the day-time detergents, to be sure, characters are always disappearing, plunging out of mind as though, stage-left, there were a revolving trapdoor; we will hear later that their subscriptions were cancelled by a car crash or encephalitis or terminal apathy, that they emigrated to Australia and were eaten by wombats.

But these are dramatized actuarial tables, not comedy programs. Nobody dies on a comedy program. And Henry was lovable. The gods with a karate chop dispatched him. Where is the soft rain, the bloody footprint on the snow, the dog on the grave, the many gull, June Allyson, "Little Brown Jug"? "M∗A∗S∗H" resisted the sentimentalizing of Henry's demise. The sad fact was followed by snapshots of him in happier times, a koala bear in a fisherman's cap, his lures like charms on a bracelet or a halo. He was back the following week in the first of the reruns, but for a moment he was really gone. It is a war, we were reminded; not only strangers die in wars. And the premise of the program is reaffirmed—the mad cackling in the surgical unit is a kind of sweat to cool the absurdity, the insanity, of the situation. The situation persists. "M∗A∗S∗H" is a sort of rectal thermometer applied to war. It is to "Hogan's Heroes" or "McHale's Navy" or "Mister Roberts" what Egon Schiele is to Walt Disney.

Cyclops, "On Deep-sixing Sit-com Characters," in The New York Times, Section 2 (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 30, 1975, p. 25.∗