Larry Gelbart Horace Newcomb - Essay

Horace Newcomb

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[One socially conscious comedy] has created a format and an attitude of its own, which moves farther along the direction pointed by the Bunkers [in "All in the Family"]…. [There is a family structure in "M∗A∗S∗H," but] it is not a biological family. Rather, we have a set of characters forced into deep human relationships because they are serving in a field hospital, isolated from other groups. The central characters make their lives bearable by circumventing U.S. Army regulations. This, in itself, sets the tone of critical commentary. One of the characters portrays a pseudo-transvestite, hoping for a psychological discharge. Other characters openly engage in extramarital sex. Beneath the raucous humor lies the war in which they are directly involved, and some of the grimmest jokes take place in the operating room….

[The] characters are often in anguish over their inability to heal the maimed soldiers who come into the hospital. But the war continues indefinitely. The cast of characters, then, has modified its values into an upside-down world, reminiscent of the novel Catch-22 [by Joseph Heller]. Their humor is a means of retaining sanity in an insane world of war. The audience is caught between its laughter and its realization—gently prodded when things get too lighthearted—that the war provides the theater for the humor. Even so, the choice has been made to emphasize the comedy and to reduce the specific social commentary. This show and "All in the Family" are strong indications that comedy is now the chief vehicle for social criticism on television…. (p. 226)

Horace Newcomb, in his TV: The Most Popular Art (copyright © 1974 by Horace Newcomb; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Company, Inc.), Anchor Press, 1974, 272 p.