Burt Prelutsky

Recently, I received an e-mail from a young associate pastor in Maryland. He introduced himself as an avid fan of “MASH”. He said that one of his favorite episodes had been one I wrote, “Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler?” and that he was considering using the show as an inspiration for an upcoming sermon. He wanted to know how I had come up with the idea. He also wanted to know how my own faith and understanding of God or Christ had informed my writing.

I must confess that I am not usually given to thinking of my writing in such grandiose terms, and it shocked me to find a man of the cloth doing so. It took some thinking on my part, especially as the writing took place over 30 years ago. At the time, my TV writing career was at a standstill. Because my agents were a man and wife team who were well-meaning, but highly ineffective, it appeared that things weren’t likely to change for the better any time soon.

Fortunately, I was still a print journalist, writing a weekly humor column for the L.A. Times. Because I would occasionally mention having gone to Fairfax High School, I was invited to host an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the school’s founding. As part of the event, someone representing each of the five decades would reminisce about their years of internment. Larry Gelbart, writer-producer of “MASH,” spoke about the 1940s. I did double duty, hosting and talking about life at Fairfax in the 50s.

One day, some months later, I got a call from my female agent. She wanted me to know that they’d taken in a third partner. The new guy would specialize in sit com writers. She suggested I come down and meet him. I did, and regretted it almost immediately. The guy was totally obnoxious. It seemed he wanted to be a producer more than he wanted to be an agent. He proposed that I should write up his ideas. I pointed out he didn’t seem too crazy about the way I wrote up my own. He said that was true, but this time he would be around to help. I told him that I would think about it, but in the meantime I had a family to support.

He asked me what shows appealed to me. I mentioned “Bob Newhart,” “Mary Tyler Moore” and “MASH”. He looked at me as if I were insane. “You’re only talking about the hottest shows on the air.” I told him I was fully aware of that fact, but those were the ones I wanted to write for, and, besides, I was merely answering his question. I told him that, inasmuch as I had to earn a living, I would gladly write for any shows that would have me. He told me that at least now I was being realistic.

When I got home, my wife told me I had a phone call from Larry Gelbart. I called him back. He started out by thanking me for having mentioned him in a column I had written that past Sunday in which I argued that for a quarter of a century the best comedy in America wasn’t in books or movies or on Broadway, but, rather, on TV. I then mentioned ten of the anonymous talents who were most responsible for writing “Sgt. Bilko,” “The Sid Caesar Show,” “Mr. Peepers,” “The Honeymooners” and “MASH.” Gelbart was one of the ten.

He went on to say that when he and his wife had attended the Fairfax event months earlier, they had assumed they’d be bored to tears, but that I had been very funny, and that he felt remiss for not having dropped me a note.

I thanked him for the kind words and was ready to hang up when he said, “By the way, I hear on the grapevine that you sometimes write for TV. If you ever get a notion for a “MASH” episode, please send it along.” Some of you will wonder why I hadn’t broached the possibility of my writing a “MASH” script. It’s not as if it didn’t occur to me, but I would have considered it impolite. I mean, Gelbart was calling to pay me a compliment and to thank me for mentioning him in my column. Taking advantage of his courtesy to ask him for a job simply struck me as rude.

In any case, as soon as we hung up, I called my new agent and told him he was now my ex-agent -- that “MASH” apparently wasn’t as locked up as he’d insisted it was half an hour earlier.

For a few seconds, I felt just great. Then it hit me that I was not only unemployed, but now I didn’t even have an agent. Talk about your Pyrrhic victories!

In a panic, I sat down in a chair with a steno notebook and my pen and hoped (prayed?) that a terrific idea would magically appear on the page. The idea that arrived within minutes was that a wounded soldier would arrive at the MASH unit without dogtags, claiming to be Jesus Christ. I took another twenty minutes or so to fill in the details pitting good Dr. Freedman and evil Col. Flagg in a battle for the man’s body and soul. I even came up with a title, “Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler?”

I typed it up and mailed it to Gelbart at 20th Century-Fox. A day or two later, he called to say that he and his producing partner, Gene Reynolds, loved the idea.

The final script got nominated for a Humanitas Prize, and led to my writing seven more “MASH” episodes, and totally resuscitated my TV career. At the time and to this day, although I am a non-observant Jew, I felt the idea was divinely inspired. How could I not? After all, when I sat down with pad and paper, I had no reason to suspect that Jesus Christ was going to wind up in a sit com episode.

Although there is no way to really explain how the creative process works, typically a notion buzzes around in a writer’s head until the opportunity to use it comes along. But that was certainly not the case here. With “Captain Chandler,” there was no notion, no buzzing, just a timely Christmas miracle.