Genres That Die
Once it was common to view the humorous side of war and/or the armed services. There was another Cary Grant vehicle, Father Goose, and yet another, I Was a Male War Bride. There was The Wackiest Ship in the Army, there was Sgt Bilko, there were those James Cagney/Pat O'Brian vehicles of the '30s like Devil Dogs of the Air and Here Comes the Navy. There was No Time for Sergeants and McHale's Navy and Gomer Pyle. Hogan's Heroes even attempted to find the funny side of German POW camps.
It wasn't that these movies didn't recognize that war and the military were serious endeavors. Actual tragedy happened in some of these films--- more often in those where a hot war was going on, but even in the peacetime services people die. Characters like Hogan and McHale were actually heroic, and McHale actually killed people, whole submarine crews sometimes. But these movies realized a highly structured environment such as the military contrasts extremely well with chaos and absurdity, and that strong contrasts are what comedy is all about.
Now the service comedy is a genre as dead as that of the lost-race novel. Attempts to revive it, as with the McHale's Navy and Sgt. Bilko movies, flopped hideously.
The lost-race novel, begun with King Solomon's Mines, died either when all the blank spots on the map got filled in, or when Edgar Rice Burroughs kicked the bucket, your choice.
But what killed the service comedy? Herewith a list of suspects:
Gomer Pyle. A series so egregiously awful that the very thought of it, or anything resembling it, made intelligent or creative people retch. This was a series about the Marine Corps that ran coterminously with the war in Vietnam, but never mentioned that, in real life, Gomer and his buddies would have been sent to Khe Sanh to be blown to shreds and eaten by rats!
We'd like this thesis to be true, but in fact the service comedy survived Gomer just fine.
The Sudden Discovery that War is, well, Bad. (For children and other living things.) Boomers tend to award themselves all sorts of original insights, as for instance the notion that they discovered sex and drugs. They also tend to think of themselves as the first generation to observe that war kills people, and perhaps therefore honored themsleves with the corollary that the military couldn't possibly be funny.
This doesn't quite explain why the World War II generation, who lived (and died) through all sorts of hell in the biggest war in human history, nevertheless lined up to watch the likes of Operation Petticoat and Sgt Bilko.
If the observation that "war is bad" killed the service comedy, you couldn't prove it by them.
Nevertheless, it does seem true that our wars don't seem as funny as they used to. The embedded reporters, with their closeups of the action, have shifted the focus quite a bit.
The End of the Draft. Now here's an idea. Up to a certain point in American history, the military was a touchstone for tens of millions of people, mostly male. When the military draft ended in the early Seventies, and the services were staffed entirely with volunteers, the vast majority of the movie-going public no longer had a first-hand experience with the military and its absurdities. Watching a service comedy would have been like watching a comedy about aliens.
(Wait a minute . . . Third Rock and ALF were big hits, weren't they? Nevermind . . . )
M*A*S*H. Now here is a thesis worth examining. M*A*S*H, the film and the TV series, may have done the service comedy so brilliantly that it left the genre with no place to go. M*A*S*H was funny, it was tragic, it was well-written, it was gory, it was absurd, it was ironic, it was hip. (And if there was one thing the service comedy had never been, it was hip.) It was more about the Seventies than the Fifties, and more about Vietnam than Korea, but that didn't matter. The TV series lasted for ten seasons, and it examined war and war humor from every conceivable angle.
After M*A*S*H, what was left? After M*A*S*H, of course, which lasted only a single season.
That genre was dead, dudes. Nothing to do but zip it in a body bag and bury it.