The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
October 26, 2006

How hospitals became funny: Scrubs, Green Wing and M*A*S*H

Posted by A S H Smyth

Successful comedy series Scrubs, Green Wing and M*A*S*H are all set in hospitals. But what makes hospitals funny? A S H Smyth offers some suggestions.

A couple of nights ago, I awoke from a dream in which someone had been rebuking me for wearing the wrong surgical apron. Or possibly for wearing my scrubs outside of the hospital. I don't recall too clearly. But I should make clear right now that I'm not a surgeon. I'm not a doctor of any kind.

Normally I'd be left wondering what prompted such bizarre nocturnal ramblings. But this time there's no doubt. The blame lies squarely with watching too much hospital comedy: 100-odd episodes of Scrubs, 17 of Green Wing, and 11 years and a feature-length movie of M*A*S*H.

As anyone who's ever been under the knife can tell you, there's nothing inherently amusing about surgery. A couple of childhood stitches may tickle, but being cut open is a serious business. Likewise the Korean war (the old one, not the forthcoming one), mental or physical decay, diseases in general, the constant struggle for health service funding, and a host of other issues which bring death that bit closer all flatly un-amusing subjects.

So why are these programmes so funny?

Well, of course, a lot of the humour is incidental to the hospital setting. M*A*S*H is all about letting off steam. The doctors are also soldiers (which admittedly adds an extra level of pathos) but the focus is largely on what they do when they are not cracking chests - namely, cracking beers or cracking jokes. In that respect it's perfectly realistic, doctors (and soldiers) needing to get up to hi-jinks when not on company time, simply in order to rebalance themselves before the next stint.

Green Wing, for that matter, is actually an extended playground scenario. It's all based on competition: between the stereotypical products of state and public schooling, between the young and old, the cool and geeky, the fundamentally sane and the basically nuts. It's very, very English - M*A*S*H re-directed (or just mis-directed) by Monty Python.

Of the three, Scrubs is the most concerned with the day-to-day business of being a doctor, and the one which comes closest to considering the troubles doctors have to face, rather than just the problems the rest of us have to face when out of sorts. In this respect, Scrubs is a comedy about a hospital; the other two are really comedies in hospitals.

But all of them deal with the serious issues. And therein lies the genuine comedy, as Aristophanes & Co. would have recognised it: humour that makes light (and often makes sense) of very real problems at the heart of the human condition. They variously cover colour, race, religion, war, love, loneliness, family, choice, and - obviously - sickness and death.

It's important, though, that hospital comedies - like any comedies - deal not just with the really big issues but with important small issues, too. After all, the little things in life plague us on a daily basis and possibly have a greater, cumulative effect on our happiness and well-being. To wit, and in no particular order: heartache, timetable-clashes, Ramadan, speaker-phone gaffs, indecent exposure, Miss Marple, the hapless intractability of romance (however twisted), silly clothes, the comic nature of sex, bad hair, needing a mentor or father-figure, overweening bureaucrats, jealousy, and thinking your mates' jokes are cruel.

The best part about hospital comedies is that they deal with all these issues - especially the serious ones - so much better than traditional hospital dramas, not least by making such uncomfortable topics accessible. They act not as a (surgical) mask, enabling us to hide from the inevitabilities of decay and collapse, but as a (surgical) tool enabling us to deal with those issues, to tackle them head on.

Even the characters are aware of the function they're fulfilling, both for the people around them and for the audience. Hawkeye and the gang in M*A*S*H, Dr Cox in Scrubs and Mac in Green Wing all of them consciously use (and abuse) humour - be it clowning, sarcasm or pranks - in Mac's words, to

avoid confronting the very real issues that most proper adults have to deal with.
But they know what they're doing, and like all good characters they eventually face up to whatever problems having been nagging them. By which tortuous route, of course, the audience is supposed to have learned their own lessons.

These programmes are not funny despite their subject matter, but in order to bring that subject matter under the social microscope. And it works. People watch these shows, and laugh and think about topics which they might otherwise allow themselves to ignore. And as well as being partly responsible for it, hospital comedies are symptomatic of a healthy collective sense of humour. In many respects we should be pleased and even flattered that such programmes are being made: they take it for granted that a mature audience will understand when, and why, to laugh.

A S H Smyth is a freelance journalist, specialising in foreign affairs, conflict & security, and Southern Africa.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement