How Alan Alda changed his perspective on improvisation

Hint: It all came from Carol Burnett

Disney Media & Entertainment Distribution

Shooting a comedy naturally lends itself to spur-of-the-moment decisions.

Writing on a computer can be restrictive. It's just you and the blank page. The only inspiration is internal. The only options are the ones you can imagine during that moment. Even while you edit, your work is limited by your experiences and creative power. Sure, fantasy writers are capable of flights of fancy, but even those are bound by the writer's capabilities.

So, when it's time to show up to the set, things can get truly magical. Collaboration opens up new avenues. Especially in comedy, the mixture of personalities and sensibilities always leads to better ideas. One person's suggestion leads to another's. Before long, every line is improved tenfold. This is why ensemble comedies are often the most celebrated. There's such a thing as too many cooks in the kitchen, but having trusted voices in a comfortable setting brings out the best in everyone.

However, this can be a tough pill to swallow for a writer who sees themselves as the stoic, solitary vessel tasked with delivering the written word from on high.

Alan Alda was one of those writers. In 1988, he spoke with the Sioux City Journal about his method, and how Carol Burnett changed it.

"I gently insisted every word I wrote stay intact," said Alda. "Every writer says, 'It's not engraved in stone.' Well, mine was. I would come down from the mountain with two tablets, one under each arm, and that would be it."

However, having Burnett on his set during the production of Four Seasons changed the movie, and Alda's creative process. She made a suggestion that led to what Alda described as "the best scene in the movie.

"Now, I try to meet with the actors during the rehearsal period, hear all their complaints and try to solve the problems. It works quite well."

Alda retained his singular vision while allowing the feedback to change things for the better.

Watch M*A*S*H on MeTV!

Weeknights at 6 PM, Sundays at 7 PM

*available in most MeTV markets
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?


frances3agape 28 days ago
What was Carol Burnett's suggestion and what was "the best scene in the movie" per Alda.
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?