The True Story of 'Catch 22': How New Hulu Series Was Based on Author's Real-Life War Experiences

"Catch-22" mirrored the military experiences of its author, Joseph Heller.

Damned if you do, damned if you don't: That's "Catch-22."

The paradox is explored in the new dark comedy Hulu series "Catch-22," which stars Christopher Abbott, Hugh Laurie and George Clooney. The show, which comes out Friday, is based on Joseph Heller's World War II novel of the same name.

Heller's 1961 novel mirrored his own military experiences — and the people he met — while serving as a bombardier in the 340th Bombardment Group on the island of Corsica.

"For all these years people have assumed that it was fiction, and marvelous fiction, but it really wasn't," author Patricia Chapman Meder told "Never has a great work of art ever matched so carefully with actual figures."

The group's main mission "was to disrupt German corridors [for] getting supplies or getting their men back and forth," Chapman Meder said. They were also known as the Bridge Busters because they were so good at bombing bridges, the hardest thing to hit.

But their missions were incredibly dangerous.

In 1944, Heller was on his 37th mission to bomb a bridge over Avignon, France, when his plane was struck by German fire, said Tracy Daugherty, author of "Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller."

"He really thought he was going to die," said Daugherty. "And that mission that he barely survived became the basis for 'Catch-22.'"

Heller's alter-ego in the book is Yossarian, a bombardier who shares his feelings of being trapped. Commanders told the men they would stop flying missions after reaching a certain number — before upping that limit.

"So the war became endless and he was caught in this loop," said Daugherty.

Heller flew 60 missions and fortunately survived the war.

"He did what he was told and he did it well," Daugherty added.

After the war, he returned to the U.S., where he studied at the University of Southern California, New York University and Columbia University. He later got a job as an advertising writer and went on to write "Catch-22."

"He began by laying out index cards with names of all the people he had served with in the Army and all the missions he had flown. That became the first outline for 'Catch-22,' which he published in 1961," said Daugherty.

Chapman Meder's own father was a final commander in the Bombardment Group and sees a character with his likeness in "Catch-22."

"He has the dubious honor of being the seed for Colonel Cathcart in 'Catch-22,' which was not flattering. It's not complimentary but that's the way it is," said Chapman Meder, who wrote "The True Story of Catch-22."

"Heller just had this incredible wit and it was dark humor and he poked fun at everybody," she added. "But he would start with just the kernel, the seed of a personality, and then he would build on it but that seed was so big, you couldn't miss who it was."

So what's the catch in "Catch-22," a phrase now deeply embedded in modern-day vernacular?

"The basic idea behind the concept of Catch-22 is that one rule tells you, you have to do one thing, another rule tells you, you have to do something else," Daugherty explained. "They contradict each other, you can't do both and so you are paralyzed."

In the book, Yossarian tries to avoid flying missions but finds himself in military bureaucratic limbo.

Heller writes in the book that if pilots ask to be grounded, there's a catch:

"There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. [Pilot] Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to."

For more on how Heller's book mirrored his own experiences, watch the video above.