Sunday, July 30, 2006

Classic Comedy Lookback - The Phil Silvers Show

The second show I picked from the 1950s is probably a bit of a surprise. The 1950s had its share of great situation comedies of which several stand out. Amos & Andy may have been the first TV show to feature an all black cast although the style of humour made it extremely unpopular with groups such as the NAACP which were successful in forcing it off the air despite the fact that many comedians such as Redd Foxx were outspoken in their support of the show. Sam mentioned Mr. Peepers as a prospect for this sort of treatment and I would have loved to have done it except that I've never seen an episode (there's a DVD set out there which I intend to get if I can ever find a copy). The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show took the format in a different direction by having George continually shattering the "fourth wall" and not only speaking directly to the audience and commenting on the action of the show but actually joining the audience and watching the show on TV for a while when he was off-screen. Of course the second most famous situation comedy of the 1950s (behind I Love Lucy) is The Honeymooners, possibly the most famous one season show of all times - the show ran as a series for 39 episodes although the characters had been created for Jackie Gleason's variety show and would continue in his 1960s variety program. So why am I looking at The Phil Silvers Show? Well in my estimation it is one of the funniest series ever.

The Phil Silvers Show, also known as You'll Never Get Rich is best known to the world as Sergeant Bilko (the name seemed to change every season). It's a service comedy about a fictional peace time army post in an equally fictional Kansas town, and while the base commander, Colonel Hall is supposedly in charge the truth is the whole place is run by the chief of the base Motor Pool, Master Sergeant Ernie Bilko, and everyone knows it. He has a finger in every pie. He rents out army jeeps to just about anyone, sells raffle tickets, runs dances, and has a new way to separate soldiers from their pay at every turn. His platoon are equally his accomplices and his patsies.Bilko could lather on the charm, particularly to Colonel Hall's wife, or conceive a complex con game - sometimes at the same time. About the only person who could really halt Bilko was the camp chaplain, although a pretty girl could always through him for a loop, and sometimes (but just sometimes) his own conscience would get the better of him.

The mid '50s was a perfect time for a service comedy. There was a whole generation of men who had been in the service, either in World War II, Korea, or as a result of the peacetime draft. Inevitably they knew a Bilko, even if - in most cases - that person wasn't as outrageous as Phil Silver's character was. Bilko was a small time hustler who found a home in the army (he was actually decorated for heroism in battle in the Pacific), and he wasn't about to leave when the alternative was living by his wits on the streets, doing jail time or, horror of horrors, getting an honest job. The very prospect of that brought chills to Bilko's spine. It is difficult to imagine a show with the same theme as The Phil Silvers Show working during or shortly after the Vietnam War, let alone today, although there was an attempt with the Don Rickles 1976 series CPO Sharkey - it didn't work. The last service comedy I can really recall is the rather tepid Major Dad with Gerald McRaney. It lasted four years but had none of the bite or sheer hilarity of Sergeant Bilko. It's hard to imagine Major Dad, or even CPO Sharkey doing an episode in which a monkey joins the army (The Court Martial of Private Harry Speakup).

It's easy to say that what made Bilko work is Phil Silvers but it's not the whole story. Silvers was the perfect choice to play Bilko. A burlesque comic who graduated to Broadway and the movies (he's in the Humphrey Bogart movie All Through The Night and has at least one scene with William Demarest and Jackie Gleason), but the brash sort of comedic style that was a trademark of burlesque, combined with his strong New York accent and his rapid fire delivery made him the personification of a low level con man and hustler, which is precisely what Bilko is. It is also true however that even the best performer is nothing without good material and series producer Nat Hiken headed a large writing staff. Writers from The Phil Silvers Show were nominated for Emmys in each of the four shows that the show was on the air and won the first three years. In 1956 they beat I Love Lucy in the comedy writing category, while The Honeymooners wasn't even nominated. It's also a fact that for comedy to work an actor needs someone to play off of. Phil Silvers was gifted with two great supporting actors to work off of in addition to various guest appearances. I've briefly mentioned Paul Ford. He was nominated three times for Emmys in the Best Supporting Actor category, although he never won. With his long face and often blustering manner when he was out to get Bilko which turned to befuddled depression when his plans went awry he was a perfect foil for Silvers. Ford gave Hall just the right sense of being a man who knew that he was overmatched when dealing with Bilko but just had to try. The other major supporting character was Private Duane Doberman played by Maurice Gosfield. Gosfield, who was in his mid-40s when the show was on, was a short chubby man with an incredibly malleable face that was capable of delivering an almost child-like quality when he smiled or when he looked sad. It was a quality that was perfect for the character. In fact the Doberman character was so popular that there DC Comics produced a Private Doberman comic book. A young man who occasionally played an MP on the show was in fact a real Army officer assigned as a technical consultant for the show. His name was George Kennedy who won an Oscar as an actor for Cool Hand Luke. Other young actors who appeared on the show and would later become famous included Fred Gwynne, Dick van Dyke and Alan Alda.

The Phil Silvers Show was extremely funny but it tended to fall by the wayside in syndication - at least in North America - as colour TVs became more and more prevalent. Lesser comedies were seen for no other reason than that they were in colour. It hasn't even been on TVLand in years. This is ironic since the show was still popular when it ended at the insistence of CBS which wanted to rush the show into syndication. On the other hand in Britain The Phil Silvers Show is something of a national obsession. The BBC still runs the show occasionally as they have for 50 years. In 2003 The Radio Times (essentially the British TV Guide) polled its readers about the greatest TV comedies. The Phil Silvers Show was #1 with the people who responded, ahead of Seinfeld and Fawlty Towers. In 2004 Bilko finished fourth in a poll of "fictional characters who UK viewers would like to see as president (Homer Simpson finished first, Josiah Bartlett second, and Fraser Crane third). I defer to Ivan Shreve in his knowledge of British sitcoms, but I can't help but think that the show had some influence on British comedies like Porridge and On The Busses. Certainly the influence of Phil Silvers and Sergeant Bilko can be seen in Hogan's Heroes (a show I'll deal with in more detail next week) with Bob Crane's Hogan as the fast talking scheming con artist - this time working for a noble cause - irritating befuddling and manipulating his show's answer to Colonel Hall, Werner Klemperer's Colonel Klink. (If you really stretch the concept to its breaking point, you could consider Sergeant Schultz as Hogan's "Doberman". Of the 143 episodes of The Phil Silvers Show made over four years, only 18 episodes are currently available on DVD as a 50th Anniversary collection. It must have been very hard to pick 18 episodes because it's hard to find a dud in the entire run of the show.

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