Television

You'll Never Get Rich -- Bwa! Ha! Ha!: Sgt. Bilko: The Phil Silvers Show

Is there always something subversive about comedy? Only when it's funny.

Camp Baxter is a sleepy, non-existent army base outside the town of Roseville, Kansas, also non-existent. There in Company B, Third Platoon, is the Motor Pool Detail under Sgt. Ernest Bilko. He runs a tight motor pool, but that's not the only thing he runs. Less as a sideline than a mainline, he runs poker games, crap games, and horse races. He promotes dances, contests, and anything else with an entry fee. He keeps the camp in a more or less constant state of gambling fever in between various get-rich-quick schemes and other underhanded shenanigans.

From 1955 to 1959, CBS broadcast one of the era's classic sitcoms, Sgt. Bilko: The Phil Silvers Show. Its first three seasons won consecutive Emmys for Best Comedy Writing and Best Comedy (or Half-Hour) Series. It actually never finished a season in the top 20, but it was loved by critics and audiences and its reruns were syndicated forever, or so it seemed. It's been much harder to find in the last few decades. In 2006, 18 episodes were selected for a 50th Anniversary DVD, but the full first season only now appears on disc at long last. If only we could be sure what the show is called!

One reference book, Alex McNeil's Total Television, lists it under its original title, You'll Never Get Rich. Brooks & Marsh's standard Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows lists it as The Phil Silvers Show, saying it adopted that title early in its first season. Both agree it was syndicated as Sgt. Bilko, which is how most people know it. The episodes on DVD all open with an animated sequence proclaiming it The Phil Silvers Show. A bonus clip showing the original network opening has THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW followed immediately by "You'll Never Get Rich" in quotation marks, as though the latter is the real title and the former is a generic label introducing it. CBS/Paramount has titled this collection Sgt. Bilko: The Phil Silvers Show: The First Season. Nobody can make up their minds.

Oh well, Bilko can bamboozle anybody. He was a master of ambiguity, not to say ingenuity and disingenuity. Among its excesses, this is one of the loudest shows in history. Nobody delivers a line when they can bellow it, and the screaming is probably necessary to get a word in. As Bilko, Phil Silvers basically yammers nonstop for 30-minutes, so that watching this show is to surrender yourself to the force of nature that is Silvers. You spend most of your time gazing at him as he waggles his balding pate, jiggles his eyebrows above horn-rimmed glasses, points his fingers and his nose toward opposite corners of sky, and drones incessantly amid barks and gasps. "Look alive, you heroes! Oh, fun-ny, fun-neee...." If he were singing, he'd be a staccato coloratura.

These half-hour scripts are the work of creator/producer Nat Hiken, who functioned as head writer and stage-directed the live performances before an audience. (Director Al DeCaprio was in charge of filming the performance.) As in I Love Lucy, the plot is structured as a series of reversals so that it becomes impossible to predict where it comes out or how Bilko will fare in his various schemes. When he succeeds, it's usually because he's doing it for someone else or is otherwise motivated by a sense of justice, and these plans are often tossed off at a moment's notice and seemingly without conscious effort. When he's motivated by personal gain, either things don't work out quite as planned or he suffers an attack of ethics that prevents him from exploiting the innocent.

As the first season progresses, Hiken toys with form. "The Revolutionary War" finds Bilko reading the diary of Captain Joshua Bilko (played by Silvers in flashbacks), an ancestor who served George Washington at Valley Forge. "The Army Memoir", instead of telling its story straightforwardly, couches it in flashback as an editor reads about the event in a manuscript. In both episodes, the flow of events is interrupted by interludes of the characters discussing what they read. "Miss America" suddenly indulges in a dream-ballet in the manner of Oklahoma.

Bilko's corporals are beanpole Steve Henshaw (Allan Melvin) and smaller, rounder Rocco Barbella (Harvey Lembeck). The camp commander is Col. John T. Hall (Paul Ford), a befuddled bulldog whose entire role consists of standing around barking "Bilko!" As actor George Kennedy (an assistant early in his career) states in his commentary on one episode, Ford almost steals scenes from the hyperactive Silvers simply by standing there like a monument, staring into space.

As a genre, military comedy is based on the tension between the institution and the individual. A variety of hardy comic types are presented who clash with the institution. One is the wheeler-dealer who works the system. This is Bilko, a variant of the flim-flam man, the con artist, the Yankee peddler, the fast-talking schemer. Along with Professor Harold Hill (The Music Man) or Mark Twain's Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg, he is the specifically American version of the archetypal trickster who wins some and loses some. A specifically military variant is the loafer who works hard at not working. Beetle Bailey is another example, although without the gift of gab.

Another type is the innocent or the naif who has somehow gotten into the army, as seen in the book, play and movie of No Time for Sergeants, the TV series Gomer Pyle, and in the '80s, Private Benjamin. This character can be used for satiric purposes to expose the system, as in Jaroslav Hacek's good soldier Schweik, but more often he's just a hapless fool like the comic book Sad Sack. If the tension ever resolves, the plot ends. When Private Benjamin becomes a crack soldier, the triumph of the army is equated with her personal triumph and the movie's over. She has become integrated into the system. Comedy only functions as long as the character is somehow maintained in the system while being at odds with it.

None of this makes automatically for satire. Most military comedies are essentially reassuring tales about a system that's capable of allowing for such freakish individuals instead of stamping them out. Satire hardly enters the field until Catch-22 or Robert Altman's film of M*A*S*H, which performed the trick of taking just such a benignly comedic novel and turning it into something cruel. Altman said that he despised the TV series made from his movie, perhaps because its tone altered until it presented a vision of humane experts heroically doing their jobs in a hostile environment. The cruelty and madness of war became an outside thing imposed on its participants rather than something arising from within them. Comedy becomes satire when it touches on cruel realities rather than avoiding them. When satire avoids harshness, it goes back to being mere comedy.

Query: Is there always something subversive about comedy? Perhaps only when it's funny.

Most military comedies don't mention any war that might be going on at the time, unless it's safely over and won already. It's a drag if the characters might be sent into combat. Fortunately for Bilko, the peacetime army could be standing in for any job. It's really an office comedy, with our hero as the man who negotiates between the lowest level (the enlisted men, the wage-slaves) and the privileged officer/executive classes represented by the aging, overweight blowhards who somehow have power. In this hierarchy, it's revealed that power always comes from the bottom, and that a secretary or office boy can bring an institution to its knees. Perhaps this is a consoling fantasy, although the heck of it is, it might be true.

One curious point is that the characters in the show, being regular army guys of middle age, all saw action in World War II. They occasionally refer to this in the dialogue as a distant memory. In one episode, Bilko attends a reunion of his old platoon and discovers they've all become rich in civilian life. He'd imagined himself far outdistancing them with his master sergeant stripes. When he gets a taste of civilian work, however, he realizes he's content with the trivial crises of the motor pool. It's one of the show's moments of self-awareness for Bilko, and it's skated across lightly.

Another epiphanic entry is "The Transfer", in which Bilko goes to a camp that welcomes his personality, while his eager-beaver replacement whips the motor pool into shape. Both Bilko and the Colonel are theoretically getting what they want, yet they're not satisfied. At the simplest level, this reinforces the inertia on which sitcoms depend; the situation can't be allowed to change dramatically. More tellingly, it does so through character. The characters carry the situation inside them and create it. They aren't shaped by it. This episode demonstrates not that the situation mustn't change, but that it simply can't unless characters change first.

The notion that we create our destiny is touched on in "Dinner at Sowici's," which presents a hilariously bitter portrait of a miserable family life. Then, absurdly, the bickering family turns itself around when they are made self-conscious by Bilko's interest in them. This serves a mechanical plot point, but the character insight takes over the episode.

Some of us (meaning me) divide sitcoms into a taxonomy of order or chaos. Some sitcoms, especially gentle family shows, exist in a world where order and harmony are the norm. The plot contrives to threaten this order momentarily, but then order is restored and the plot ends in its normal harmonious state. We watch the Nelsons, the Andersons, the Cleavers, the Huxtables in order to be reassured that problems can be resolved with intelligence and tact. For the shows of order, problems impinge on the family's harmony from the outside or else arise from good-natured misunderstandings.

By contrast, Bilko exists in a norm of chaos. It begins and ends in a state of noise, tension and disorder, and the plot involves a failed attempt to find order (i.e., to get rich) or else narrowly averting (or failing to avert) some disaster in order to return to the status quo of relatively benign disorder. In fact, the chaos itself often solves its own problem, since disorder is the status quo, anyway.

Even when the week's problem is resolved, the punchline or coda is often a fresh outbreak of disorder from a new quarter. Consider the episode "The Con Men", in which Bilko brilliantly turns the tables on some sharpies who fleeced one of his men, only to find that the same soldier has fallen for a fresh scam as they were rescuing him from the first one.

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