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.
This Sitcom Ended With Its Heroes In Jail
These comedies often focus on powerful yet thwarted personalities who have the ability to create chaos out of order, and the fun is watching expectantly for this chaos that we wish to happen. Examples are Bilko, Lucy Ricardo, Ralph Kramden, Jeannie, Archie Bunker, and Samantha Stevens. We don't watch to see how they solve problems but how they create them. And if they didn't go around creating them, there'd be no show. These shows can be read for clues to tensions or fissures in the social fabric, such as Bilko's reversals of power and the powerless in a system. And this, it need hardly be added, is why they can make us laugh.
This series becomes satire most clearly when Bilko is literally off-base. In "Bilko on Wall Street", he poses as a bigshot to manipulate two firms into bidding for his buddy's services, and it's a pleasure to watch him make fools of everyone. It's always a pleasure when Bilko "acts", as when he plays the rube in "The Con Men". We enjoy his transparency while the characters in the story are utterly taken in.
One of the best episodes is certifiably a military satire, a frantic epic called "The Court Martial". The central idea is that a chimpanzee is processed into the army. One could catalogue the glorious absurdities, but that's nothing like seeing them. While I normally dislike simian humor, this is flat-out funny. The monkey and humans have marvelous timing and even play off each other's ad-libs.
It's difficult to keep track of the characters because they usually aren't credited and sometimes seem to have different names on different episodes, and this isn't helped by the fact that even the regulars do double duty as guest characters as the need arises. In Season One, Bilko's platoon consists of 10 regular soldiers: Herby or Herbie Faye as Cpl. Sam Fender, Maurice Gosfield as Pvt. Duane Doberman (naive slob), Walter Cartier as Pvt. Claude Dillingham (big palooka), Mickey Freeman as Pvt. Herman Zimmerman (little bantam), Bernie Fein as Pvt. Gomez, Karl Lucas as Pvt. Kadowski, Maurice Brenner as Pvt. Fleischman, Jack Healey as Pvt. Mullen, Billy Sands as Pvt. Dino Paparelli, and P.J. or P. Jaye Sidney as Pvt. Palmer. Occasionally Tiger Andrews shows up as Pvt. Gander.
By the way, Pvt. Palmer is African-American, and so is Billie (Billie Allen), one of the WACs in the Colonel's secretarial pool. There's usually a black face in every crowd. That's unremarkable today, but it wasn't the norm on American TV in the '50s. It happened only because Hiken made a point of racial integration in his shows. (Nipsey Russell played a cop in Hiken's next series, Car 54.) If it seems a minor detail, consider that the most prominent black images on '50s sitcoms were the bumbling maid Beulah and the uneducated southerners on Amos 'n' Andy. The latter is an especially interesting show, but it imagined a "separate but equal" world of segregated sitcom buffoonery while the black characters in Hiken's shows were integrated without comment into a white-majority world. Each carried its own messages and implications.
Other regulars this season include Harry Clark as Mess Sgt. Stanley Sowici; Ned Glass as Supply Sgt. Andy Pendleton; Jimmy Little as Signal Corps Sgt. Steve or Jim Grover (although the actor plays a general at one point); Hope Sansberry as Nell Hall, the Colonel's wife; and Jim Perry as Lt. Anderson. Seen several times are John Gibson as Tom, the chaplain; Elisabeth Fraser as Sgt. Joan Hogan, Bilko's girlfriend; Nicholas Saunders as Captain Barker; Barbara Barrie as Edna, another secretarial WAC; Jane Dulo as Mildred the Barracuda, a barfly; and Dody Goodman as Marcella, the squeaky waitress at the Paradise Bar & Grill, known informally as the Snake Pit.
A look at episodes about new recruits will provide a sense of how marathon viewings become a sea of dèja vu. The first two episodes are about a new batch of fresh-faced recruits temporarily assigned to Bilko's platoon under eager-beaver Pvt. Higgins (Michael Dreyfuss). Later, there's another batch of recruits in "The Recruiting Officer", and another in "War Games" under Pvt. Wilkins (Eddie Bruce). All three batches include exactly the same unknown square-jawed young black actor in horn-rimmed glasses and a crewcut. Two batches have the same blonde bug-eyed kid, and in between he's also Private Carter (Bob Shawley), the equine expert in "The Horse". By a quirk of casting, he bears an uncanny resemblance to both Higgins and Wilkins, and indeed he assumes the eager-beaver role himself in "The Recruiting Officer".
Also in the first batch is Paul Porter Jr., promptly recycled as surly punk Chick Parker in "The Hoodlum". The same skinny white kid with glasses seems to be recruited in those first episodes plus "The Recruiting Officer" and "The Court Martial". There's a bald, dumpy private named Tony Van Dyke in the first episode, and this actor becomes the drugstore clerk in "War Games". Let's not even mention the toothy character actress who plays the mayor's secretary, an art lecturer, and an assistant editor; we can't mention her because we don't know who she is.
It's important to note someone who doesn't appear this season: Joe E. Ross as Sgt. Ritzik. This character was introduced later, and the actor was popular enough to be recruited into Hiken's next series, Car 54, Where Are You?. However, two other stars of that series, Fred Gwynne and Charlotte Rae, make guest appearances in the first season of Bilko. Gwynne plays a character nicknamed "the Stomach" while Rae is "the Twitch". Special kudos to Toni Roamer's guest role as the shrill Agnes Sowici in "Dinner at Sowici's". The Sowicis were a dry run for the Ritziks.
In 1958, the series made a transition from being filmed before an audience in a New York studio to being shot like a movie and played back before an audience to record their reactions. By the final season, Hiken had left and the show was being shot in Hollywood. That was when it was explained that the entire platoon had been transferred to California. A burned-out Silvers finally quit, according to Kennedy's commentary. Other sources say CBS pulled the plug because the ratings were falling and the show was getting too expensive with its large cast. Whatever the reason, there were only four seasons, but seasons were long in those days. Season One has 34 episodes and they're very sharp here, visually and otherwise. We look forward to the rest of them.
We're getting ahead of ourselves, but this was one of the first sitcoms, perhaps the first, to sign off with a proper finalé. In a special one-hour show co-scripted by Neil Simon with a postmodern twist, the Colonel installs closed-circuit cameras all over the base to catch Bilko red-handed. According to IMDB, the episode ends with Bilko and his corporals in the brig, being watched on the Colonel's monitor. Bilko looks into the camera and says "Th-th-that's all folks!" Yes, 40 years before Seinfeld, a sitcom ended with its heroes in jail. Chaos out of order.
Extras include a few commercials with the characters smoking the sponsor's cigarettes, and a latter-day episode of The Lucy Show (post-Vivian Vance) with Silvers as guest. Perhaps the intention is to contrast Silvers in a funny, well-written show vs. another kind of specimen entirely, for this isn't one of the best examples of Lucy's second series. The putative highlight is an homage (that's French for rip-off) to Lucy's brilliant, all-time classic assembly-line routine, but there's a reason why this one hasn't been burned into the public's collective memory. (This series' first two seasons, which many fans consider the best, are on DVD.)
A true character actor, Silvers essentially always played variants of Bilko. His one-season follow-up, The New Phil Silvers Show (1963-64), failed to register despite being produced by Rod Amateu, a major sitcom figure whose resumé as producer, director and/or writer included The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, The Bob Cummings Show and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. That ain't hay. (And where are those DVD's, while we're on the subject?) Mind you, Amateau moved on from Silvers to the infamous My Mother the Car, but that only makes me want to take a look at that one, too.
For now, we've got Season One of this classic. We'll have to start lobbying for the rest of our overlooked TV history to emerge into the digital light. If only we could send Bilko into the studio vaults to snap his fingers and shout "C'mon, everybody, look alive, look alive, click click click, chop chop chop!" Since he'd be doing it for our benefit, he'd succeed in no time.