As summer was once the rerun season, let us hail the sitcom geniuses of the 1950s: Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, and the Great One’s Brooklyn homeboy, the insufficiently appreciated Phil Silvers.
Bald and bespectacled, this Brownsville-born child-singer turned bigtime burlesque comic achieved his apotheosis at age 44 when writer-producer Nat Hiken cast him as the star of the new CBS service comedy, You’ll Never Get Rich—soon known as The Phil Silvers Show or, popularly, by the name of Silver’s character, Sgt. Bilko.
Ball and Gleason were consummate physical comics; Silvers, although a rubber-faced master of timing, was (like Groucho or Lenny Bruce) a practitioner of mental jiu-jitsu. Ernie Bilko is the embodiment of chutzpah, the consummate wise guy. Motor-mouthed head of the Fort Baxter motor pool, Bilko never stops scheming, strategizing, and mainly talking—even when his words, as in the animated lead-in to each half-hour show, are reduced to abstract drill-sergeant barks. Less bully than ongoing, blatantly insincere charm offensive, Bilko fleeces his men and befuddles his superiors, mainly the fort’s easily flustered commander (Paul Ford).
For all his panache, Bilko’s small-screen success was not a foregone conclusion. In September 1955, Silvers was drafted to appear opposite NBC’s “Mr. Television,” Milton Berle. By late fall, after Bilko had organized a succession of self-serving boxing matches, eating contests, and patriotic pageants, it was apparent that CBS’s lovable rogue had prevailed over NBC’s manic tummler. The Phil Silvers Show won five Emmies for its first season—reissued this week in a new five-DVD package.
A more benign version of Catch-22‘s war-profiteering mess officer Milo Minderbinder, Bilko is devoted to gaming the system. (This mildly cynical anti-authoritarianism benefited from the concurrent Cold War thaw—President Eisenhower was a fan.) While most episodes involve gambling scams or get-rich-quick schemes, Bilko is not oblivious to the big picture. When a congressional committee investigates alleged waste at Fort Baxter, he transforms the base into a reverse Potemkin Village of miserable deprivation; when assigned to advise a Hollywood production, he virtually takes over the studio; and when a chimpanzee is mistakenly inducted into the service, he . . . suffice it to say that “The Court Martial” is my candidate for the funniest half-hour ever telecast over network TV. (Originally shown in March 1956—the week Allen Ginsberg first mimeographed a samizdat of “Howl” and soon after the Daily Worker broke the story of Khrushchev’s secret speech—it’s included in the new set.)
That “The Court Martial” and other early episodes were shot in sequence serves to highlight Silvers’s brilliance as a performer, but Bilko did have the benefit of Hiken’s writing (along with that of Neil Simon and Larry Gelbart), as well as a ripe cast of secondarios—notably Maurice Gosfeld’s hapless, superbly slovenly, creature-like Private Duane Doberman. Not just TV’s first service comedy, Bilko created the template for the workplace sitcom. Perhaps someone will see fit to make available Hiken’s other masterpiece of that mode, the most hilarious show ever made about cops in the Bronx: Car 54, Where Are You?
‘Sgt. Bilko: The Phil Silvers Show,’ the first season, Paramount, released July 27