Saturday, June 12, 2010

Yet another comedy test

These have been great fun (at least for me). What holds up? What doesn't? Once again I'm going way back to the 50s. This is a classic scene from THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW. Personally, I think Silvers' Sgt. Bilko is one of the great comic inventions of all-time. But you might not. I'm curious as to what you think.

This scene is pretty self-explanatory.

53 comments:

David O'Hara said...

Zippy was an awsome improv artist. And Bilko was right on top of it.

Bob Summers said...

This doesn't hold up very well at all. First, they are putting a monkey on trial. Unlike CPL Cupcake the dog on MASH, monkeys would never be in the Army. Second, Is there some background joke we're not in on? Was the monkey drafted earlier in the episode, probably accidentally? I don't get it.

I think the absurdity of this would have really been funny in the watch-anything-on TV-50s, but it just doesn't make it today.

gottacook said...

This is from the same era that gave us J. Fred Muggs on the Today show. Enough said.

Napa Valley Hobo said...

I hate to tell people that the thing they like is bad, but it's bad. The only time I even smiled was when the monkey played with his hat.

I remember laughing at Bilko in the past, maybe this is just the wrong bit.

P.S. Is that George C. Scott as the prosecutor?

Dan Jones said...

Hi Ken. I have to admit I've never seen Bilko before, but it was kind of funny and it seems like a fairly biting indictment of the army (crazy enough to court martial a monkey for eating a banana and too incompetent to convict). The mix of chimp-level goofiness and the social satire reminds me of cartoons like the golden-age Simpsons (seasons 3-8 or so) or South Park. I think if this were modern, it would be animated.

Somersby Creek said...

Watching Silvers improv around a chimp's shenanigans is a treat. The bit has the feel of an SNL skit, but where the SNLers are always focused on their cue cards, this bit feels much more energetic and focused on having fun with the material. And unlike most SNL skits, this bit has a funny and apt conclusion. Yeah, I think it holds up well.

Dan Jones said...

Oh damn, sorry Ken!!! I totally didn't mean to cut Dancing Homer out of the classic Simpsons era... I love that episode! Swear to god!

Richard Cooper said...

There's no way this seems funny unless you've been a monkey in the army and can identify with bad cooking in the mess hall.

Jonathan Korman said...

I saw a lot of those gags coming a mile away, and it felt like two minutes of sketch in a six minute bag --- but I'm with Somersby Creek on Silvers' improvs off of the chimp's behavior. Those were priceless. The timing on “that's right!” was so pitch perfect I think I woke the neighbors laughing.

Gary said...

Hold up? Like a crime, perhaps. The only laugh I got was when the monkey went to the phone and Bilko said he's calling another lawyer. As Mr. Summers said, this was probably big-time funny around 1950 but not now.

Adam Bowie said...

Bilko still plays pretty regularly on UK TV (in sharp contrast to the US I believe), and it's thoroughly under-rated. Definitely one of the best sitcoms of all time. Neil Simon cut his teeth on the show.

I laugh just thinking about that scene and Phil Silvers' improv when the chimp starts playing with the phone is terrific.

Of course the idea of a monkey being in the army is ludicrous, but that's the point. Bilko has signed him up earlier in the episode.

And to the commenter who said that today this would be animated - it effectively was in Top Cat.

I'm pleased to see that the series is finally getting a proper DVD release starting next month. Previously there was just a Best Of available.

Mark Evanier said...

Is this funny? Excerpted that way, not very. In context in the entire episode, yes.

Kate said...

I hate chimps, they're horrible violent animals, but that was hilarious. It's a great bit and I've never seen this show before.

This is one of my favorite comedy scenes: http://www.hulu.com/watch/22138/the-simpsons-lie-detector

MadAsHell said...

It's admirably fast-paced, but the only funny line (calling another lawyer) appears to be a Silvers ad-lib. Now, if that was the rehearsed line, written by writers, it's one good joke in a six-minute clip. Impressive animal training, certainly

camelama said...

Normally Silvers drives me nuts, but I liked the whole setup here. I like that they didn't go overboard with the 'what the hell is going on!" superior officer guy. If they had done more of his "woe is me" it wouldn't have been as good. I don't much like chimps in tv shows, but since they only used it as a point of reference, not "laugh at what the chimp does" for 20 mins ... I'll say thumbs up on the segment.

Sebastian said...

I smiled at the improv but didn't laugh once. So if you ROTFLed back then I guess it doesn't hold up at all. At least not to people like me who never ever came in contact with this show at all in their lifetime.

J.J. said...

I always loved Sgt Bilko (and Phil Silvers), though Steve matin did his best to kill him.

Anyway.

Does this scene hold up? Funny is funny no matter the era. Bilko was funny.

alopecia said...

Hmm. It's funny, but not laugh-out-loud funny. On the other hand, I have a weird sense of humor.

What's interesting is that the comedy comes from character rather than the set-em-up-and-knock-em-down jokes of the Honeymooners clip you posted earlier. It feels more like television and less like vaudeville.

What holds up is the writing. It would have been so easy to play up the surreality of court-martialing a chimpanzee, but the writers played it pretty much straight.

What doesn't hold up are the staging and the acting. I'm being unfair, of course, since the staging was dictated by the limitations of the technology and nobody knew how to act for television.

Oh, and Zippy was a brilliant physical comedian. Deserved his own show, he did.

Thanks for the ongoing Saturday comedy seminar, Ken.

Jeremiah said...

I remember seeing that episode (amongst others) years ago on VHS. It still cracks me up every time, one of my favorite tv shows!

Kirk Jusko said...

Unlike I Love Lucy or the Honeymooners, was Bilko wasn't heavily syndicated when I was growing up in the '70s. I know Silvers mostly from It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World and the con man character he played on The Beverly Hillbillies. I found funny in those.

And I found him very funny in this, especially when he ad libbed the part about the chimp calling another lawyer.

RolloSuplex said...

Yeah it was pretty funny, I guess. I enjoyed it even though I didn't laugh once. I just love TV so I'll watch pretty much anything and enjoy it. I did like the guys in the background trying to stifle their laughter and the chimp ruled. Isn't everything better with chimps?

YEKIMI said...

I say bring back "Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp"!

Bob Claster said...

Bilko holds up quite well today, but as others have said, this bit needs its setup. The explanation of how the chimp got inducted, and the realization that the only way to get out of the embarrassing situation of having to explain it would be to court-martial him, is somewhat necessary.

But what makes Bilko so enjoyable today is the incredible performance of Silvers. He's like Cleese's Fawlty, but more likable. He's a manic ball of energy around which the entire series revolves. Every time he pretends not to recognize the Colonel's wife: "Oh, Colonel, I didn't realize there was a movie star on the base today!" it kills me.

Plus, was there ever a better supporting cast?

Ben said...

Meh.

I was trying to peg just how I felt about this clip. I think the closest I could come was thinking back to when I was in college, taking a film appreciation class, and watching one of those "masterpieces of film". You know you're watching something great, you can see the quality of the ingredients, but it just never jells into something you like.

I've never watched any of "The Phil Silvers Show"; my exposure to Phil is pretty much limited to "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World", in which I liked him quite a bit. Seeing this clip makes me appreciate how talented he was, but doesn't make me want to watch more.

The other thing this reminded me of was on some early '80s episodes of "Saturday Night Live", they had an occasional recurring piece called "I Married a Monkey", in which Tim Kazurinsky played...well, the title tells the story. The bit was written fairly straight, and relied on Kazurinsky to ad-lib around the actions of the monkeys appearing alongside him in the sketch. It wasn't great comedy, but it was funny. I think that's what I was looking for here, and waiting for the monkey to do something silly took me away from the writing and acting of the human actors.

Get_It said...

I smiled at most of the scene and liked that improvised part: "A minute sir, I think he's calling another lawyer."

I went ahead and saw another video on YouTube, Bilko's Black Magic, I didn't think that it was that bad. If this was still on I would probably prefer to watch this instead of Romantically Challenged (not that I watch it anymore) or Rules of Engagement.

Matt Patton said...

Silvers is incredible here. Others are right that some of the context of the bit would help, but even without it, his fulminating about the History of Jurisprudence and such is incredible.

I was lucky enough to catch BILKO in syndication on a local station in the late 1970's and it paralyzed me almost every time. It still does.

Anonymous said...

It could be the telephone bit was scripted. The MP behind the Chimp I'm sure was his animal trainer and prompted all his moves. Could be wrong. Chimps do ad-lib a lot......

Anonymous said...

I don't think Sgt.Bilko is in the same league as The Honeymooners. Phil Silvers basically did the same schtick while Jackie Gleason had a much broader range not to mention he had Art Carney to work with.

John Leader said...

Silvers was right up there with Sid Cesar and Jackie Gleason. Sure, the bits feel a little dated, but the comedy is undeniable.
The whole "Bilko" character still works. I laughed.

DBA said...

I didn't find it unfunny, or especially predictable or obvious, but I also was not inclined to laugh at all. Maybe if I saw the whole episode...

Tom Quigley said...

Anyone who ever watched HOGAN'S HEROES can pretty much figure out the premise of SGT. BILKO: basically, the lower echelon officer (Bilko) was always coming up with a scheme to outwit his superiors, and you had to understand to what lengths he would go to pull it off...

I was thinking while watching it that Mel Brooks would have had a field day creating and directing a scene like this... Was it funny? Well, if you knew the character of Sgt. Bilko, it probably provided for some laughs to viewers in the fifties, but while I think it's not that bad a scene, it would certainly get lost in the shuffle if one was discussing classic sitcom scenes of that era...

BTW, in its day, the show was popular enough for Hanna-Barbera to do a spoof on it (as they did with THE FLINTSTONES/HONEYMOONERS) by creating a show called TOP CAT, which revolved around a scheming alley cat and his "posse"...

Tom said...

The "calling another lawyer" line -- which looked to me like an ad-lib -- was the only time I even cracked a smile. Maybe it's because I just don't find dressed-up monkeys very funny. The ending (heard nothing, saw nothing...) made me think this scene might have originated as a vaudeville bit...? But it's not in the same league as "Address the ball...Hello, ball!" or "Who's on first?" More ad-libbing from Phil Silvers might have helped....?

dugsdale said...

Yeah, you really did need the setup to understand the basic premise, and I honestly can't tell you whether this is "good" or not--I saw Bilko the first time around, and have the 50th-anniversary dvd set, and I love watching a revolving cast of New York actors (I remember seeing the "judge" in this episode appearing in Captain Video playing a spaceman) all of them getting flung onto a soundstage in front of a live audience with (clearly) very little rehearsal time, doing the sort of timeless vaudevillian comic schtik that had been around for decades--broad as a barn door, based on preposterous premises, and to me it's all priceless (and I'm certainly not bringing a fresh pair of eyes to the material!). (My personal fave is "The Con Men," where Bilko dresses up like a hick the better to swindle a gang of card sharks that prey on soldiers). But I'm hardly objective, sorry to say.

Matt said...

Loved it, Ken!

Mike Schryver said...

I never liked Phil Silvers or the Bilko show, unfortunately. Its heavy syndication run was ending when I was a kid in the 60s. I guess I don't like that kind of unctuous character. Didn't like Eddie Haskell, either (or Top Cat).
I watched this clip just now, and didn't like it any more than I used to.

Damon Rutherford said...

Improv is great, and I smiled in appreciation at a few reactions to the monkey, but not once did I chuckle or laugh.

thomas tucker said...

Nothing with a monkey is ever funny,

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

I liked the show but never cared for Silvers when he was out of character. The clip is amusing with a few nyucks, but as others have said, it needs context. As for not liking Eddie Haskell, my role model, well, that's just weird.

D. McEwan said...

I know this episode so well that I can not tell whether it works out-of-context or not. Its context is always around it for me. As to whether it's funny or not: IT'S FUNNY! The episode as a whole is one of the great sit-com episodes of all-time, certainly the best one ever to use a chimp.

I am amazed that a few commenters actually suspect that the OBVIOUS ad-lib about calling another lawyer must be scripted. How on earth can anyone think that was scripted? I write recaps of SURVIVOR for the Huffington Post, and there is a handful or regular commenters on my columns who REFUSE to believe that every word and action is not fully scripted. They drive me nuts, INSISTING week after week that the show is written and every thing that happens is controlled by the producers. Is it just that some people are so devoid of the ability to speak off-the-cuff that they do not believe that any people are capable of reacting and speaking on their own? "I can't think on my feet, therefore, it can not be done. Every word must be written."

But I am more amazed at the people who got not a chuckle from it, a few adding a tremedously insulting remarks to the effect that "maybe it was funny back in the 1950s, when people were stupid, and didn't have the high, refined comic taste we have now" in our world full of sitcoms about slobby fat guys married to hot women, or Patricia Heaton, a world where Charlie Sheen is a highly-(over)paid comedy "star."

The Bilko show in its original run was on at 9 PM, past my bedtime, and though I BEGGED every week, I was not allowed to stay up for it. BUT, it was on Wednesdays, when my extremely superstitious parents went off to their mid-week evening church services at their local Christian Science church, to receive more brainwashing about not allowing me or my siblings any medical care whatsoever, so I would sit up with my Bilko-loving older brother and watch Bilko, and then dash off to bed when I heard the car in the driveway, while my brother lied to my parents that he'd been watching it alone. We'd learned early that if they could believe Mary Baker Eddy, they could believe ANYTHING! Bilko was a great treat, and getting to see it against-the-rules was an unintended benefit of my parent's religious insanity.

The shows were shot like plays, but unlike multi-camera shows nowadays, they didn't stop or reshoot unless they absolutely had to. They were half-hour shows shot in half an hour. Consequently, moments like calling the other lawyer, ad libs, flubs, blown bits of business, were common, and Phil's years on Broadway held him steady, and he delivered amazing performances every week.

I see one commenter says that Bilko is finally getting a proper DVD release. Halleluiah! I've watched the 18 episodes in the "Best Of" DVD release, including this episode, to the point I could almost perform them myself. I'm more than ready for "fresh" ones.

D. McEwan said...

I know this episode so well that I can not tell whether it works out-of-context or not. Its context is always around it for me. As to whether it's funny or not: IT'S FUNNY! The episode as a whole is one of the great sit-com episodes of all-time, certainly the best one ever to use a chimp.

I am amazed that a few commenters actually suspect that the OBVIOUS ad-lib about calling another lawyer must be scripted. How on earth can anyone think that was scripted? I write recaps of SURVIVOR for the Huffington Post, and there is a handful or regular commenters on my columns who REFUSE to believe that every word and action is not fully scripted. They drive me nuts, INSISTING week after week that the show is written and every thing that happens is controlled by the producers. Is it just that some people are so devoid of the ability to speak off-the-cuff that they do not believe that any people are capable of reacting and speaking on their own? "I can't think on my feet, therefore, it can not be done. Every word must be written."

But I am more amazed at the people who got not a chuckle from it, a few adding a tremedously insulting remarks to the effect that "maybe it was funny back in the 1950s, when people were stupid, and didn't have the high, refined comic taste we have now" in our world full of sitcoms about slobby fat guys married to hot women, or Patricia Heaton, a world where Charlie Sheen is a highly-(over)paid comedy "star."

The Bilko show in its original run was on at 9 PM, past my bedtime, and though I BEGGED every week, I was not allowed to stay up for it. BUT, it was on Wednesdays, when my extremely superstitious parents went off to their mid-week evening church services at their local Christian Science church, to receive more brainwashing about not allowing me or my siblings any medical care whatsoever, so I would sit up with my Bilko-loving older brother and watch Bilko, and then dash off to bed when I heard the car in the driveway, while my brother lied to my parents that he'd been watching it alone. We'd learned early that if they could believe Mary Baker Eddy, they could believe ANYTHING! Bilko was a great treat, and getting to see it against-the-rules was an unintended benefit of my parent's religious insanity.

The shows were shot like plays, but unlike multi-camera shows nowadays, they didn't stop or reshoot unless they absolutely had to. They were half-hour shows shot in half an hour. Consequently, moments like calling the other lawyer, ad libs, flubs, blown bits of business, were common, and Phil's years on Broadway held him steady, and he delivered amazing performances every week.

I see one commenter says that Bilko is finally getting a proper DVD release. Halleluiah! I've watched the 18 episodes in the "Best Of" DVD release, including this episode, to the point I could almost perform them myself. I'm more than ready for "fresh" ones.

D. McEwan said...

It glitched me, and posted my comment twice. Ken, feel free to delete one of them, since I can't, and then this one too.

Jeffrey Leonard said...

I can't help but love this. It was my late father, Jack Leonard's, favorite episode of the Phil Silvers Show.

Chad Garland said...

It's not terribly funny in the sense that it had me in stitches, but I did find it at least as funny as any six-minute stretch in a modern sitcom. Like most of the commenters, I found the improv the funniest bit, but I also smiled when Bilko was conversing with the monkey...er...Private. I think that the animal gag might be the most dated aspect, since it's kind of played out and we've gone as far as possible with animal humor (Tom Green giving HJ's to animals in Freddy Got Fingered). Make it animated with the private played by an alien with a Paul Lynd lisp and put it on American Dad and it's not so out of date anymore.

The military humor may also be a bit dated. What many people may not get that a lot of the viewership then would have found funny to begin with is the sendup of Army policies and the way that a clever Sergeant can use them to his advantage. Since many fathers sitting down to watch this show would have been G.I.s, it's likely they would have personal experience with things as absurd as 1) a monkey being allowed to enlist, 2) the requirement that a trial be afforded a lower primate once enlisted, and 3) Bilko actually attempting a real defense. Those things may seem very contrived to a viewership that is much less acquainted with the military today. I know that I thought M*A*S*H was the most boring of sitcoms until I had spent a few years in the military and realized how realistic and funny it actually is.

blogward said...

I pity the people who don't find this funny and then actually admit to it in writing. The interesting thing about it is that half the time you're wondering how Phil Silvers is going to hold it together, never mind whether Bilko will extricate himself. This took comedy chops that hardly exist today.
The show did go seriously off the boil when Nat Hiken left after series three, but this is pure gold.

Anonymous said...

I got a laugh out of "I can't go through with this", and the monkey making the phone call of course. My main problem with it was the judge acting over-the-top outraged every time the lawyer tried to do his job. If we're supposed to accept that the monkey was accepted in the army, and is on trial (which I didn't), why would the judge not allow a proper trial for him? For me it doesn't hold up because it was full of that kind of double-standards the US had about the law back in the 50s ("all men are created equal", but if a black guy wanted to ride the bus I bet the judge would have been equally outraged).

Also, I assume a lot more people back then were familiar with military life.. For example the laughtrack goes off when the witness says he's a cook.. what's funny about being a cook? Maybe if I'd been in world war 2 I'd know.

crackblind said...

Cmon, no one even mentions how Silvers repeatedly conferences with his client? It killed me the first time he did it it and then how the talks get more intense as the court martial proceeds.

Granted I love Bilko and think Silvers is a genius. The way the premise is played straight is what makes it work.

unkystan said...

This is the episode I show friends who don't know the show. You should really post the whole episode where, in it's own absurd way, it makes sense. The set-up (record number of inductions), followed by all the tests in record time and finally the payoff: the court martial.
(Harvey Lembeck's initial reaction to seeing the monkey is priceless)Classic!

Harry Speakup said...

Showing this scene by itself, out of context and with no set-up, is like showing John Cleese hitting the spoon salesman with the milk and pie before kissing Manuel's head and shrieking at the new guests in "Fawlty Towers," and then asking, "So, didja laugh?"

It's like starting with Kramer rushing in, slapping the money down and saying "I'm out!" followed by the four characters in their beds, and then asking, "Funny, or not funny?"

It's like showing the last scene of "Newhart" without having shown "Newhart."

All these commenters saying the Bilko clip's not funny quite literally don't know what they're talking about. This is an survey gone wrong.

te said...

To me, Bilko was and remains the greatest sitcom of all time; followed by Dick Van Dyke and then, somewhere below, a bunch of others.

I think there's only one Bilko DVD out, sort of a "best of." I want more!

D. McEwan said...

"Anonymous said...
...For me it doesn't hold up because it was full of that kind of double-standards the US had about the law back in the 50s ("all men are created equal", but if a black guy wanted to ride the bus I bet the judge would have been equally outraged)."

Also, I assume a lot more people back then were familiar with military life.. For example the laughtrack goes off when the witness says he's a cook..."


Did you just equate a chimp with black people? Because that's how your insult to the USA of the 1950s reads.

The "judge" is an army officer (It's a court-martial, Einstein) who is outraged that they're holding this legal preceding over an ape at all, and again, given what army regulations and "military intelligence" are and always have been, it makes sense within the context. To then equate this silly comedy scene with racism is not just idiotic, it's offensive.

And there is no laugh track. That is a LIVE audience!

No wonder you're anonymous.

Harry Speakup, your point is well-taken. And its nice to know you're still alive, but then chimps can be long-lived. What I didn't know is that they can learn to read, surf the net, and write comments that are smarter than a lot of the ones posted here.

"blogward said...
I pity the people who don't find this funny and then actually admit to it in writing.


I'm with you, blogward.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

I'm going to throw my lot in with those who say that the fairer test is a whole episode. I guess this is true of any scene from a larger story, but it's especially true with a scene like this where it's the big climax that the whole story has built up to (though there's already been a big comic set piece in the episode, the scene where the monkey is accidentally inducted).

While I can assure anyone that comedy is not better now than it was in the '50s (it's not worse, either; some stuff is good and some is bad, as always), I have no idea if I would find this funny if I hadn't seen the whole episode. But, more importantly, it doesn't matter. If Nat Hiken had been doing this as a stand-alone sketch he'd have structured it differently.

So in a weird way, "meh" reactions to the scene demonstrate how well Nat Hiken did his job. He wasn't writing a sketch to stand alone, he was writing a scene, and he wrote it so well that it only makes its impact as part of a 25- minute story.

Gary said...

I liked it. What I thought was weird was my thirteen year-old son was watching over my shoulder. When it was over, I asked him if he liked it and he said yes. I asked him, "Is it funnier than what you normally watch?" He said yes. He thinks Zach and Cody are funny so I'm not sure what that means.

"Yes", "no" or "uh" is pretty much all you get out of a thirteen year old, so a yes is pretty good!

Bob said...

The bit doesn't do much until Silvers starts talking to his client, which made me laugh out loud.

The rest of the bit wasn't much to laugh about, but the improv when the chimp picks up the phone was a stroke of genius.

Overall...an opposable thumbs up!

BOB