Tuesday, July 14, 2015

My salute to Sgt. Bilko

Here’s an extra Friday Question I wanted to sneak in early:

T.J. asks:

What are your thoughts on Sgt. Bilko?

First off, let’s be clear, there is only ONE Sgt. Bilko – and that is the television series starring Phil Silvers. The movie adaptation with Steve Martin was awful and will be treated as if it never existed.

Ah, but the TV show was a revelation. Phil Silvers was a true comic genius. And I can’t imagine a TV network today approving him to star in a series. He was bald, he was 50, he wore glasses. And as an army sergeant who presided over the motor pool at Fort Baxter, Kansas during 1950’s peacetime, there was not one pretty face in the bunch. Everyone looked like they were out of a Don Martin cartoon in MAD magazine. But they were all, to a man and woman, FUNNY.

Spearheaded by Silvers. You think you’ve seen con artists before? You think you’ve seen flim flam men? Snake oil salesmen? Bullshitters? You’ve seen nothing compared to this guy.

And the series was created and written by one of my comedy Gods, Nat Hiken. He was far and away the best writer on his staff… and that staff included Neil Simon.

For inspired lunacy, razor sharp dialogue, and monster laughs that still stand the test of time, I can’t recommend SGT. BILKO enough.

The entire series is out in a box set. I believe it’s also on one of those nostalgia channels. Treat yourself.

And I’ll leave you with this: as part of the class on comedy I taught at USC I showed twelve great pilots from the ‘50s to present. ALL IN THE FAMILY, MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, MASH, SEINFELD, etc. Which show got the best response? Which show got the most and best laughs? It wasn’t even close.

SGT. BILKO.

50 comments:

Oat Willie said...

Neil Simon wrote for the show? How did he stand writing dialog that didn't reference New York?
No doubt Nat Hiken was able to comfort him: "Don't worry Neil baby right after shooting we go down to Ratners for a blintz and an egg cream, then you can go French the Flatiron Building."

Anonymous said...

When the movie came out, I had no idea it was based on a show. Only heard of it on this blog.

Covarr said...

The movie adaptation was an awful adaptation that wasn't remotely faithful to the source material, but I thought it was fun enough in its own way. Sure, the pacing was a bit of a mess, every turn was super predictable, and Steve Martin did his usual overacting thing, but I thought Dan Aykroyd and Phil Hartman both did a wonderful job with the material they were given.

Anonymous said...

One of the many reasons Bilko was so funny was that each episode had an actual plot, and the plot was always a Bilko scheme. The jokes and the attitude all fit perfectly with the scheme of the week.

BrettJ said...

I'd seen Phil Silvers on episodes of the Beverly Hillbillies growing up, but didn't discover the wonder that is Bilko until I was in my late teens (I'm almost 56) Since that day, I've devoured every episode several times and become a huge Phil Silvers fan. He's superb in everything, including A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, which I cannot recommend enough (if you Blog fans haven't seen it, watch it and you're welcome)

norm said...

What is fun watching the Bilko show "You'll Never Get Rich" is the actors who you know from different series. I have copied some of those to DVD and they are great to watch.

Joe K said...

He was also great in its a mad mad mad world.
Joe

John Hammes said...

Admirable and clever when a character's name is a play on personality trait and circumstance ( he was always "bilking" someone ).

Ralph Kramden : their life situation - not to mention that apartment - was pretty much " crammed in ".


Of course, as a finale of sorts, the Honeymooners would finally strike it rich and travel around the world in Gleason's late '60s variety shows... but do those episodes really count?

Sarah said...

Here's a Friday question, Ken:

You've written about how to get that first TV writing gig (all of which has been tremendously helpful, thank you!) but I can't seem to find anything you've written about what to do AFTER you've landed that first job. I'll be starting my first staff writer job on a mid-season comedy really soon and I'm a bit nervous.

What did you expect from the baby writers on your staff?

What advice would you give a first time staff writer?

MacGilroy said...

I fondly remember watching "Bilko" in syndication as a kid. Question - did you ever work in a reference, or subtle homage to Bilko while writing MASH?

RockGolf said...

So what, officially, was the original name of the show?
I've seen it as "You'll Never Get Rich", "Sgt. Bilko", "Bilko" and "The Phil Silvers Show".
I know one of those names was added when re-runs were shown in daytime, because the FCC had a rule at the time that you couldn't use the same name of the series for daytime reruns. But when it first aired, what was the show actually called?

Bob Perlow said...

Bob Perlow

AS A BABY BOOMER LIKE YOURSELF....AS FAR AS COMEDY
.THERE WAS BILKO...THEN EVERYTHING ELSE

Artie Breyfogle said...

Just watched the ep with Doberman's sister...Actually laughed out loud three times...Can't imagine any show like that today...The cast was HUGE and the script was razor sharp...And Bilko had many ethnic types in the platoon and extra cast...Light years before the other shows made a regular practice of having minorities on camera...All in all, Bilko is a CLASSIC TV treasure...Thanks for posting this one...

Darren said...

Sarah,
In addition to any advice Ken gives, you may want to follow @Fizzhogg on Twitter who currently writes for The Librarians on TNT. He's modifying Jeff Lieber's "Showrunner Rules" to "Future Showrunner" rules, speaking to the exact situation in which you'll soon find yourself.

Canda said...

Bravo Ken for pointing out that good acting, from people trained by many years on stage, accompanied by great writing, will always be timeless, in ways that 2 BROKE GIRLS will never be.

Mike said...

How much of the Bilko character was Silvers & how much was Hiken? Has anyone seen enough pre-Bilko Silvers to tell?

Post-Bilko, did Silvers pretty much play every character as Bilko?

Diane D. said...

So, has everyone picked up their copies of GO SET A WATCHMAN? I thought that's what today's post would be about! I expect to be disappointed, but I hope I won't be.

Loved Phil Silvers!

Norm! said...

Friday Question:

What do you think is the best movie that's actually about Hollywood itself? People always mention The Player, which IS a good film but a tad overrated. I have a fascination with Hollywood history, especially the darker side. That's why I love films like Hollywoodland about George Reeves and Auto Focus about Bob Crane.

Gerry said...

Got my copy of MUST KILL TV today! end of commercial.

Curt Alliaume said...

My understanding is the show was originally titles You'll Never Get Rich, but was retitled The Phil Silvers Show within a couple months of its debut.

After the show was cancelled by CBS in 1959 and picked up in reruns by NBC (although I have no idea when they ran it; it doesn't appear to have run in the daytime - early prime time, perhaps?); the rerun title became Sgt. Bilko, which is the more popular title today.

NBC/Universal now owns the series (Universal made the 1996 Steve Martin movie) - I'm surprised they haven't revived the character for a new series, given they've tried a bunch of other Universal properties.

jbryant said...

Discovering THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW on Me-TV a few years ago is one of the joys of my life. I was too young to see the series in first run, and for whatever reason none of the markets I lived in growing up saw fit to air the syndicated reruns. But I've now seen over 80 episodes, and they're all great. I've never seen an installment that wasn't laugh-out-loud funny from beginning to end. Some plots are better than others, but seriously, this has to be one of the most consistently great shows of all time. Phil Silvers as a performer is nothing short of astonishing, and Bilko is one of the great popular culture creations of the 20th century. (Do you get the impression that I love this show?) Kudos to Ken for helping to keep the Bilko flame burning.

Todd Everett said...

In the cleverly-titled "New Phil Silvers" show ("created" by Harvey Bullock and R.S. Allen), Silvers played a civilian counterpart of Bilko; a shop steward or something such, named Harry Grafton. Herbie Faye, of "Bilko," was also in it. The series ran for one season

Victor Velasco said...


The greatness of Nat Hiken cannot be overstated. There may be 20 or 120 classic comedy series in the history of TV but none will ever be funnier than
Bilko. Nat Hiken showed time and time again how human nature brought people into hilarious situations...vanity overtaking the most altruistic soul...people believing what they wanted to with no real evidence to back those beliefs...One of the best examples - which Nat also used in Car 54 - was convincing people that something they lived and knew for SURE, did NOT actually happen [Schnauser convinced that Thursday didn't happen, thereby skipping the weekly fight with Sylvia, and, Papperelli, knowing he never went to Atlantic City finally reminiscing about his trip] This year, I've binged on both Hiken masterpieces; weekends well spent.

Kelly said...

Hey Ken,

Would be interested to see the full list of pilots you showed to your USC class. Thanks!

Mike Barer said...

For many in our generation, Phil Silver's daughter, I believe, played Joanie Cunningham's best friend, Jenny Piccollo in "Happy Days".

DwWashburn said...

I discovered the Phil Silvers Show via Top Cat. I watched Top Cat's first run and heard people saying that it was just an animated version of You'll Never Get Rich. When Phil Silvers was stripped I started watching and I've been a fan ever since.

Jason said...

don't see it on any channel I have access to, but I'll keep looking.

MikeK.Pa. said...

I love Nat Hiken and highly recommend the bio on him "King of the Half Hour" by David Everitt. Just saw a binge marathon of CAR 54 WHERE ARE YOU? - another Hiken creation - over the weekend. Hiken was a master of misdirection and mistaken identity. Fifty years later and it still kills.

I was thinking of McHALE'S NAVY the other day and wondering if that was pitched as Bilko on a boat? Ernest Borgnine's character wasn't as slick as Phil Silvers' but he was always on the con. Bilko would con anyone - including the men in his unit - while McHale's target was usually Capt. Binghamton (Joe Flynn did a slow burn as well as anyone).

Don K. said...

I got through 27 or so comments and no mention of Phil Silvers co-writing "Nancy With The Laughing Face" with Jimmy Van Heusen? He did the lyrics. It was NOT originally written for Nancy Sinatra, as is commonly thought, though.

MikeK.Pa. said...

BTW, Bilko was on ME TV early Sundays (4-5 a.m.) until a couple months ago. There's another channel - Decades - that runs binge marathons on weekends and I believe Bilko is in that rotation along with CAR 54, DOBIE GILLIS and others.

Anonymous said...

Best movie about Hollywood- there is Sunset Boulevard and everything else.

michaleen said...

"Nancy" wasn't written for Frank's daughter, but when Sinatra thought so and was genuinely moved, Van Heusen and Silvers just went with it. Some time later, Jimmy (truly the alpha male that most of us imagined Sinatra to be) presented Nancy with an envelope for Christmas. In it was a document assigning to Nancy his publishing rights to "her" song.

Tobi said...

My favorite Bilko episode was the one where a female guest speaker comes to the base to give a lecture. Bilko discovers she has a weird tic...she snaps her girdle every once in a while without realizing it. He immediately sets up a pool and sells tickets to award a prize for the closest estimate. All through her speech, the men keep count. It's hysterical!!!

Diane D. said...

There are 2 full seasons of The Phil Silvers Show on Youtube.

Terrence Moss said...

charlotte rae is the twitch in that episode. classic.

Terrence Moss said...

"the court-martial" is my absolute favorite episode.

Ken K. in NJ said...

Somewhere along the line I read that Sgt. Bilko is Larry David's all time favorite TV Show. But what did not realize until just the other day is that the final episode of the Bilko show ended with Bilko and several of the platoon characters in jail!!

Sounds familiar...

Barry Traylor said...

I just re watched IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, WORLD and among all the comedic geniuses in that film Phil Silvers is a stand out. A very, very funny man.

Brian Phillips said...

Not having anything to do with the show, but when he was performing in his breakout hit Broadway show, "Top Banana", one of his co-stars at a certain part of the run was Audrey Meadows. She auditioned for and won the part of Alice Kramden in "The Honeymooners", which meant she had to leave "Top Banana" rather suddenly.

Meadows told Silvers about the new show. He said, "Sounds like a great opportunity. Have a great time!"

She replied, "But what about finding my replacement?"

He said, "That's MY problem and I'll worry about it."

From Meadows' book "Love, Alice":

"Phil Silvers. One of the biggest stars and one of the best!"

LouOCNY said...

Dw Washburn: I discovered the Phil Silvers Show via Top Cat. I watched Top Cat's first run and heard people saying that it was just an animated version of You'll Never Get Rich.

To the point where the voice of the feline Doberman, Benny the Ball, was voiced by...yes, Maurice "Doberman" Gosfield!

Steve Everitt said...

We've revered Mr Silvers for over thirty years. Check out our website: www.philsilvers.co.uk

Steve Everitt said...

We've revered Mr Silvers for over thirty years. Check out our website: www.philsilvers.co.uk

Steve Everitt said...

We've revered Mr Silvers for over thirty years. Check out our website: www.philsilvers.co.uk

Craig Gustafson said...

My mom saw Phil Silvers in "Top Banana" when it played in Chicago. She said it was the funniest thing she had ever seen.
When the Steve Martin movie came out, it was promoted by having Martin, Dan Aykroyd and Phil Hartman host a "Phil Silvers Show" marathon. And that's where they lost the fans of the original series, because they smirked. After showing some clips it was, "Well, we certainly can't act *that* big these days!" They talked about how much they loved the show, with condescension dripping from every word. Since they were being jerks about performers they couldn't hold a candle to, I decided to skip seeing their smarmy movie.
Silvers, who won a Tony Award for "Top Banana," was the first actor to win a Tony for a revival, when he played Pseudolus in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." I have bootleg recordings of two performances - the entire show. God, I wish I could have seen him live. Genius.

Mike McCann said...

Was it the parting of the ways with (and sadly, premature death of) Nat Hiken that crimped Phil's final decades. After MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD and A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, he never found that "next vehicle."

Other than being the moneyman for GILLIGAN'S ISLAND, he seemed to just fade away like a once brilliant candle in the distance.

Johnny Walker said...

This was always on TV when I was a kid, but I never really got it. I have a feeling I'd appreciate it more as an adult... Wish it was on Netflix!

crackblind said...

If you get a chance, you should listen to Lewis Black's episode of Gilbert Gottfried's podcast. Black explains how much he loves Bilko & how "The Court Martial" is not only one of the best episodes of television, but it also convinced him that there was no chance he'd ever go into the army. Black also praises the genius of Amos &Andy and what an a,axing character the Kingfish is. Definitely worth a listen.

cadavra said...

MikeK: No, McHALE was not pitched as a BILKO knock-off. In fact, kind of the opposite: The pilot was a one-hour drama called "McHale's Men." ABC passed, but liked elements of it enough to suggest trying it again as a sitcom. Joseph Heller, who had just scored a blockbuster with "Catch-22," was hired to help turn it into a satire. (Meanwhile, the initial pilot was retitled "Seven Against The Sea" and aired as an episode of ALCOA PREMIERE.) Only Borgnine, Vinson and Wright were kept from the original cast. The new pilot scored, it went to series and the rest is history.

It should also be noted that three years later, ABC went to this well again with F TROOP. If you watch one random episode each of all three series in a row, as I have done, you'll find they're all basically the same set-up; i.e., con artists in the service--only the time-frames and uniforms are different.

Jake Mabe said...

Loved BILKO as a kid. Remember it as being literally laugh-out-loud funny.

Just watched the pilot and the famous "Court-Martial" episode.

Throughout most of the pilot, I usually reacted to the jokes with a genuinely fond, amused grin. I think I literally laughed out loud once.

Did so more times (I think about five) during "The Court-Martial," laughing the hardest when the chimp skates by and Bilko says "No smoking!" and a couple of times during the court-martial scene itself, especially at the "He's calling for another lawyer" line.

So, I don't know if it's just the passage of time or my mood today, but the show was met here with more fondness than hearty hilarity. The best thing I can say is the humor isn't dated at all. I may have to save my pennies and buy the complete series set.

But, alas, I wasn't rolling around on the floor crying, like I thought I might.

Craig Gustafson said...

Two part Friday question:

1. I had heard that Bilko scripts were twice as long as normal sitcom scripts, due to the warp factor farce speed of the performances. On a Bilko fan site, a script was donated by Nick Saunders, who played Captain Barker. They didn't post the entire script, but on the first page are Saunders' notes about which scenes he was in. His final appearance was on page 55. Page. Fifty. Five. 55 pages for a half hour sitcom. Have you ever encountered a half hour script of that length?

2. In Don Knotts' autobiography, he stated that "The Love God?" by Nat Hiken was written with Phil Silvers in mind as the villain, but that Universal didn't want to meet Silvers' price. So the part went to the God of Comedy, Edmund O'Brien. What is your opinion of this missed opportunity? I actually like "The Love God?" I think the only reason it tanked was because it was Don Knotts in a sex comedy. Sort of like Captain Kangaroo staging "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" for his audience. "Look out for those goddamn bats, Mr. Moose..."