THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW

U.S. Situation Comedy

The Phil Silvers Show, a half-hour comedy series, first ran on CBS from September 1955 to September 1959. The show's original title was You'll Never Get Rich, but this name was dropped shortly after its debut. Since its inception the series has also been commonly referred to as "Sergeant Bilko."

The program's 138 episodes trace the minor victories and misfortunes of the scheming, fast-talking Master Sergeant Ernie Bilko (Phil Silvers), head of the motor pool at the mythical U.S. army station of Fort Baxter in Roseville, Kansas. In his relentless pursuit of personal gain and physical comfort, Bilko attempts to manipulate those around him through the selective use of flattery, false na´vetÚ, pulling rank, and a canny ability to identify and stimulate desires, weaknesses and emotions in others. Although his reputation for masterful chicanery is well known around the base, the other characters in the show prove no match for Bilko's complex mental designs and are ultimately unable to avoid following the course of action he desires. In his attempts to buck the system, Bilko is aided by his platoon-members: a motley collection of blue collar, "ethnic" Americans whose own distaste for military discipline is displayed through their visible admiration for their brilliant leader.

Aside from money and favors won in poker games and elaborate rackets, however, Bilko never benefits at the expense of others. Faced with innocent victims, the Sergeant's conscience kicks in and he expends every mental resource to resolve the problem. Bilko's one redeeming moral quality, therefore, is his heart of gold, which prevents him both from truly prospering or losing his humanity.

Frequently, unforeseen obstacles to Bilko's strategies arise out of a misunderstanding between the principal characters. Much of the program's humor derives from Bilko's incomplete knowledge of a situation--the audience watches as he unwittingly makes matters worse for himself, before realizing his error and having to employ his quick thinking in order to make amends. Sharp dialogue and tightly woven plot lines (involving absurd, but believable, situations), combined with a heavy emphasis on visual comedy, made The Phil Silvers Show one of the most popular and critically-acclaimed sitcoms of the 1950s.

The series developed as a collaboration between Silvers, a Brooklyn-born veteran of vaudeville, Broadway, and motion pictures, and Nat Hiken, the show's unassuming head writer, producer, and stage director. Hiken had already earned a reputation for superb radio and TV comedy writing for such celebrities as Fred Allen and Martha Raye. Silvers and Hiken were given tremendous creative license by CBS to devise and cast the show. The two creators experimented with numerous settings and narrative structures before deciding on a military location, a Bilko-centered narrative trajectory, and a colorful coterie of supporting characters. In the spring of 1955, filming began at the DuMont studios in New York. CBS confidence in the production was such that twenty episodes were in the can prior to the show's broadcast debut in the fall. The network's magnanimity is understandable given that Bilko neatly fit the successful formula upon which CBS had built its television reputation: a half-hour situation comedy series written as a vehicle for an established performer.

The Phil Silvers Show was initially recorded live on film using a three camera set-up. Post-production was minimal, giving the final program a spontaneous, no-frills appeal despite its celluloid status. As the series developed, the storylines often incorporated outside characters who were portrayed by guest celebrities. Mike Todd appeared in one 1958 episode, insisting that it be shot using a movie-style, one camera production process. Cast and crew found appealing the more relaxed shooting schedule this engendered, and the show subsequently adopted this filming technique permanently. This meant that the scenes would be shot throughout the week and later edited together in order. Consequently, the studio audience disappeared, requiring the recording of a laughtrack at a weekly screening of the final program.

Despite being scheduled against NBC's Tuesday night powerhouse Milton Berle, The Phil Silvers Show quickly attracted viewers and passed Berle in the ratings within a few months. The show's popularity was matched by great critical acclaim. Along with a bevy of other awards, the series won five Emmies in its first season on the air, and more were to follow over the next couple of years. Nevertheless, the drain of weekly programming eventually began to take its toll. Hiken's total commitment to the show proved physically and creatively exhausting and he left the series in 1957 to pursue less hectic projects. By the spring of 1959, when CBS announced its forthcoming cancellation of the series, Silvers too was complaining of fatigue induced by the show's grueling routine. Bending under the weight of the twenty-two cast members' salaries, CBS canceled the still popular series in order to maximize its syndication price and potential.


The Phil Silvers Show

Following Sergeant Bilko, Hiken and Silvers collaborated on several hour-long musical specials for CBS at the end of the 1950s. While the actor then returned to the stage and big screen, Hiken achieved another TV comedy hit with Car 54, Where Are You? In 1963, attracted by a lucrative financial offer from CBS, Silvers attempted to recapture his earlier television success with The New Phil Silvers Show. This series transferred the Bilko scenario to a civilian setting: Silvers played Harry Grafton, a crafty, wheeling-dealing maintenance superintendent at an industrial plant. Grafton lacked Bilko's magical presence and any of his redeeming values; the series floundered in the ratings and was canceled in its first season. The Bilko formula was more successfully reinvoked in the early 1960s in the form of the ABC cartoon Top Cat. This prime time animation featured the voice of Maurice Gosfield--who had played the slothful audience favorite Duane Doberman in The Phil Silvers Show--as Benny the Ball.

"Sergeant Bilko" has proven instrumental in inspiring a whole genre of male-dominated, uniformed, non-domestic sitcoms over the decades since its original broadcast. Such series as McHale's Navy, Hennesey, M*A*S*H, and At Ease (a banal, short-lived Eighties' imitation), to name only few, have clearly attempted to emulate its successful blend of distinctive, engaging characters and first-class writing. A 1996 movie, Sergeant Bilko, starred Steve Martin in the title role.

-Matthew Murray

CAST

Master Sergeant Ernie Bilko ..........................Phil Silvers Corporal Rocco Barbella....................... Harvey Lembeck Private Sam Fender.................................... Herbie Faye Colonel John Hall........................................... Paul Ford Private Duane Doberman...................... Maurice Gosfleld Sergeant Rupert Ritzik................................ Joe E. Ross Corporal Henshaw....................................... Allan Melvin Private Dino Paparelli................................... Billy Sands Private Zimmerman ..............................Mickey Freeman Nell Hall............................................... Hope Sansberry Sergeant Grover......................................... Jimmy Little Sergeant Joan Hogan (1956-1958)......... Elisabeth Fraser

PRODUCERRS Edward J. Montagne, Aaron Ruben, Nat Hiken

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 138 Episodes

CBS
September 1955-October 1955            Tuesday 8:30-9:00 November 1955-February 1958             Tuesday 8:00-8:30 February 1958-September 1959              Friday 9:00-9:30

FURTHER READING

Drury, Michael. "Backstage with Phil Silvers." Colliers (New York), 11 May 1956.

Freeman, Mickey, and Sholom Rubinstein. "But Sarge... Behind the Lines with Sgt. Bilko." Television Quarterly (New York) 1986.

Hiken, Nat, Files, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison.

Silvers, Phil, with Robert Saffron. This Laugh is on Me: The Phil Silvers Story. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1973.

"Taps for Sergeant Bilko." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania) 16 May 1959.

 

See also Comedy, Workplace; Silvers, Phil