Don Rickles Joins The Navy: A Look At CPO SHARKEY

Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Today we’re looking at the best episodes of CPO Sharkey (1976-1978, NBC), a Don Rickles sitcom that has just been released in full this past year.

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Created by Aaron Ruben, the show drew comparisons to The Phil Silvers Show, McHale’s Navy, and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., as Rickles (who actually served in the navy) stars as U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Otto Sharkey, a bombastic longtime veteran in charge of a group of new recruits on a San Diego naval base. Sharkey’s company is a veritable melting pot with Daniels (Jeff Hollis), an African American; Kowalski (Tom Ruben), a Polish-American; Mignone (Barry Pearl), an Italian-American (Season One only); Rodriguez (Richard Beauchamp), a Puerto Rican; and Skolnick (David Landsberg), a Jewish-American. Sharkey’s assistant is the towering buffoon Pruitt (Peter Isacksen), his best friend is Chief Dave Robinson (Harrison Page), and his immediate superior is the persnickety Lieutenant Whipple (Jonathan Daly).

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The initial premise set-up in the pilot has Sharkey up in arms when he learns that the new base commander is a female, played by Elizabeth Allen. Although her character lasts the entire first season, she’s never used narratively or comedically as the pilot promised, and she’s replaced in Season Two by Richard X. Slattery as the gruff new commander with considerably less tolerance of Sharkey. The second season also features a new recruit in Apodaca (Phillip Sims), a Greek-American. Beverly Sanders (a recurring presence on the early years of Rhoda and a regular on Dom DeLuise’s Lotsa Luck), guest stars in three second season episodes as Chief Gypsy Kock, who clashes with Sharkey but also shares with him some romantic tension. Rhonda Bates also makes several funny appearances across both seasons as Pruitt’s hickish girlfriend.

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As mention above, the entire series as been released on DVD. Although some episodes are the syndicated versions, there’s two great special features: a reunion of the cast, and an iconic clip from The Tonight Show where Johnny Carson storms onto the CPO Sharkey set. Having seen all 37 episodes — 15 from Season One (which premiered in December 1976) and 22 from Season Two — I feel qualified to tell you that while the show is very enjoyable, it’s almost entirely dependent on Rickles’ persona. Of course, the insult comic’s brand of humor is naturally constricted by network standards and practices, but he thrives in this particular setting and with a diverse cast of characters off of whom he can riff. The supporting players are collectively well-cast (save both Captains, neither of whom hit their marks), but stories that center themselves on one of the ensemble members are generally less satisfying, for all we really want to see is Sharkey.

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The second season makes Sharkey even more prominent in each story, but for some reason, the quality of the laughs see a notable decline, and what was fun and enthusiastic in Season One becomes tired and cheap in Season Two. There are some offerings from the second year that are worthwhile, but my overarching opinion is that Rickles isn’t enough to overcome the really average work coming from the writers’ room. It’s disappointing, because a lot of the first season, despite its inability to engage with its own premise, shows unquestionable potential in its comedy. It’s no Bilko, but the concept functions as a great vehicle for this iconic comedian. The scripts vary from good to subpar, but Rickles gets many moments to shine, no matter how brief.

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Also note that as an NBC sitcom, there’s an inherent style to the comedy, which is very different from ABC’s slapstick Garry Marshall inspired kitsch, and CBS’ issue heavy Lear fare or MTM female-driven offerings; the stories have a definite masculine appeal (extending beyond just the premise and the characters, but also into the scripts’ constructs and sensibilities) and the comedy is more “in-your-face”, with seemingly no time for subtlety or half-jokes. Again, it’s ideal for Rickles, and if you’re a fan of his work, CPO Sharkey is worth your time — just know that it’s going to be hit and miss. As usual, the episodes list below, in airing order, are the ones I’d recommend. (Note that all six of the episodes on the “Best of Season One” set are included in my list below — and I chose them before I knew what was on this highlights DVD!)

 

SEASON ONE (1976-1977)

01) Episode 1: “Oh Captain! My Captain” (Aired: 12/01/76)

Sharkey has trouble accepting that his new communing officer is female.

Written by Aaron Ruben | Directed by Peter Baldwin

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The pilot, as discussed above, poises the series into a direction that it unfortunately never takes. This is unfortunate because this installment is hilarious, and Sharkey’s initial scene with his recruits, where Rickles does what Rickles does best, is a series highlight.

02) Episode 3: “The Dear John Letter” (Aired: 12/22/76)

Robinson believes that Sharkey is a ladies man and sets him up on a date.

Story by Coslough Johnson | Teleplay by Gene Farmer and Aaron Ruben | Directed by Peter Baldwin

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This installment, which is nevertheless amusing throughout, really only makes today’s list for a drop-dead hysterical sequence in which Robinson sets Sharkey up on a blind date with a black woman. Rickles’ reaction is a hoot, and sure to keep you in stitches. An easy favorite.

03) Episode 4: “Goodbye Dolly” (Aired: 12/29/76)

The recruits try to hide an inflatable female doll in their barracks.

Written by Aaron Ruben | Directed by Peter Baldwin

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Much of the humor in this installment is present in the premise (of the men trying to hide an inflatable doll) itself and not in any particulars of the script or the course that the writer has the proceedings take. But there are some nice physical comedy bits.

04) Episode 8: “Sunday In Tijuana” (Aired: 02/09/77)

Sharkey’s weekend plans are ruined when some recruits get arrested in Mexico.

Written by Aaron Ruben | Directed by Peter Baldwin

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In what will become a trend for this series (if it isn’t one already), this premise is a little gaudy, as the whole idea of characters going to jail is eyeroll-worthy typical sitcom fare. But it’s hard to deny the comedy in the build-up of each ensuing arrest. Saved by laughs.

05) Episode 10: “Sharkey Boogies On Down” (Aired: 02/23/77)

Robinson takes Sharkey to a discotheque for his birthday.

Story by Mort Scharfman | Teleplay by Aaron Ruben and Mort Scharfman | Directed by Peter Baldwin

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Rickles, as is the case with every episode here, makes the entire offering work, as the premise, not unlike an installment of The Jeffersons we discussed yesterday, is all about putting Sharkey in a position where he must disco. Rickles is a genius, and this episode proves just that.

06) Episode 11: “Sharkey Finds Peace And Quiet” (Aired: 03/02/77)

Sharkey decides to move into an off-base apartment.

Story by Rick Mittleman | Teleplay by Aaron Ruben and Rick Mittleman | Directed by Peter Baldwin

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I’m mad about this episode for the guest appearance of Merie Earle (readers may remember her as the character actress who elevated several mid-run episodes of The Bob Newhart Show). She plays the landlady of Sharkey’s new apartment, and their interaction is divine.

07) Episode 13: “Sharkey’s Secret Life” (Aired: 03/16/77)

The recruits jump to the conclusion that Sharkey is gay.

Story by Bill Richmond and Gene Perret | Teleplay by Aaron Ruben | Directed by Peter Baldwin

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A classic misunderstanding, this one — in which the ensemble believes that Sharkey is preparing to come out of the closet — is sparked after Sharkey meets with an effeminate toupee salesman. His big surprise, and a great sight gag, is that he’s getting himself a new head of hair. Lots of funny.

 

Other notable episodes that narrowly missed inclusion on the list above include: “Shimokawa Ships Out,” in which Sharkey’s potentially offensive pejoratives become part of the narrative, and “Rodriguez And His Mamacita,” in which the men try to hide a woman in the barracks.

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SEASON TWO (1977-1978) 

08) Episode 19: “Don’t Make Waves” (Aired: 11/18/77)

Sharkey’s barrack is chosen for a co-ed experiment.

Written by Arnie Rosen | Directed by Russ Petranto

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Beverly Sanders makes the first of her three appearances as the kooky CPO Gypsy Koch, whose female recruits are sharing Sharkey’s barracks in a Navy experiment. Sharkey hopes to sabotage the operation by courting Koch, but naturally, it backfires on him.

09) Episode 21: “Sharkey The Actor” (Aired: 12/09/77)

Sharkey’s chosen for the lead in a Navy training film.

Written by Arnie Rosen | Directed by Mel Ferber

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Another ostentatious and “typically sitcom” premise, this episode has a film crew invading the barracks to shoot a Navy film, and guess what — they’ve chosen Sharkey for the star. It’s a natural cue for Sharkey to act alternatively vain and nervous. Easy laughs.

10) Episode 25: “Close Encounters Of The Worst Kind” (Aired: 01/27/78)

Sharkey’s girlfriend accuses him of being insensitive.

Written by Michael Brown and Andy Ruben | Directed by Russ Petranto

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This atypical episode, which features the second of Sanders’ three appearances, has Sharkey attempting to get in touch with some of his inner emotions at the behest of his steady on-again off-again girlfriend Natalie. There’s a couple of really great block comedy scenes here.

11) Episode 28: “Sharkey’s Back Problem” (Aired: 02/17/78)

Sharkey seeks a cure for his back ailment.

Written by Michael Brown and Andy Ruben | Directed by Russ Petranto

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Rickles proves himself to be a master of physical comedy as this episode is seemingly all about Sharkey’s sudden back troubles and all the ways he tries to remedy the situation. This ties in nicely to the subplot of Sharkey being up for the CPO of the Year award.

12) Episode 36: “The Even Couple” (Aired: 04/21/78)

Sharkey and Robinson decide to get an apartment together.

Written by Aaron Ruben | Directed by Russ Petranto

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Sharkey once again attempts to move off-base, but this time he shares a place with Robinson. Merie Earle makes a return appearance, but the highlight is Robinson’s foxy girlfriend who, along with Rickles’ date, serves to illustrate the difficulties of having a roommate.

 

Other notable episodes that narrow missed inclusion on the list above include: “Sharkey Flies Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” in which Sharkey is mistaken for a mental patient, “Punk Rock Sharkey,” in which Charlotte Rae makes an amusing guest appearance, “Fear Of Flying,” in which Sharkey has a fear of, you guessed it, flying. All are funny, but cross the line (for me) of illogicalness.

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Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in tomorrow for more Xena!

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2 thoughts on “Don Rickles Joins The Navy: A Look At CPO SHARKEY

  1. Don Rickles is an American treasure, one of the funniest men on earth. Agree with just about everything you said, from the mediocre scripting to Rickles’ ability, as a force of nature, to elevate every scene he’s in above the pedestrian writing. I am laughing just looking at the screen grabs you chose.
    Boy, the mid-late ’70s really were the dark ages for NBC in terms of sitcoms. By this time, SANFORD & SON had pretty much lost its fastball, so in 1977, CPO SHARKEY was probably the best sitcom the network had to offer.

    • Hi, Guy! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      The late ’70s was really the era of ABC, thanks to Silverman (and the fact that CBS’ long-running hits were all dying at the same time). But don’t cry for NBC; it took them a while to be a consistent home of situation comedy (heck, three decades!), but when they click, they really click. In fact, get ready for an NBC monopoly on Sitcom Tuesdays in 2016!

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