The Ten Best THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW Episodes of Season Two

Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our coverage on the best of The Phil Silvers Show (1955-1959, CBS) — a.k.a. You’ll Never Get Rich, a.k.a. Sgt. Bilko — which is currently available in full on DVD from Shout Factory.

The Phil Silvers Show stars PHIL SILVERS as MSgt. Ernie Bilko, HARVEY LEMBECK as Cpl. Rocco Barbella, ALLAN MELVIN as Cpl. Steve Henshaw, BILLY SANDS as Pvt. Dino Paparelli, HERBIE FAYE as Cpl. Sam Fender, MICKEY FREEMAN as Pvt. Fielding Zimmerman, MAURICE GOSFIELD as Pvt. Duane Doberman, and PAUL FORD as Col. John T. Hall. AL DE CAPRIO is the series’ resident Director.

The best season of The Phil Silvers Show is the first. The next best is the second, because it was also run by creator Nat Hiken, whose maintained involvement guaranteed a level of excellence that would diminish upon his leave. In fact, Two is almost as consistent as its brilliant predecessor, and this closeness is notable. As for the variance, perhaps we can chalk up some of that to the loss of the live audience midway through Two — a decision that mitigates the intensity of the high-energy New York style. But I think that’s tangential compared to the storytelling, which is, simply, less fresh, as templates have become familiar and scripts must now grope for plot outside the premise. Accordingly, there’s more metatheatrical show biz fare this year. These entries range in quality, but the fourth wall “wink” is a fundamental part of the series’ identity: an external aesthetic encouraged by the Silvers persona… yet not rooted in the Bilko character or the premise. Thus, the less often the show can be inherently clever regarding its character/situation, the more it has to turn outward for funny ideas to sustain episodic value. We’ll see this more after Hiken’s tenure, but the tiring scribe was already loosening his grip this year in preparation for his eventual exit, and much of Two’s output straddles both the structural ingenuity evidenced in One, when he was in strict control, and the good-but-less-so, idea-driven nature of the years ahead, which would be run by Billy Friedberg, a fellow Martha Raye vet who led a team of terrific writers… but none as conditioned to the Bilko sensibility, and the unique plotting that made it special, as Hiken. Incidentally, Leonard Stern, a wonderful scribe who came over this year from The Honeymooners and whom Hiken intended to tutor as his official successor, quickly realized how difficult it would be to write Bilko without Hiken and left after just a few months. This was a shame; Stern was replaceable — another Honeymooners pair joined the staff — but his efforts with Hiken are among this year’s finest, and come the closest to challenging One’s superiority… Nevertheless, Hiken’s still here for Two, and it’s loaded with classics. The series was still critically lauded, too — once again, the TV Academy recognized it, mid-year, for Writing and as the Outstanding Comedy… So, what else is there to say? It’s classic TV for good reason, and I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this year’s best.

 

01) Episode 36: “It’s For The Birds” (Aired: 09/25/56)

Bilko hopes to capitalize on a soldier’s vast bird knowledge.

Teleplay by Nat Hiken & Billy Friedberg | Story by Nat Hiken

After a choice turn in last season’s “The Eating Contest,” Car 54’s Fred Gwynne returns here for another narrative that finds Bilko exploiting one of his soldier’s talents for personal profit — this time, it’s a private’s expertise in birds, which enables the series to spoof the current quiz show craze (which it’ll do again, more brutally, in 1958), creating a very funny half-hour.

02) Episode 37: “Bilko Goes To College” (Aired: 10/02/56)

Bilko tries to get back at a bookie via a losing college football team.

Written by Nat Hiken, Leonard Stern, Tony Webster, & Billy Friedberg

A great example of the complicated storytelling stylings that Hiken would offer in many of the first seasons’ finest entries, “Bilko Goes To College” has an ideal Bilko scheme in which the Master Sergeant once again turns to psychological manipulation — this time against a crooked bookie, as Bilko bets a fortune on a notoriously bad college football team…

03) Episode 39: “The Face On The Recruiting Poster” (Aired: 10/16/56)

A Bilko plan goes awry when Doberman is chosen to be the face on a recruiting poster.

Written by Nat Hiken, Leonard Stern, Tony Webster, & Billy Friedberg

Throughout the series’ last three years, Phil Silvers gets a lot of easy laughs, not to mention guaranteed comedic story, by mocking Doberman — or rather, Maurice Gosfield’s general unattractiveness. Yet while I don’t think there’s much of a character there, these outings tend to be tried-and-true, for they allow Bilko to engage with one of his funniest peripheral constants.

04) Episode 43: “A Mess Sergeant Can’t Win” (Aired: 11/13/56)

Bilko tries to let the exasperated Ritzik win at something before his announced retirement.

Written by Nat Hiken, Leonard Stern, Tony Webster, & Billy Friedberg

My choice for the season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “A Mess Sergeant Can’t Win” not only introduces us to classic recurring characters Ritzik (Joe E. Ross) and his shrewish wife (Beatrice Pons) — both of whom Hiken would use on Car 54 — but it also plays against type, as Bilko, a character usually trying to cheat other characters OUT of money, now wants to cheat one of his favorite marks INTO money, both altruistically and as an ease to his own conscience. This is an objective rooted in the premise and the Bilko persona, which means that this show comes close to being character-driven. Additionally, the script arrives in the portion of the year — Stern’s on staff — where the quality seems to be at Season One’s levels, meaning it’s still fresh and lots of fun. A favorite; Bilko is never more Bilko! On the “best of” DVD.

05) Episode 44: “Doberman’s Sister” (Aired: 11/20/56)

Bilko intervenes when no one offers to go out with Doberman’s sister.

Written by Nat Hiken, Leonard Stern, Tony Webster, & Billy Friedberg

Another installment built around the “character” of Doberman (a.k.a. his aesthetic lack of appeal), this popular show features Bilko’s “Musselman’s Law,” which basically says that the uglier the brother, the prettier his sister. Of course, this is proven to be definitively NOT true when Doberman’s sis shows up… and it’s Maurice Gosfield in drag. On the “best of” set.

06) Episode 51: “Love That Guardhouse” (Aired: 01/15/57)

Ritzik is locked in the guardhouse so Bilko can’t get to him and his recent Vegas winnings.

Written by Nat Hiken, Billy Friedberg, Arnie Rose, & Coleman Jacoby

The opposite of my MVE, this outing engages with a typical Bilko story that again involves Ritzik, who’s locked in the guardhouse with his Vegas winnings so he can’t be subjected to the former’s money-taking ways. With some of the year’s biggest laughs and a narrative predicated on Bilko’s usual goal, this is another show steeped in character — less evolved than the inverted above, but more straightforward. (Also, Tom Poston makes his second of two appearances.)

07) Episode 55: “Bilko’s Television Idea” (Aired: 02/12/57)

A struggling TV comic visits the base hoping to research a new potential sitcom.

Written by Nat Hiken & Billy Friedberg

I’ve selected this because it’s among the season’s best show business offerings, and one of the series’ most pointed attacks at TV in particular, as a hacky, failing comic visits the base as part of an effort to research a new show. Here, the series winks at the fact that it’s a sitcom, while Bilko acts as agent for a soldier with his own pilot idea — about tree surgeons. Dagmar guests.

08) Episode 59: “Bilko Goes South” (Aired: 03/26/57)

Bilko unknowingly volunteers to participate in fatal medical experiments.

Written by Nat Hiken, Billy Friedberg, & Lou Meltzer

What I like best about this installment is that, for once, Bilko isn’t ahead of the others — actually, we’re ahead of him, as his crew’s vacation to Florida (under the pretense of competing in a singing contest — more performance) is, unbeknownst to them, really a volunteered excursion where they’ll be subjected to fatal medical testing. It’s a bold premise that takes the series away from its regular setting, yet the hahas justify it. Dale Evans and Tina Louise appear.

09) Episode 66: “The Big Scandal” (Aired: 05/14/57)

Doberman is accidentally hypnotized into falling in love with the Colonel’s wife.

Written by Nat Hiken, Billy Friedberg, & Tony Webster

By this point in the season, the show has abandoned its live audience and Hiken’s well of creativity is drying. But though Two has fewer gems post-audience, this is undoubtedly that lot’s strongest, with an audacious laugh-seeking premise built around complications stemming from botched hypnosis. Doberman’s great here, as is guest Julie Newmar. On the “best of” DVD.

10) Episode 67: “Bilko’s Perfect Day” (Aired: 05/21/57)

Bilko has a string of good luck and attempts to make the most of it.

Written by Nat Hiken, Billy Friedberg, & Terry Ryan

This entry actually feels like something that might be better suited to the final season, where the show is looser with its episodic stories and requires less fidelity to common sense. However, because the narrative — about Bilko trying to take advantage of a hot streak — is formed around his persistent objective (to gamble and get rich), it works as a character piece too.

 

I don’t have quite as many Honorable Mentions as last week, but there are some that I really enjoy and think are worth noting, including: “Platoon In The Movies,” the show-biz-based premiere, “The Song Of The Motor Pool,” another show biz offering with a classic pay-off, “Bilko’s Tax Trouble,” an idea-led entry that was included on the “best of” set, “Bilko Gets Some Sleep,” in which Bilko is surprisingly introspective, “Bilko Goes To Monte Carlo,” which gains points for putting Bilko in a hot setting — a casino, “Bilko Enters Politics,” which leads with its amusing idea, “Rock ‘N’ Roll Rookie,” a shameless Elvis Presley parody that’s fun but definitely in the realm of sketch comedy, “The Secret Life Of Sergeant Bilko,” which features an amusing Bilko con, and “Radio Station B.I.L.K.O.,” which comically uses the Colonel as the butt of its jokes. Also, while I don’t like these next outings, I think you should be aware that this season increases its focus on guest stars via outrageously fourth-wall-defying shows featuring, in particular, Ed Sullivan (who’s out of his depth), Bing Crosby (in a rip-off Lucy plot), and Mike Todd (promoting Around The World In 80 Days), along with a “deleted scenes” clip show featuring the cast as “themselves!”

 

*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of The Phil Silvers Show goes to…

“A Mess Sergeant Can’t Win”

 

 

Come back tomorrow for Season Three! And next week for Season Four!

6 thoughts on “The Ten Best THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW Episodes of Season Two

  1. Do you know exactly which episode removed the live audience? Was the audience laughter canned or “played to an audience for live responses” like AitF Season 9?

    • Hi, Jon! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Yes, several firsthand accounts agree that “Bilko Goes Around The World” (the show with Mike Todd) was the first without an audience. You can google more to find out why. The next few episodes thereafter used canned laughter — it’s audibly obvious — before, by this season’s end, they adopted the “screened and recorded” technique for the rest of the run.

  2. Great list. The Ritziks first episode is my favorite too.

    Same question as last time. Since there are so many eps per year back then, if you were picking 13 favorites, which 3 from the honorable mentions would you add?

    • Hi, Elaine! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I’d probably bump up the three Honorable Mentions with the finest premises: “The Song Of The Motor Pool,” “The Secret Life Of Sergeant Bilko,” and “Radio Station B.I.L.K.O.”

  3. It would have been impossible for the second season to measure up to the first, but this was a noble try. Great writeup.

    Harry Clark was missed after his premature death (hard to believe he was only in his early forties) but Joe E. Ross was a truly inspired addition as the new Mess Sergeant. I have a soft spot for “Love That Guardhouse” because it is the very first BILKO I ever saw. I was eight. I loved the show immediately. Trying to put my sentimental value aside, I guess I might go with “Bilko’s Perfect Day” or “A Mess Sergeant Can’t Win” as my MVE. I also love “The Secret Life of Sergeant Bilko” with Philip Coolidge’s increasingly harried reporter, even if it basically is a structural ripoff of “The Hoodlum” from season one. Still, a lot better than 95% of TV seasons out there.

    • Hi, Hal! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I don’t think “The Secret Life Of Sergeant Bilko” is merely a structural ripoff of “The Hoodlum” — it’s an example of one of the series’ most common narrative templates: Bilko rallying his troops into performance to lead a wise guy astray. It’s not unique to those two episodes, so I don’t hold it against either.

      “Love That Guardhouse” is a great first episode to see — a perfect one by which to get hooked!

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