Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday… on a Wednesday! As promised, 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.
Without series creator Nat Hiken, The Phil Silvers Show‘s third season is a notable comedown in quality. Gone is Hiken’s expertise at hatching elaborate Bilko schemes with iconically clever beat-by-beat storytelling, along with his narrative creativity, so tailored to the leading persona and the world around him. But we knew this was coming. After already seeing in Two how Hiken sought to diminish his involvement amidst self-proclaimed burnout, when the show’s ability to tell stories as fresh and exciting as the first year’s became compromised, Three, with Billy Friedberg as Hiken’s replacement, proves just how essential the series creator had been in sustaining the second season’s relative excellence. That is, now that Hiken is officially gone, all the casual criticisms are weightier: the show struggles more with episodic ideas, while scripts are no longer as smartly crafted. Also, the observed interest in show biz metatheatricality continues, but it’s not heightened (as in Four). Instead, the year addresses its problems by relying more on individual gimmicks, like funny ideas independent of the premise and plots that really put stock in guest performers. I don’t have to tell you that these are, on the whole, less satisfying, because in Hiken’s absence, the show is fundamentally less aligned with the Bilko character… That said, Three is staffed with amazing scribes, like Neil Simon (credited with two scripts); they not only understand comedy, but they do sincerely try, outside of the gimmicks, to find plots that at least showcase Bilko, meaning they’re able to keep him prioritized and consistent, even if the stories he’s in aren’t as intrinsically compatible. We’ll see this “slot-the-character-into-the-idea” modus operandi more vividly in Four, a bolder season than the tentative Three, where stories bounce inorganically between low-key familiar fare and idea-based stunts. And, yes, the results are inconsistent and largely beneath earlier years’ — I’d say about seven of the ten below are comparable — but that’s more relevant now, when discussing the series’ diminished popularity against other ’50s comedies, than it was back in 1958, when it once again won Emmys for Writing and as the prior year’s Outstanding Comedy. It remained beloved, and indeed, there’s a lot here that affirms why Phil Silvers is a deserved staple of classic sitcommery… So, on that note, I have, as usual, picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this year’s finest.
01) Episode 71: “Bilko’s Merry Widow” (Aired: 09/17/57)
Bilko hopes for a payday by staging a production of The Merry Widow.
Written by Nat Hiken & Billy Friedberg
Nat Hiken is co-credited for this script — that’s because the entry was produced as part of Season Two and held over. Perhaps it’s my own bias about his function in sustaining Phil Silvers‘ quality, but I think the episode’s nuanced Bilko scheme, which is more complicated and psychological than those below — not to mention, based on performance — proves his value. Incidentally, Margaret Hamilton and Gretchen Wyler both have supporting roles.
02) Episode 73: “Hillbilly Whiz” (Aired: 10/01/57)
Bilko tries to launch a hillbilly soldier’s baseball career.
Written by Coleman Jacoby & Arnie Rosen
Dick Van Dyke makes his first of two appearances in this celebrated excursion that was included on the initial “best of” DVD release. It’s impossible to deny that the presence of this future sitcom great is what leads the offering’s popularity today, but unlike with Van Dyke’s second segment, its narrative template (Bilko attempting to exploit another’s talent) is a good example of the series’ interests, too. And with a baseball theme, Yankees like Yogi Berra guest.
03) Episode 76: “Bilko’s Double Life” (Aired: 10/22/57)
Bilko is mistaken for a millionaire who looks exactly like him.
Written by A.J. Russell & Sydney Zelinka
More memorable than actually well-built, this notable installment allows the marvelous Phil Silvers to stretch himself by doing double duty, both as the continuous Bilko, and also as his millionaire doppelgänger. Both lookalikes find themselves ensconced in conflict when they inadvertently switch places over the course of this episode. Too fun to ignore.
04) Episode 85: “Bilko And The Flying Saucers” (Aired: 12/31/57)
Bilko hopes to get to D.C. by convincing his superior that he’s seen a flying saucer.
Written by Coleman Jacoby & Arnie Rosen
As you can see with outings like this one, the show is expanding its purview for the sake of story, and even wresting itself from a strict fidelity to logic and common sense, making for broader, sillier weekly plots. But this is one of the better samples in that pile, for the premise of Bilko feigning UFO sightings to get a trip to Washington, convincing others to think they’ve seen the same, is more psychological warfare in the classic Phil Silvers vein. One of my favorites.
05) Episode 87: “Doberman, The Crooner” (Aired: 01/14/58)
Bilko realizes that Doberman has a great singing voice… but there’s a catch.
Written by Phil Sharp, Terry Ryan, & Vincent Bogert
Once again, the series finds that it can use Doberman for tried-and-true stories built around the one-joke notion of his “characterization,” which itself is that he’s physically unappealing. This time the gag is that, even though he’s ugly, he actually has a lovely singing voice… which ignites the old “Bilko exploits another’s talent” template, yet with a typical catch: Doberman can only sing when sick. It’s an easy, unoriginal plot, but, hey, it doesn’t disappoint.
06) Episode 90: “Bilko’s Pigeons” (Aired: 02/04/58)
Bilko tries to make money by selling off the army’s carrier pigeons.
Written by Phil Sharp & Terry Ryan
Despite the loss of Nat Hiken and the change in the series’ storytelling, which has become more generic and less ethereally steeped in Bilko-ness (as it seemed to be under his creator), this great writing staff is still able to keep the central character generally consistent — and even within stories that “play” by the rules of the established setting. Some of these offerings are boring, because they’re familiar but less clever than their earlier counterparts, yet this is one of the best — a good idea that works for the character as we know him. Just a really solid effort.
07) Episode 95: “Bilko, The Genius” (Aired: 03/14/58)
Bilko is accidentally transferred to a group of geniuses, whose brains he uses for horse racing.
Written by Arnie Rosen, Coleman Jacoby, Phil Sharp, & Terry Ryan
My choice for the season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Bilko, The Genius” not only succeeds on the idea-driven metrics that define the show’s storytelling interests and the way by which we must ascertain value (particularly in the post-Hiken era), but also by how well it utilizes Bilko and his stylized world. It’s more than a Victory In Premise to have Bilko accidentally moved to a group of geniuses, whose statistical brains he uses to gamble on horse races; it’s an affirmation of the series’ design, and complicated plotting, especially when the ingenious script has Bilko using military missiles to send cash money to place his bets — a bit of inspired lunacy that, in the ’50s, only this series could do. In this regard, it’s the most like earlier classics such as “The Court Martial,” with a super-smart idea-based aesthetic unique to this show. For me, there was no other real MVE candidate.
08) Episode 97: “The Colonel’s Inheritance” (Aired: 04/04/58)
Bilko invests the Colonel’s money in a stock that immediately plunges.
Written by Phil Sharp, Terry Ryan, & Paul Jordan
There are a handful of somewhat sentimental shows in the last two years (well, as sentimental as The Phil Silvers Show is ever permitted to be — not much, thank goodness) dealing with the relationship between positional antagonists Bilko and Hall, whose dynamic has more dimension than anyone else’s. What I like about this offering though is that it plays to their bond and their characterizations, as the Colonel rightly suspects Bilko of essentially stealing his money and spending it on a plunging stock, reinforcing their closeness, but without unbuyable schmaltz.
09) Episode 98: “Bilko’s Honeymoon” (Aired: 04/11/58)
Bilko has Paparelli dress up as his wife in order to win a free honeymoon.
Written by Arnie Rosen & Coleman Jacoby
Doberman has donned drag several times throughout the series, but now it’s Paparelli’s turn, as part of Bilko’s scheme to win a vacation to Florida. Naturally, in Sitcom 101, the complication is that Bilko and “his bride” run into the Colonel and his wife, which forces “the newlyweds” to maintain the ruse. Good ol’ ’50s farce — not clever, but fun. Wyler appears again.
10) Episode 101: “Bilko’s TV Pilot” (Aired: 05/09/58)
Bilko tries to sell a Western TV pilot starring Doberman.
Written by Arnie Rosen & Coleman Jacoby
Instead of featuring one of the metatheatrical shows with a named star, I’ve chosen to single out this amusing half-hour, which sets its sights on TV, and the current Western trend specifically, as Bilko produces a pilot. It’s an easily comedic idea, allowing for a climactic “screening” of the expectedly rotten effort. Actors play real CBS executives.
Other notable offerings worth mentioning include: “Bilko’s Boy’s Town,” which has a fun “get rich quick” scheme and a smart mouth kid who rivals Bilko, “Lieutenant Bilko,” which has some fine ideas in a so-so execution, “Bilko Presents Kay Kendall,” which is built around its guest star but nevertheless has its moments, “The Colonel’s Reunion,” which is one of those aforementioned Bilko/Hall shows that engages with more sentimentality, “Bilko Saves Ritzik’s Marriage,” which delights in the misery of the Ritziks, “Bilko, The Art Lover,” a popular outing that was on the “best of” DVD release because it features a young Alan Alda as an aspiring artist whose work Bilko tries to help sell in New York City, and “Bilko, The Male Model,” which simply has an amusing show biz-adjacent premise in which Silvers shines.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of The Phil Silvers Show goes to…
“Bilko, The Genius”
Come back Tuesday for Season Three! And next week for a new Wildcard Wednesday!