The Ten Best THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW Episodes of Season One

Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re officially starting 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, MAURICE GOSFIELD as Pvt. Duane Doberman, and PAUL FORD as Col. John T. Hall.

I want to reiterate a few things about Season One from last week’s essay (which you can revisit here). First, The Phil Silvers Show is the decade’s best example of an idea-driven show, making it one of the two most seminal sitcoms of the 1950s and the strongest counterpoint to I Love Lucy‘s more character-led fare. Its success is largely due to Nat Hiken, who was the series’ guiding creative force this first year, stepped back ever so slightly the next, and departed entirely before the last two. Unfortunately, the show’s qualitative trajectory is the same as Hiken’s — Season One is the best, Two is very good, and the last two are, well, somewhat lacking. Frankly, I think if The Phil Silvers Show only ran for one year — or heck, even two — it would be cited up there with Lucy and The Honeymooners’ “Classic 39” for consistency, because almost every episode in One is a winner. What does that mean? Well, being a show fascinated with the comedic idea, this season, simply put, has the funniest episodic premises (not to mention the freshest, most engaging tellings). In fact, the series’ first American DVD release was a “best of” set featuring 18 entries, and over half of its selections — 10/18 — came from Season One. (Seven of these ten are featured on my list.) And if I were to pick, free of seasonal bounds, 40 favorites from Phil Silvers‘ entire run, over half — somewhere between 20 and 25 — would also come from this first year. So, to reconcile this notion of lopsided annual quality and acknowledge the half-hours that most deserve to represent this important series, I have decided to extend this post’s Honorable Mentions, citing a record 12 additional offerings. I hope this illustrates just how strong Season One is — the Academy agreed; the show won Emmys for Writing, Directing, Acting (Silvers), and as the Outstanding Comedy — and how relatively weak the other years (particularly Three and Four) are in comparison. As for how I made my picks, again, the good idea is guiding, although I also like stories that ably use the Bilko persona and/or showcase other facets of the series’ identity… Now, without further ado, here are the ten episodes that I think best exemplify the first season of Phil Silvers

 

01) Episode 2: “Empty Store” (Aired: 09/27/55)

Bilko buys an empty store to get back at some greedy soldiers.

Written Nat Hiken | Directed by Al De Caprio

See last week for more about this formative episode, which I used as an example of the difference between a Lucy story, which tends to be relatively simple, and a Bilko story, which has more plot points. To quote from last week, “When Bilko wants to get back at a trio of soldiers for taking money from a new recruit . . . he buys an empty storefront, allows gossip to accrue about why he bought that storefront, watches as they suck up to him to get in on the deal, and then rents a third of it out to each of the three before revealing that it’s otherwise worthless.” This is the first narrative to offer this more complex, plotty storytelling and has remained a fan favorite — it was not on the “best of ” DVD, but it should have been.

02) Episode 9: “The Eating Contest” (Aired: 11/15/55)

Bilko sponsors a G.I. in an eating contest, but the guy only eats when miserable.

Written by Nat Hiken & Arnold Auerbach | Directed by Al De Caprio

Fred Gwynne, later of Hiken’s Car 54, Where Are You?, makes his first of two appearances in this much-beloved outing, playing a prodigious eater known as The Stomach. In what’s already becoming something of a template for the series — see “The Boxer” entry, below — Bilko exploits another’s recognizable talent for his own profit … but, as usual, there’s a hitch: The Stomach can only eat when melancholy. Thus, the amusing idea, of keeping a person unhappy so Bilko can make money off his eating capabilities, is put in play — an original, creative premise with performers and personalities that add to its charm. A classic.

03) Episode 11: “Bivouac” (Aired: 11/29/55)

Colonel Hall schemes when Bilko comes down with his regular ailment at bivouac time.

Written by Nat Hiken, Terry Ryan & Barry Blitzer | Directed by Al De Caprio

One of my favorites, this gem not only enjoys fine scheming from Bilko, but also from the Colonel, as he tries to outmatch his clever Master Sergeant, who always conveniently gets ill when it’s time to bivouac. This leads to a succession of performed plans, as the doctor makes the sickness-feigning Bilko believe he is indeed close to death, and the Colonel himself falls for the ruse, letting the show reinforce something of a semi-friendship between the two, which gives a sense of humanity to a show that typically prioritizes gags and gimmicks.

04) Episode 13: “The Twitch” (Aired: 12/13/55)

Bilko and his crew are forced to endure some culture: a lecture on Beethoven.

Written by Nat Hiken, Terry Ryan & Barry Blitzer | Directed by Al De Caprio

Another favorite, this laugh riot features Car 54’s Charlotte Rae as the wife of the base’s new captain; she’s coming to give the soldiers a lecture on Beethoven, in another one of Hall’s attempts to reform Bilko’s boys by injecting culture into their mix. But Bilko and his crew find a way to make this otherwise terrible event tolerable — by betting on the number of times that Rae’s character twitches, or adjusts herself mid-speech. It’s hilarious — another totally original, imaginative premise that’s born from the Bilko persona and his gambling interests.

05) Episode 16: “Hollywood” (Aired: 01/03/56)

Bilko goes to Hollywood to advise on a WWII film.

Written by Nat Hiken | Directed by Al De Caprio

Although this was not one of the ten included from Season One on the “best of” DVD release — and, truthfully, I don’t consider it one of the top-tier funniest even of this ten — I think it’s an important episode to highlight here, because it’s the first to fully explore Hiken’s, and this series’, fascination with show business, which, as we discussed in last week’s essay, was not rooted in the show’s premise and therefore something of an external aesthetic — one that suggests the kind of metatheatricality many future idea-led shows will prize. Of course, Silvers’ persona is that of a carnival barker — a natural ham with dollar signs for eyes — so Hollywood stories may be thematically warranted. This is the first indication of such.

06) Episode 17: “The Investigation” (Aired: 01/10/56)

Bilko and his company scheme when a government committee looks to slash funds.

Written by Nat Hiken, Terry Ryan & Barry Blitzer | Directed by Al De Caprio

An outgrowth of the series’ show biz obsession is its propensity for performance; a Bilko scheme often requires deception not only from the Master Sergeant, but also from his crew, and there are several outings this first year — “Rest Cure” being another — with “play-acting” to advance a certain cause. In this case, a government investigation committee is coming to examine the army base, hoping to cut costs. Yet Bilko and his team leap into action and pretend to be disheveled and starving — needing more money, not less. It’s another quintessential Bilko maneuver, representing another frequently employed narrative template.

07) Episode 19: “The Revolutionary War” (Aired: 01/24/56)

Bilko learns that his ancestor served with Washington in the Revolutionary War.

Written by Nat Hiken, Terry Ryan & Barry Blitzer | Directed by Al De Caprio

There are probably funnier selections below, but this was a must-include — it was on the “best of” release, too — because it embodies a key part of the series’ identity: the strength of the Bilko persona and the way that the show, especially as it goes on, slots him into high-concept stories away from the particulars of the premise’s setting. So, this plot, with diary “flashbacks” of the Bilko character in the American Revolution, tellingly reflects what the series’ narrative modus operandi will prove to be: putting the funny guy in funny contexts.

08) Episode 25: “The Court Martial” (Aired: 03/06/56)

Bilko has to defend a chimp who’s accidentally inducted into the army.

Written by Nat Hiken, Coleman Jacoby & Arnie Rosen | Directed by Al De Caprio

My choice for the season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “The Court Martial” is the most famous installment of The Phil Silvers Show, and accordingly, I knew that if I didn’t single it out as its respective season’s finest, I’d be fighting against decades of popular and critical thought. (The entry was rerun by CBS in 1959 as the show’s funniest program.) Fortunately, I actually do agree that this is the series’ best sample, particularly given what Hiken wants it to be and how we’re supposed to determine value — based on the comedic strength of its original, inventive ideas. That is, there’s no denying that the notion of a chimp (Pvt. Harry Speakup) getting through a streamlined army induction process and then, being court-martialed so the officers can cover their behinds and avoid more humiliation, is hysterical and completely unique to this series and these writers. We won’t find it elsewhere! At the same time, because it’s a funny idea, one could also see this working as a sketch in, say, a variety show… which, as we talked about last week, was the style of comedy out of which this show grew and from which we can make a lot of distinctions between storytelling that’s more character-driven. As a result, I think “The Court Martial” is the perfect encapsulation of Phil Silvers and what it symbolizes in the history of American situation comedy. That it’s the series’ funniest is, simply, a bonus.

09) Episode 28: “Bilko And The Beast” (Aired: 03/27/56)

Bilko hatches a scheme to make a tough drill sergeant paranoid.

Written by Nat Hiken, Tony Webster, Coleman Jacoby & Arnie Rosen | Directed by Al De Caprio

Surprisingly, this terrific, well-liked offering was NOT part of the initial “best of” DVD release, and the more I see it listed among fans’ favorites, the more I consider it the most glaring oversight, for it’s a well-written show with big laughs, courtesy of another classic Bilko scheme, in which he plots to oust a tough drill sergeant by taking out an insurance policy and driving him into paranoia. As with the “Empty Store,” this is fine example of how a Phil Silvers plot is a little more complicated and clever, with more narrative moves. A great study of the series.

10) Episode 32: “The Con Men” (Aired: 05/01/56)

Bilko steps in to get even with three card sharps who take advantage of Doberman.

Written by Nat Hiken & Tony Webster | Directed by Al De Caprio

With a story that has Bilko stepping in to get vengeance on a trio of cons who take advantage of Doberman, this outing has perhaps the quintessential Phil Silvers premise, for as usual, we’re totally with Bilko and ahead of the others. And because it involves gambling — and card sharps in particular — this feels like the year’s most obvious engagement with themes inherent to the leading man’s persona and how Hiken’s scripts have framed him. Yet the fun in this entry is also due, as usual, to a tight teleplay, where we’re rewarded for liking the shiesty Bilko.

 

Below are additional offerings that aren’t among the year’s official top ten, but would be highlighted if I were just making a broad list of the series’ 40 best: “New Recruits,” the premiere, which sets up the Bilko persona (included on the “best of” release), “The WAC,” with Joan Hogan, who can match Bilko beat for beat (included on the “best of” release), “The Horse,” a funny premise with some notable physical comedy (included on the “best of” release), “AWOL,” which has some fun scenes of Bilko partying with a Hungarian family, “The Boxer,” which has a Bilko scheme of “The Eating Contest” variety, “The Centennial,” where Bilko rejects culture with an elaborate plot that involves show biz, “The Rest Cure,” which is another example of Bilko resorting to performance, like “The Investigation,” “Dinner At Sowici’s,” which has the kind of marital humor better represented in future years by the Ritziks, “Army Memoirs,” where Bilko is up to his psychological tricks again, “The Physical Check Up,” where Phil Silvers really shines, “Hair,” in which the notion of Bilko with hair and the schemes of his men make for a memorable show, and “War Games,” a well-plotted entry with narrative dovetailing reminiscent of Seinfeld. 

 

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

“The Court Martial”

 

 

Come back next week for Season Two! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!