An Introduction to THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW and a (Brief) Study of the Two Forms of American Situation Comedy

Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re starting coverage on the best of The Phil Silvers Show (1955-1959, CBS), alternatively known as both You’ll Never Get Rich and Sgt. Bilko. However, in a THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT! first, I have decided to split the opening post, dedicating this entry to the initial essay exploring the series, while saving my actual list of Season One’s best episodes for next week. Why? Well, I think this look at the show and the role it’s played in shaping American sitcom history is important enough to be a main attraction. So, get ready for an overview of the series below, and stay tuned next week for my Season One list. (And since I’m essentially doing two Wildcard entries this week, plan on two lists of Sitcom Tuesday picks coming, not next week, but the week after that!) Here we go…

The Phil Silvers Show, initially titled You’ll Never Get Rich but better known in the decades since as Sgt. Bilko, is one of the seminal situation comedies of the 1950s, with a legacy that extends even up into shows of the present day. Popular at the time and a syndication staple in the first few decades thereafter, Phil Silvers earned a reputation as being a favorite, in particular, of those who study comedy as a craft. I count myself in this group. But in the post-cable era and after its flop film adaptation, I’ve seen its popularity wane, while contemporary staples like I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners have emerged as the two primary examples of laugh-out-loud ‘50s sitcommery. (The decade is also known for milder domestic fare, but the mockery and disdain often reserved for these shows has limited any in that subset from being as popular; I’d call Leave It To Beaver the best of this lot, but even its comedic merits are generally considered less competitive…) Now, even on this blog, we’ve seen how examinations of the genre have tended to use either Lucy or The Honeymooners as their decade’s most influential work. However, the truth is something proven time and again here: there are two dominant modes of thinking with regard to American situation comedy — both are of relatively equal consequence and can be traced back to this formative period. And while it may be valid to use both of the two aforementioned shows to symbolize the formation of these divergent comedic schools, my reason for covering The Phil Silvers Show is to reassert its importance in shaping the counter to I Love Lucy, positing these two as the better representations of the genesis for this competitive theory, and the ones most responsible for informing almost every notable, excellent situation comedy since.

The basic distinction between these two types of sitcom is that one form prioritizes character, while the other prioritizes story, or in the broader sense, the good idea. I’ve been outspoken about my preference before, but let’s remember that character and story are of mutual import: characters drive stories, and stories display character; without the other, there’s no such thing as the situation comedy. So, though I’ve generally advocated for and preferred shows where character concerns pull focus and guide the plots that unfold, even when there’s an amusing narrative — a Victory In Premise — propelling an episode’s existence, character is seldom absent, which means, there are certainly great shows on both sides of this figurative aisle. The most vivid example we’ve studied here is from the ‘70s, where there was a big differentiation between the more introspective people-first shows of the MTM company, and the issue-oriented, and therefore idea-based interests of Norman Lear’s comedies. In the former, plots arose from easily understood characterizations with strengths, weaknesses, and objectives. In the latter, social anxieties and political debates were filtered through persons that embodied these inherent conflicts. In other words, character vs. concept, or idea. We’ve also seen a similar gulf reflected at a time when the sitcom was less overtly political: in the ‘90s, as a show like Frasier matched everything — from tone to plot — with its lead’s well-known persona, while Seinfeld celebrated funny ideas within a template that made advanced, complicated storytelling the barometer of comedic success. The difference between Frasier and Seinfeld, then, was the same as the difference between Mary Tyler Moore and All In The Family — on one side the smart use of characters was paramount, while on the other the smart use of ideas, or story, was.

By and large, every sitcom falls into one of these two camps — whether it’s within the ‘60s trend of high-concept premise-led shows (story) or the emotionally obsessed rom-coms of the ‘90s (character). If not, they straddle the fence, either inorganically (see: WKRP In Cincinnati — a traditionally designed MTM show that strained when it desired to tackle issues) or organically (see: The Golden Girls, which told character-driven stories within a socially conscious framework), thus proving the existence of competing doctrines. Additionally, it’s pretty easy to trace the legacies: you can go from the first few MTM shows to Taxi, and then to Cheers and Frasier, and you can start from the early Lear shows and include in this column Susan Harris’ Soap, the norm-subverting Married… With Children, and the groundbreaking fun of both early Garry Shandling and Seinfeld. Yet the subject of this post is tracing backwards — going from, basically, Mary Tyler Moore to Dick Van Dyke to I Love Lucy; and All In The Family back to the Paul Henning shows (which Lear was conceptually rejecting) and then to, well, The Honeymooners or Phil Silvers. I could write a whole book on this topic — someday I might — but to keep it brief, we’ll focus on the early 1950s: the transition from radio to TV, and the development of the two dominant forms of comedy that made the move. One is the traditional character laden situation comedy, with regular players existing in a defined world with familiar stories, and the other is the more variety-esque, sketch-like, parodical comedy out of which the sitcom had been formed on radio gems like The Jack Benny Program, which featured both of these comedic styles — think: the difference between “Jack throws a dinner party for his sponsor” and “Jack’s cast does their version of The Women.” There you can see the contrast in how laughs are derived — from characters explored within a situation versus a premise explored within a structure.

On television, the character-first group was represented by straightforward radio adaptations, like Burns & Allen, Our Miss Brooks, and, best of all, I Love Lucy, which took the bland My Favorite Husband and refined it into the hallmark of this genre, courtesy of outstanding comic returns aided by both technical innovation (the perfection of the multiple-camera live audience filmed format) and the precision of a terrific star character, who had obvious flaws, but clear root-for-able objectives that were either complicated or abetted by the other well-defined persons surrounding her. That is, Lucy Ricardo’s desire to be in show business — the industry of her husband — was a pinpointable goal, and even when stories didn’t directly follow this, her want provided a launching pad for other traits and interests onto which the audience could latch, making her probably the most memorable character of the decade, while her cohorts on the show were well-built support, designed to sustain her exploration. I Love Lucy, along with the other shows in this category, drew great proxy-people, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of the best shows in this category came from Hollywood and were anchored by stars whose history in the movies gave them personas: a natural mask they could put on within a narrative form (the movies) that relied on plots meant to showcase said personas. In this regard, the character-first form of sitcommery owes itself to the dramatic rules of Hollywood, which itself had taken its cues from the legitimate theatre… In contrast, the other group of television comedy tended to come from New York, where the so-called legitimate theatre was surrounded by looser forms of entertainment — musical stage shows, stand-up comedy, and an entire world of vaudeville performers who came to radio and then to TV, sparking a number of early comedy-variety shows with iconic New York-flavored writing and luminous headliners like Milton Berle and Sid Caesar, Martha Raye and Jackie Gleason.

The material on these shows was fast and fun. Segments could be talky and erudite, based on known ideas or works, or just as often bawdy and easy-to-understand, with slapstick centerpieces that proved their broad nature. In fact, the relationship between the “high” and the “low” was a defining part of the New York sensibility, where both regularly existed — yet that’s conceptual too, and you’ll note here that all sketch comedy, by design, is not hinged upon characters, but upon funny notions: a movie worth lampooning, an experience worth heightening, a personality worth caricaturing… all within a finite period of time, a sketch. As for character writing, several of these TV variety shows, including Caesar’s and Gleason’s, had recurring features, anchored by figures that catered to the various facets of their chosen stars personas — the latter’s Ralph Kramden is the best example — but unlike the mask employed by the Hollywood stars when they put on a character, the roles in sketch comedy were less developed, for their world is limited, the characters around them are less consequential, and they only exist for as long as the ideas sustaining them do. Also, while we might once in a while find someone as compelling as everyman Ralph Kramden, the reason for his existence is not, like a Lucy Ricardo, propelled by a character objective; it’s propelled by the concept surrounding him: the unromantic view of romance, symbolized by the sarcastic Honeymooners title. Ralph Kramden exists, then, like the similar Bickersons, FOR the funny premise — the notion that married life in the big city is not as TV otherwise suggests. Sure, Ralph gets better defined as he’s put in more situations — with his pursuit of easy riches and personal glory becoming something of a recurring goal — but it’s a more general, less specific objective than Lucy’s; simply, he’s not as well-defined. What’s more, Norton may have close to a real personality thanks to his position as Ralph’s partner in crime and Art Carney’s prodigious clowning, but the other regulars in The Honeymooners, namely the wives, have as much definition as stock types in a vaudeville routine. (Who the heck is Trixie?) Yet this is the norm in sketch comedy, where all characters are there to support an amusing idea, and everything they do, and are, stems from that focus.

Even when The Honeymooners sprung from Gleason’s show in 1955 for a single half-hour season we call “The Classic 39,” its sketch origins were visible. Forcing the characters into 26-minute plots that resembled sitcom fare of the Lucy bent did allow them to have more definition and be better explored than they were on the variety series (even when sketches were 40 minutes, crammed with plot). But the wives were still peripheral, the world was still limited, and the emphasis was still less on the Ralph character than on his antics. Let’s examine the difference between I Love Lucy’s “The Handcuffs” and The Honeymooners’ “Unconventional Behavior,” which utilize a similar idea: the two leads being handcuffed together. While the Lucy writers have admitted that they started their process by dreaming up funny second act set pieces before going backwards to motivate them through the Lucy character, the priority remains clear, for any idea, no matter how rich, would be rejected if it couldn’t be earned. Thus, when Lucy and Ricky get handcuffed together, look how it’s built: Fred has handcuffs from his old vaudeville days (a well-known aspect of his persona) and Lucy puts them on Ricky to be playful, but also to keep him from going to work (an extension of the central conflict; he’s in show biz and she’s not, instead trapped at home), and the finale has her performing with Ricky, which as we know, has always been her want. This is all character. In contrast, The Honeymooners uses the handcuffs as its main comedic encounter (like Lucy), but doesn’t craft its situation around it, instead tacking it on somewhat ham-fistedly into an episode that’s already resolved its initial plot — trying to go to a convention without the wives — but still needs a big Act II moment where Gleason and Carney can play. So, the show has Norton bring a bunch of prank toys with him, including handcuffs, which he then puts on Ralph to show how they work. Okay, perhaps we buy that they’re stupid enough for that to happen, but it’s certainly a less thoughtful motivation than Lucy’s, and there’s no doubt that, narratively, the handcuff bit exists not within a character-ripe story, but for the big laughs that come within the slapstick scene of Ralph and Ed trying to sleep in train berths while conjoined. Here, you can see the rift in concerns: a character vs. a funny idea.

Despite the difference in those two shows seeming pretty obvious, I think it’s difficult and unfair to use The Honeymooners as a counterpoint to Lucy. It’s difficult because, when I show how comparatively underdeveloped the character work on one is in relation to the other, I’m doing so without noting that they’re both brilliant. Gleason, like Ball, is a national treasure who elevates material and is among the top physical comics of 1950s television. And in fact, I would say that their shows also have plenty in common — in addition to the slapstick, they’re both anchored by a star persona whose presence would persist for several decades and within various shows. This is in contrast to Phil Silvers and The Phil Silvers Show — which we’re about to discuss — because he was less prominent in primetime after the early ‘60s, for although his series remained syndicated and the actor himself always played a variation of Bilko when guesting on other shows, he wasn’t as visible as Gleason or Ball. And, outside of the UK, he never became the national treasure of ‘50s TV that the others did. Also, his show didn’t rely as often on physical comedy — it was much more talky — and I think our general biases about this era in sitcommery, pre-Lear/MTM, rejects the notion that a great show with a great star wouldn’t be competitive on this metric. Meanwhile, I think it’s unfair to use The Honeymooners as the sitcom counterpoint to Lucy because it was literally born from a sketch, and even though the “Classic 39” are situation comedies as we define them (however the characters work), its premise was more often a sketch in a variety series. Therefore, when it represents the sketch-like origins of this idea-based brand of situation comedy, it’s almost doing so as a sketch. I would rather make my case with a sitcom that was made to be a sitcom, but still reinforces these traits.

And that’s what brings us to The Phil Silvers Show, for in 1955, the same year that Gleason committed to a single filmed year of Honeymooners sketches in sitcom form, there was another multi-camera comedy that was developed from exactly the same school of thought, showcased a variation of the same priorities, and, I’ll argue, added a key new interest that would be better reflected in some of the later shows traced to this “story/idea first” lineage. And also, there’s no doubt that this is a true-blue situation comedy, ultimately running for four years with a single character at the fore and a new drama every week… For starters, the show’s architect was creator Nat Hiken, who was from the New York variety show crowd detailed above. He wrote for Fred Allen on radio, Martha Raye on TV, and even tangled earlier with Gleason. (Several of Hiken’s handpicked additions to the staff in Silvers‘ second year came direct from The Honeymooners, furthering the two’s aesthetic link.) Hiken’s only prior experience on a real sitcom was a single year on a radio series called The Magnificent Montague, but his understanding of comedy — of people, of words, of story — could be called genius, and when he set about developing a series for stage comic Phil Silvers, a Broadway veteran whose persona as a sleazy carnival barker took its roots from vaudeville where his career had indeed originated, it was an ideal marriage, as a great personality met someone who could sustain it. Hiken filled his staff with writers who had the same background — the show would be produced in New York, after all — and they imbued Phil Silvers with many of the same qualities seen in The Honeymooners, with a few exceptions. The first is the general lack of slapstick; that wasn’t part of Silvers’ wheelhouse (unlike Gleason and Ball), and Hiken’s own sensibilities tended to be more literate and “high,” with the characters of this chosen premise — rough-around-the-edges soldiers at a Kansas army base, especially the fast-talking Bilko — serving as the counterbalancing “low.”

Yet perhaps the greatest distinction between The Honeymooners and The Phil Silvers Show came from the latter’s positioning as an intended situation comedy with a definite need for story. Although the comedic idea retained its cachet — the best example is the first season classic “The Court Martial,” which is a triumph in creative premise-concocting more than anything else — the sturdier world invited more emphasis on plot, and the comedic turns plot could take. In the same way that sketch comedy jumped on an idea and made its characters subordinate to it, most of the scripts for The Phil Silvers Show are filled to the brim with story, and the characters only exist to perpetuate movement. This is because the focus of an episode is story. Think about, arguably, their most famous segments — in I Love Lucy’s “Job Switching,” Lucy tries to prove that she’s just as capable as Ricky at earning a living outside the home, while in Phil Silvers’ “The Court Martial,” Bilko has to defend a chimp who’s accidentally been inducted into the army. That’s a major difference in narrative engines. Now let’s look at the storytelling and contrast how Lucy and Bilko, two schemers, have their schemes laid in plot. When Lucy wants to get back at Ricky and Fred for going to an escort service after a fight in her show’s second filmed episode, “The Girls Want To Go To A Nightclub,” she and Ethel show up, in disguise, as the guys’ hideous dates. When Bilko wants to get back at a trio of soldiers for taking money from a new recruit in his show’s second filmed episode, “Empty Store,” 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. For Phil Silvers, this is a relatively simple story, but compared to a typical Lucy, it’s plot-heavy, hitting more beats and leaving generally less room for plot-less character moments, because said plot beats are the attraction… just like in Seinfeld, where narrative dovetailing became a sign of comic dexterity.

Now, Phil Silvers, like The Honeymooners is a credit to the sitcom label, and so even a form of storytelling where character takes a “backseat” does not eradicate character, and one could argue that in every episode, Bilko has a goal, usually affiliated with the Silvers persona’s pursuit of cash and love of gambling. But, like Ralph Kramden’s, this is a much looser, less specific objective than Lucy’s, indicating a thinner characterization, one based more on personality than textually defined interests. Additionally, the above-discussed way character is used in story cements the difference in emphasis — an observation that extends, just as in The Honeymooners, to the rest of the ensemble, where we find a group of amiable performers who generally have no obvious qualities, but live to propel story and fulfill the demands of weekly plot. Even the most memorable regulars beyond Bilko — Doberman and Hall — are insubstantial when compared to say, Ricky and Ethel, for Doberman is little more than a walking joke about his looks, and Hall, whose relationship with Bilko has the most dramatic viability, is mostly relevant because he’s positioned as the boss, with this structural dynamic informing the weekly conflicts more than their actual depictions. Thus, even if Bilko’s flimsiness next to Lucy is qualified as relative, a look around him reveals the same texture found in his sketch comedy ancestors: a world where figures only exist to support the funny idea, or in this case, the funny story and how it’s told. Again, this is an early version of what we’d see on All In The Family, where every regular’s function begins with what they can do for politically minded plot (Lear started in sketch comedy, by the way), and more directly, on Seinfeld, where the leads are all drawn in various shades of misanthropy, with just enough definition to inspire whatever funny idea Larry David wants to employ — and within a Hiken-like plot-laden package. So, Phil Silvers, which came from the sketch world but was designed as a real sitcom — and was the first successful series in this column, running four years and racking up many Emmy wins, three in the Outstanding Comedy category — is most qualified to represent the story/idea-based form of situation comedy, for the style’s most important traits are ably, and obviously, displayed.

But there’s one other element of Phil Silvers that makes it the perfect ambassador for this idea-first comedic aesthetic, for it found its way into many of the future shows within this pile: metatheatricality. We’ve seen this often since the 1980s, when self-awareness became a popular wink to the audience, suggesting intelligence. Seinfeld wasn’t the most glaring example of this trend, but with Jerry Seinfeld playing Jerry Seinfeld and one of the series’ most beloved arcs being the birth of a show within a show, the idea-based comedy of meta-ness was there. Similarly, The Phil Silvers Show might not seem the best ambassador of this trend — unlike in, say, Burns & Allen, Phil Silvers was not playing a character called Phil Silvers — but, over the course of the series, Hiken fostered a fixation on show biz, and in particular, television… even though it wasn’t part of the premise. (Burns & Allen and Lucy dealt with show business but they had a reason — given their characters and the world they were said to inhabit.) As we’ll see, more than a few Phil Silvers episodes surprisingly involve performance, the production of performance, and in several cases, TV — its personalities, shows, and creative elements. Much is often made of the series finale, in which cameras are installed on the base — a plot that ends with the Colonel turning on his TV and watching Bilko in jail (another connection often made to Seinfeld) — but that’s just the tip of the iceberg; “Hollywood,” “Platoon In The Movies,” “Sergeant Bilko Presents Ed Sullivan,” “Bilko’s Television Idea,” and “Bilko’s TV Pilot” are but a few full-episode samples of metatheatricality. None of these may look terribly fourth-wall-defying in the post-Garry Shandling era, yet for a show about soldiers to devote so many of its stories to show business is odd: a step towards genre self-awareness. One could say Phil Silvers’ huckster presence has a vaudeville sensibility that encourages such plots, but the idea of industry reflectivity is still not rooted in the Bilko character or his specific circumstances, marking yet another point for why Phil Silvers exemplifies a counter to shows like Lucy.

Of course, the need for plots not concerning the premise as established also speaks to the show’s lack of well-defined players. Because the series is essentially following the Bilko persona from funny story to funny story, he’s really not tethered to his surroundings — both by design and as a function of these narrative priorities, which don’t make an effort to supply him with strong support that could make story generation fertile within the premise’s usual confinements. Naturally, the show takes Bilko away from the base and his supporting crew more often as time goes on, but this means that the earlier seasons do a better job of catering to the premise as designed, with the first year being the strongest, then the second, and the last two far behind. No coincidence, the first year is the best, then the second, with the last two far behind. This trajectory also matches Hiken’s. The first year he was the guiding creative force; in the second, he loosened the reins but was still there; and in the last two, he was entirely absent, leaving the show to writers he trusted (and great writers, who understood his style), but who never produced episodic gems as frequently. This, in my estimation, is a side effect of the premise being difficult to sustain with only one decent characterization. Yet it’s also a credit to Hiken, an exceptional scribe whose work in the first two years (especially the first, when it was freshest and most exciting) bubbles with logic, wit, and genuine humor. As a matter of fact, the first season of this show is as filled with excellent episodes as The Honeymooners’ “Classic 39” or any year of I Love Lucy. The problem? While Season Two could maybe be enjoyed at a similar level, the last two, as noted above, are not as gem-filled — far from it. Accordingly, I think this is another reason why those other shows have since eclipsed Phil Silvers in popularity — it’s just not as consistent, at least not when taken as a whole four-season work.

Once again, this disparity between the first two years and the last two is a testament to the quality of Hiken’s work, and the dwindling ability to generate story for an environment limited with regard to character. But it’s notable, because the metric for Phil Silvers’ success, per the show’s say-so, hinges around the quality of its ideas — how funny the story, how engaging its telling. We can certainly credit Hiken for his ingenuity on both fronts, but could it also be that the series is best when engaging with tangibles — its people and its place? (Yes.) At any rate, it’s simply true that the funniest ideas come in the first few years (particularly the first), and ultimately, because I love the show, think so highly of it, and have just laid out a case for why it’s one of the most seminal sitcoms of the ‘50s — it’s the first ideal example of a series that leads with its ideas — my criteria for selecting its finest entries acknowledges the show’s own strengths; I too will be looking out for the best ideas, the ones that are the funniest and/or make the best use of the Bilko persona, which is strongly established, surprisingly likable (he’s an underdog; he’ll never get rich), and the show’s most important element, making even this idea-led comedy seem like something of a character piece. And I have to reiterate just how sublime this first year is — I love about 25 of its 34 shows. The industry was also enthused; even before the year was complete, it netted Emmy Awards for Directing, Writing, Acting (Silvers), and as the year’s Best Comedy. After watching the ten episodes I’ve selected for Season One, you’ll have no trouble understanding why. And more than that, you’ll see the start of a sitcom legacy, with qualities that have persisted into Hiken’s Car 54, Where Are You? and a handful of military-themed sitcoms from the ’60s — not to mention, more recently, Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, and many more of our greatest shows from the past 30 years. So, just as with I Love Lucy, it’s time to give credit where it’s due and recognize The Phil Silvers Show as one of the American sitcom’s most influential classics.

Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season One of The Phil Silvers Show!

 

 

Come back next week for more Phil Silvers! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!