For the 1955-56 season, the Emmy for Comedy Series went to the premiere season of The Phil Silvers Show. But that was not the original title. When it debuted, audiences were greeted with the announcement introducing "The Phil Silvers show 'You'll Never Get Rich'!" This is similar to other series of the time. In its initial run, I Love Lucy was always introduced as "The Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz show" before the title, as if you had to remind the audience who was in it every week. The original title of the series, You'll Never Get Rich, comes from a line from an old song:
You're in the army now
You're not behind a plow
You'll never get rich
By digging a ditch
You're in the army now!
The song is sung at various times throughout the season. While the title was certainly appropriate, it was eventually dropped and the series stuck with just highlighting its central star, becoming officially The Phil Silvers Show. I was unable to find clear information on when the original title was dropped, but it appears to have been during the first season. You might recognize the show by the name of his character, the name the series was sometimes broadcast in syndication under, Sgt. Bilko.
The Phil Silvers Show was sponsored by Camel cigarettes, so once again all of the original cigarette ads done by the cast have been cut out of later syndication run, and the original opening replaced with an animated version. Watching all of these shows in sequence, it's no wonder America smoked so much. It seems like the entire television industry was built on the back of big tobacco.
Phil Silvers portrays a somewhat bumbling and scheming bald-headed bespectacled army sergeant named Ernest Bilko who is in charge of the motor pool at Fort Baxter in Kansas. He's a fast talker, gambler, flirt, and jovial sort always out to make a buck, often at the expense of the other men at the base. He runs betting pools among his men, has frequent card games with other sergeants, and is the thorn in the side of the base's commanding officer. When the series begins, the initial set-up is that Bilko's outfit has been doing these things because he's let things get sloppy since they were so well-trained. To shake things up and keep Bilko busy with real work, they assign him a platoon of new recruits. Bilko then spends most of the first episode trying to swindle the men out of their money so he can pay off a poker debt. The series sticks with the premise for a few episodes before returning his original platoon to him with no explanation in episode four, and maintaining that for the rest of the season.
Bilko also meets his match when Sgt. Hogan, a new female sergeant comes to the fort. She's hip to his schemes and eventually that start an on-again off-again relationship. His platoon is racially integrated; there's a black man in the group. It's nice to see that in the mid-1950s, and there was never any comment about it. He was always just another one of the guys.
It's interesting setting a series in the army during this period. America was now ten years post-World War II and settling into a comfortable civilian life. Other popular series have focused more on this renewed domesticity. But here we have a show looking at the servicemen who are still serving their country. Bilko is a veteran of the war in the Pacific, and old war stories come up every now and then throughout the series, particularly in a hilarious episode with him as a consultant for a WWII movie, and a moving episode about a reunion with his old army buddies. His friends have moved into civilian life, and he's stayed in the service. I suppose it's also worth remembering that the Korean War had only just reached its stalemate a few years ago, and America's military was still poised to fight the red menace of communism. So it's neat to get a comedy set here as a time capsule of sorts. The general tone is similar in some ways to popular wartime comedy like Stalag 17.
The Phil Silvers Show was created and primarily written by Nat Hiken, who would later go on to create Car 54, Where Are You? The writing is sharp. And while a lot of episodes might revolve around similar premises, it doesn't get stale because they shake it up enough. Sometimes Bilko's looking to con his own guys, but in the end he still looks out for them as his men, and there will be other times he coordinates them as a group to pull something on someone who has wronged them. There's enough variety to keep the laughs coming, while allowing for character moments with Bilko or some of his men.
But what elevates it is the full-bodied performance of Phil Silvers. He takes on every action with gusto and quickly becomes a big television character of the best kind, the kind that's immediately recognizable and iconic. He peppers his lines with ad-libs and really hams up the extended bits where he's schmoozing or trying to pull a fast one.
In fact, it's funny looking back on it, but the Bilko character as portrayed by Silvers was a template for later TV characters. Most people are aware that The Flintstones was essentially a parody of The Honeymooners, but I wonder how many realize that Hanna-Barbera's Top Cat was essentially a riff on Sgt. Bilko. Sure, the setting is transposed from the army to a group of cartoon alley cats, but it's essentially the same thing. Top Cat's delivery and mannerisms are in retrospect very clearly modeled after Silvers.
I had been aware of the series for a long time. It ran briefly on Nick-at-Nite when I was a kid. But I had never really sat down and watched it. Having done so, I immediately saw a comparison to one of my cultural touchstones, Saved By the Bell. It is extraordinary how much Zack Morris is really just a '90s teen version of Bilko. I am certain there's a generation who grew up on that show that has no idea the debt it owed to this classic series. If you're a fan of Saved By the Bell, I recommend seeking out some Phil Silvers episodes and seeing for yourself. The entire series has been released on DVD, and there are also a number of episodes on YouTube.
FAVORITE EPISODES: The WAC, The Centennial, The Twitch, The Reunion, Hollywood, Kids in the Trailer, The Court Martial, Bilko's Hair
UP NEXT: The Phil Silvers Show (again!)