Phil Silvers as Sgt. Bilko (center), surrounded by the soldiers of the motor pool
—Colonel Hall, on many occasions
Originally titled You'll Never Get Rich
, The Phil Silvers Show
was a popular 1950s sitcom
created by Nat Hiken and starring Phil Silvers
as Sgt. Ernest Bilko, the man in charge of the motor pool at the fictional Fort Baxter military base in Kansas. Running from 1955 to 1959 on CBS (notably over a decade before the same network ran Mash
), a total of 143 episodes were produced, of which only 18 have yet been released on DVD.
Most of the episodes revolved around Sgt. Bilko's incessant quest for wealth and influence, which usually took the form of get-rich-quick schemes ranging from (supposedly) simple games of poker to trying to dupe Bing Crosby
into performing a show on the base. Standing in his way was Colonel Hall (Paul Ford), the commanding officer of the base, who was always suspicious of Bilko's motives for anything he did. Luckily for Bilko, the Colonel was also quite gullible and manipulable, something he frequently took advantage of. Bilko frequently showed an ability to manipulate a wide range of other people as well. Nevertheless, like in many sitcoms to follow, the Reset Button
was all-powerful, and by the end of the episode Bilko would inevitably end up back in roughly the same position he started, but occasionally slightly better or worse off.
After the original show had ended, in 1963, Phil Silvers attempted to start a new show to match his previous outing. Called The New Phil Silvers Show
, it featured Silvers as Sgt. Bilko-Expy
Harry Grafton, foreman at a factory; the new show lasted less than a year. A film based on the original show, called Sgt. Bilko
and starring Steve Martin
in the title role, was released in 1996, but it was panned by critics and audiences alike.
Despite its relative obscurity compared to other contemporary sitcoms like I Love Lucy
, The Phil Silvers Show
was highly critically acclaimed in its day and still remains popular among critics. It was also popular in Britain, where the BBC
re-ran it for many years. It won three consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series from 1956 to 1958, and in 2003, the Radio Times Guide to TV Comedy
named it the best sitcom ever made
, beating Seinfeld
and Fawlty Towers
to the top spot.
The show provides examples of:
The movie provides examples of:
- Black and Nerdy: Chris Rock plays Lt. Oster, a heavily bespectacled military hatchetman (ahem, hatchetperson), who is brought in by Major Thorn to try and locate any malfeasance or embezzlement on Bilko's part. Bilko constantly distracts him from his job by playing Shipper on Deck and hinting that his partner keeps staring at him.
- Dragged into Drag: Spc. Dino Paparelli, when Bilko needs a mysterious woman to make Rita jealous. Dino hates it, but is flattered into embracing the role; it helps that Major Thorn is puzzlingly attracted to him.
- Loveable Rogue: Sgt. Bilko's chief re-characterization makes him one of these, well-natured but flagrantly dishonest. Unlike his original, he's a hugely successful and not-a-little oily conman, much-beloved by everyone at the post who is not part of the brass (and even then, they tend to find him little worse than an annoyance). His opponent is Major Thorn, who nurses a huge grudge for taking Bilko's rap during a rigged boxing-match payoff. In fact, much of the popularity of the film hinged on whether one accepted Bilko as the hero (which he's presented as) or the villain who succeeds at abusing a Major who's just trying to do his job.
- Number Two: Sergeants Henshaw and Barbella are more or less Bilko's Co-Dragons, depending on whether one sees Bilko as hero or villain. They sometimes fight over who should fill a one-man role, such as who should get to be Bilko's Best Man this time.
- Place Worse Than Death: Thorn ends up in Greenland in the backstory, when he was simply trying to put Bilko through a simple court-martial; in the present, he tries to take revenge by sending Bilko to Greenland himself.
- Politically Incorrect Villain: Major Thorn is a mild example. He doesn't target any minority or individual in particular, but at least two scenes showcase him in situations that contrast him against modern sensibilities. In the first, he interrogates Sergeant Henshaw on why there are women's undergarments in his closet (among other feminine accoutrements around the room) and is informed that he can no longer ask such questions*. In the second example, he explains that Bilko has been "sucking the khaki tit for years", which description vividly startles Lt. Monday.
- Stealth Insult: A few. "Ah, Doberman. The son I never wanted."
- Unreliable Narrator: One of the problems with setting up Major Thorn is that his original introduction is given by Sgt. Bilko himself; it is very easy to assume that Bilko is exaggerating Thorn's character in his own favor.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: Major Thorn, in the present, is motivated in part by the desire to do his job and in part by the desire to get back at Bilko. The latter takes more and more precedence, eventually going so far as to stoop to duplicity and sabotage.