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Phil Silvers as Sgt. Bilko (center), surrounded by the soldiers of the motor pool

"BILKO!"
Colonel Hall, on many occasions
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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 Con Man in charge of the motor pool at the fictional Fort Baxter military base in Kansas. Running from 1955 to 1959 on CBS, a total of 143 episodes were produced, with the entire series not getting a DVD release until 2014.

Most of the episodes revolved around 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.

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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. It also influenced the Hanna-Barbera cartoon Top Cat, with Top Cat as a thinly-veiled Expy of Bilko and Maurice Gosfield (who played Pvt. Doberman in Sgt Bilko) providing the voice of Benny the Ball.

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.

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The show provides examples of:

  • Ascended Extra: While a larger example than usual for this trope, Sgt. Grover the head of Fort Baxter’s signal Corps is initially the least prominent of the trio of Bilkos rival sergeants but is also the only one to stick around for the whole show, and by the third season takes the lead while being Partnered with Sergeant Ritzik and falling victim to Bilkos cons.
  • Bait-and-Switch Tyrant: A stern-looking general visits Fort Baxter and unwittingly walks into a guest house where Bilko and the platoon are hiding a racehorse. To their surprise, he finds it funny.
  • Bald of Evil: While not evil per se, Bilko tends to be self-centered and manipulative, and his baldness is one of his signature physical traits.
  • Batman Gambit: Bilko pulls one on the rest of the base when he rents an empty store in town and says he has no plans to do anything with it. Everyone assumes he has some money-making scam planned and his rivals all come to him offering him money to buy into it, allowing him to recoup his recent gambling losses and make a profit.
  • Big Eater: Ed "The Stomach" Honigan, the army's eating contest champion who ends up in Bilko's platoon.
  • Blind Without 'Em: Bilko takes off his glasses during a physical exam and mistakes a skeleton for the doctor.
  • The Boxing Episode: Appropriately named "The Boxer", it has a prominent role for Pvt. Claude Dillingham (played by former middleweight contender invokedWalter Cartier), although we never actually see any boxing in it.
  • Braids, Beads and Buckskins: Subverted and played straight in "Cherokee Ernie": While traveling to the home of a Native American soldier, Bilko daydreams about the stereotypical Indian village only to find himself on a rather standard upper-middle-class ranch. The elders, on the other hand, are depicted in full traditional dress and living in tipis.
  • Butt-Monkey:
    • Duane Doberman.
    • Also Colonel Hall on a frequent basis whenever he's duped by one of Bilko's schemes.
  • Card Sharp: Bilko. In one episode, Col. Hall hires real life card sharp Paul Draylin to beat Bilko at poker so badly that he'll give up gambling.
  • The Casanova: Pvt. Pearly Johnson is so successful with women he even carries around an indexed black book full of their names.
  • Cassandra Truth: Bilko uses this to his advantage in "Empty Store". He rents an empty store and says (truthfully) that he has no plans to do anything with it. Of course, no one believes this and they all assume has he another Get-Rich-Quick Scheme in the works. So all his rivals literally beg (and pay) him to make them his partners.
  • Chain of Deals: Bilko does a short one at the beginning of the third episode "The WAC".
  • Corpsing: During "The Court Martial", the chimp wanders off and starts playing with a telephone (this wasn't in the script), so Phil Silvers ad-libbed the line "Just a minute sir, I think he's calling for another lawyer!" The rest of the cast can be seen struggling not to laugh.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy: Bilko gets this way whenever Joan shows an interest in another man.
  • Creator Cameo: In an In-Universe example, Bilko makes a very random cameo appearance in a TV pilot he's directed, citing Hitchcock's example.
  • Criminal Doppelgänger: In "Viva Bilko", they encounter a Mexican Bandito who looks exactly like Doberman.
  • Dream Sequence: In one episode Bilko tricks the platoon into thinking that Doberman's sister is a beauty, and we see the men dreaming of her.
  • Disability Superpower: Doberman gains the ability to sing beautifully when he catches a cold.
  • Enemy Mine: Bilko and Col. Hall call a brief truce in "The Centennial".
  • The Eponymous Show
  • Everything's Better with Monkeys: In "The Court Martial", Bilko's antics result in a chimpanzee being inducted into the army.
  • Expecting Someone Taller: In "The WAC" Bilko makes plans to meet the new sergeant. He's shocked to find it's a woman.
  • Failure Is the Only Option: Every week Bilko has another scheme to make money, increase his standing or secure some new perk for himself. They almost never succeed.
  • A Father to His Men: Bilko tries to pass himself off as one of these, but is quick to drop the ruse when it is no longer useful to him. He's fiercely protective of his men when other people scam them of their money... because he wants to be the one to scam them of their money.
    Bilko: I don't get it! I just don't get it! Why? Why did they transfer my platoon? The boys I've trained! The boys I've brought up! Especially today when they get paid!
  • Fat Slob: Doberman is a textbook example.
  • The Film of the Series: Sgt. Bilko (1996), starring Steve Martin.
  • A Fool and His New Money Are Soon Parted: Doberman receives a $500 insurance payout and quickly loses it to a group of con artists. Bilko wins it back for him, only for Doberman to immediately get conned into buying a hotel for $500.
  • Game Show Appearance: In one episode, aired September 25, 1956, Bilko tries to cheat on The $64,000 Question. It became rather Hilarious in Hindsight when the quiz scandals, which that game show was part of, erupted two years later.
  • Get-Rich-Quick Scheme: Bilko has one of these almost every week.
  • Henpecked Husband: Ritzik to the formidable Emma.
  • Heroic BSoD:
    • Bilko puts Colonel Hall through quite a few of them.
    • Bilko himself has one when he thinks he has won $300,000 on a horse race, only to discover that Barbella and Henshaw were unable to place the bet.
  • Historical In-Joke: Bilko's ancestor Major Joshua Bilko was unwittingly responsible for almost every disaster the colonists suffered during the War of Independence, from the Battle of Brandywine to recommending that Benedict Arnold be appointed to Washington's staff.
  • Honest John's Dealership: While Bilko never has a formal store, it doesn't stop him from always thinking about profit and acting accordingly. The trope is pretty much invoked in "The Empty Store". After one of Bilko's men loses the squad's money in a poker game, Bilko gets it back by renting out an empty store. Everyone assumes he's starting one of these, and are desperate to get in on it. Eventually he sells a third of it to each of the guys who ran the game. All three of them. The episode ends with Bilko congratulating the card sharks on their ownership of an empty store, and asking what they intend to do with it.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Bilko lectures the men of the platoon for making Doberman do their chores for them, then proceeds to scold Doberman for not ironing his clothes properly.
  • Identical Grandson: Bilko's great great uncle, Major Joshua Bilko, who fought in the American Revolutionary War.
  • Idiot Ball: Seriously, why would anyone play poker with Bilko?
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Bilko was shown as having the tinniest sliver of conscience on occasions and would occasionally his skills to defend his men from other conmen.
  • Limited Advancement Opportunities: Over the course of the series Bilko was promoted to lieutenant and demoted to corporal, but always ended up back as a sergeant again.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Bilko, especially to the Super Gullible Colonel Hall, but he does it to just about everyone.
  • Meaningful Name: Ernest Bilko. Please don't make me explain it.
  • Mistaken for Spies: In one episode, the only way Bilko can get some money to Fort Baxter to bet on a horse race is to send it via a missile. However, the rest of the US military assume the unidentified flying object near a military base is hostile and Barbella and Henshaw get arrested as spies.
  • Monochrome Casting: Averted: Silvers faced down producers who tried to enforce this on the show (in contrast to the reality of the US Army at the time which had been fully integrated by then) by issuing an ultimatum - either the show included black characters and actors or he wouldn't do it. He won.
  • Motor Mouth: Fittingly for a Sergeant in the Motor Pool, Ernest Bilko again.
  • Mighty Whitey: In "Cherokee Ernie", having been rebaptized as Bald Eagle of the Cherokee Nation, Bilko uses inconsistencies in the original treaty ceding Oklahoma to the United States to lead a statewide Cherokee secessionist movement.
  • Missed Him by That Much: Bilko and Joan keep doing this in "Furlough in New York".
  • Nervous Wreck: Sgt. Pendleton (except when he had he upper hand, at which point he sometimes shifts into Unsportsmanlike Gloating) due to how much he suffers at the hands of Bilko.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: In one episode, a famous rock 'n' roll singer named Elvin Pelvin is drafted and joins Bilko's platoon.
  • The Nose Knows: Bilko can smell money.
  • Number Two: Captain Barker to Lieutenant Hall.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Bilko excels at this:
    Col. Hall: He'll find regulations the Pentagon doesn't know about!
  • Once for Yes, Twice for No: Ritzik's Medium in "Bilko and the Medium".
  • Once per Episode: Bilko's get-rich-quick schemes.
  • One Steve Limit: "Playing Cyrano" features two women called Natalie - an aunt and her niece. Bilko doesn't realise there are two of them until he's proposed to the wrong one in an effort to scupper the proposed marriage of one of his men.
  • Papa Wolf:
    • Bilko will happily scam his own men out of their hard-earned money, but woe betide anyone else who tries it.
    • He's also very protective of a young French woman, whom he has known since she was a child, when she visits the base and all the men are swooning over her.
  • Pet the Dog: Occasionally, Bilko will show a human side and do something that benefits people other than himself. Emphasis on occasionally.
  • Playing Cyrano: Bilko plays this role for one of his soldiers in one episode, aptly titled "Cyrano de Bilko".
  • Plot Allergy: In "Bilko's Allergy", Bilko develops an allergy to playing cards.
  • Properly Paranoid: Col. Hall always thinks Bilko is up to something. And he's usually right.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Sgt Sowici was written out of the show after actor Harry Clark's untimely death.
  • Relationship Sabotage: Bilko does this a few times, like when he thinks one of his men is being scammed into marriage by a Gold Digger.
  • Reset Button: For all his scheming, most episodes end with Bilko pretty much where he started.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: The drafting of Elvis inspired an episode in which rock star Elvin Pelvin gets transferred to Bilko's platoon.
  • Satellite Love Interest: Sgt Joan Hogan, who is apparently Bilko's long-term girlfriend, but only appears when the plot requires her to be upset or angry with him for his insensitivity or not paying her enough attention.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Bilko's good side occasionally shines through. Occasionally.
  • A Simple Plan: Most episodes start this way. Naturally, Finagle's Law usually intervenes and most end up Gone Horribly Wrong (or Gone Horribly Right).
  • Sitcom Arch-Nemesis: Colonel Hall views Bilko as his, and Sergeant Sowici is the only prominent sergeant smart enough to fill this role for Bilko in the first season.
  • Sleeping Single: Col and Mrs. Hall have separate beds.
  • Soldiers at the Rear: No one at Fort Baxter has been near a battlefield since World War II and Bilko doesn't have the monopoly on sleazy finagling.
  • Special Guest: Bing Crosby (and his brother/manager Everett Crosby), Ed Sullivan, Kay Kendall, and others appeared as themselves, with the three major ones mentioned here receiving top billing in three separate episodes titled "[Sergeant] Bilko Presents [name of celebrity]".
  • Springtime for Hitler: In the episode "A Mess Sergeant Can't Win", Bilko is hurt that Ritzik's wife won't let Bilko attend Ritzik's going away party because of the $400 Bilko won from him over the years. Bilko decides to bet $400 with Ritzik on a sucker bet so that Ritzik can win all his money back as a going away gift. And true to the trope, all the bets (that there would be a cake at the party, that Col Hall and his wife's marriage is steady, and even that Ritzik was born in Peoria) go Bilko's way despite his best intentions.
  • Status Quo Is God / Reset Button:
    • For all his scheming, Bilko invariably ends up more or less where he started the episode.
    • Lampshaded by Col. Hall when Bilko leaves the army to embark on his latest venture. The Colonel confidently predicts that Bilko will be back in the army within a week. And he's right.
    • One episode has Sergeant Grover buying an engagement ring for his girlfriend (to the dismay of Bilko, who’d been about to try to con him out of the money he ended up using to buy it) but later episodes make no mention of her and still have Grover distracted by various women, making it likely she either turned him down or he has a mild case of Your Cheating Heart.
    • The penultimate episode has Bilko's sidekick Henshaw swear off gambling and get nearly every other man on the post to join a gamblers anonymous chapter, to Bilko's seething frustration and they remain resolute at the episodes end. The beginning of the final episode has Bilko running a crap game with Henshaw assisting him and Grover and Bilko's platoon (who'd been part of the gambler anonymous chapter) happily betting.
  • Studio Audience: The first 59 episodes were performed similarly to stage plays in front of a live audience; this changed when producer Mike Todd (of Around the World in Eighty Days fame), who was making a guest appearance, suggested that it would be better to film the show out-of-sequence like a Hollywood movie. In both cases no laugh track was used: the completed episodes were screened to an audience of military personnel whose laughter was dubbed into the episodes.
  • Syndication Title: Sergeant Bilko, or simply Bilko.
  • Those Two Guys:
    • Bilko's right-hand men Cpl. Rocco Barbella (Harvey Lembeck) and Cpl. Steve Henshaw (Allan Melvin).
    • Sergeants Ritzik and Grover by the end of the show.
  • Title Drop: The army chant that serves as the source of the original title of the series is often recited by new recruits to show their eagerness.
    Privates: We're in the army now / We're not behind a plow / You'll never get rich / By digging a ditch / We're in the army now.
  • Tyrant Takes the Helm: Looking for a soft touch new lieutenant, Bilko conspires to have Papparelli appointed. To his dismay, Papparelli takes the role seriously and becomes a Drill Sergeant Nasty.
  • Unexpected Inheritance: Col. Hall inherits $5000 from a distant cousin who died. He can't even remember his name.
    Col. Hall: What a shame, poor Bates.
    Executor: Yates.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • Sgt. Sowici disappears after the first season, and in a case of Remember the New Guy?, is repacked as mess sergeant by the much dumber Rupert Ritzik, whose first appearance establishes him as a long-time victim of Bilkos schemes.
    • Joan Hogan, Bilko's sometime love interest, also disappears periodically.
  • Xanatos Speed Chess: Not only the speed at which Bilko changes plans, but also how he formulates his schemes in the first place.

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. Rita, on the other hand, recognizes him instantly. From behind.
  • Framing the Guilty Party: Thorn cements himself as the villain when he's given full proof of the crimes Bilko's actually guilty of (misappropriating supplies and gambling, primarily)... but decides that wouldn't be bad enough and instead decides to frame Bilko for far more extreme levels of embezzlement related to a project he hadn't touched.
  • Gender Flip: Rocky Barbella becomes Raquelle Barbella.
  • Gosh Darn It to Heck!: Maj. Thorn at one point drops the filthy, milk-curdling swear: "By Gum". Of course, this is around Rita (see Politically Incorrect Villain below).
  • 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.note  In the second example, he explains that Bilko has been "sucking the khaki tit for years", which description vividly startles Lt. Monday.
  • Race Lift: Henshaw is black in this version.
  • Stealth Insult: A few.
    "Ah, Doberman. The son I never wanted."
  • Surrounded by Idiots: Bilko's schemes are often undone by someone else's idiocy, or one of his minions Comically Missing the Point, especially Doberman.
    • This is in fact what winds up setting off the film's primary conflict. Bilko's primary minion at the time is so stupid that he pays off the wrong boxer to take a dive, leading to an absolutely ridiculous boxing match that gives Thorn all the excuse he needs to go storming in looking for evidence (and winding up framed, completely by accident).
  • 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.
  • Villainy-Free Villain: If one accepts the premise that Bilko is the villain of the piece, then he never actually does anything more serious than a handful of petty crimes and being a bit of a jerk. He never once actually sets out to harm his opposition Thorn in any way; the first time Thorn wound up framed for fixing a boxing match was completely by accident and something Bilko had no control over, everything after that is just Bilko trying to cover his ass (and protect himself from being framed in revenge).
  • 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.

Alternative Title(s): Sgt Bilko

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