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Series / The Phil Silvers Show
aka: Sgt Bilko

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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 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.


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:

  • Ad Lib: Happened frequently due to the way it was filmed and also because Paul Ford would notoriously forget his lines.
  • Animated Credits Opening: Albeit a very tame one.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Chain of Deals: Bilko does a short one at the beginning of the third episode "The WAC".
  • 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
  • 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!
  • The Film of the Series: Sgt. Bilko (1996), starring Steve Martin.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Meaningful Name: Ernest Bilko. Please don't make me explain it.
  • 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.
  • Once for Yes, Twice for No: Ritzik's Medium in "Bilko and the Medium".
  • Once per Episode: Bilko's get-rich-quick schemes.
  • 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.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: The drafting of Elvis inspired an episode in which rock star Elvin Pelvin gets transferred to Bilko's platoon.
  • 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.
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 questionsnote . 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."
  • 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.

Alternative Title(s): Sgt Bilko


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