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Monday, April 20, 2015

New on Video: Military Mischief in Sgt. Bilko: Season Two

Posted By on Mon, Apr 20, 2015 at 4:00 PM

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What's in a name? In this case, nobody's ever been quite able to decide on the true title for this highly-rated sitcom that ran from 1955 to 1959. The onscreen title is The Phil Silvers Show, while it's colloquially know as Sgt. Bilko and was often specifically titled that in reruns, and Shout! Factory — which is releasing the second season in a five-disc DVD set on April 28 — errs on the side of caution and uses both titles. With all due respects to the late Mr. Silvers, I'm going with simply Sgt. Bilko for this relic of Eisenhower-era humor in uniform.


Very few mid-20th century comics are well-remembered today outside of comedy-nerd circles, and Phil Silvers has largely disappeared from the public consciousness in a way that, say, Jerry Lewis or Groucho Marx have not. Indeed, even among film enthusiasts he's best known for It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which is a good thing to be remembered for. I like Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World a lot, and pretty much know it by heart by now, and it's Silvers' lines that my friends and I tend to quote at each other the most.

 

Simpsons fans will remember him from the left-field Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World homage at the end of "Homer the Vigilante," during which Dan Castellaneta does a pretty good Silvers impression.

 

He also shows up in that episode's recreation of one of Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World's most iconic shots.

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So that will most likely be his shot at immortality, since The Simpsons will outlast us all. But what of Bilko?

Silvers plays the title character, a Master Sergeant for an Army motor pool who spends most of his time on scams, get-rich-quick schemes, and general chicanery. He bilks people, y'see.

Sgt. Bilko is a surprisingly intelligent show at times, making veiled references to VD films and Italian neorealism. Like so many comedies of its time, it's oddly paced to modern eyes, mostly shot in master takes, and unless someone flubs a line and can't recover, they just keep on going. It wasn't live television, but it occasionally has that high-wire feeling, though that also results in dead spots that could have been tightened by editing.

There's a lot of humor that feels dated, of course — sitcoms from 10 years ago have dated elements, let alone from 60 years ago — but it's also progressive in that the cast is integrated. It's far from the United Colors of Benetton, or even what Gene Roddenberry would do with Star Trek a decade later, but Bilko's platoon included actual people of color who were just among the guys.

The most prominent was Terry Carter as Private Sugerman, who spends quite a lot of time on camera, since Silvers spends a lot of time talking to his men as a group. For example, in this gag from "Rock 'n Roll Rookie" on disc 2 of Shout! Factory's set, the recently-drafted Elvis Presley Elvin Pelvin has joined the platoon, and Bilko is of course trying to monetize him, in this case by emphasizing his presence in a group photo. (This episode was originally broadcast on March 5, 1957; in real life, Presley had been declared eligibile for the draft on in January of that year, though he wouldn't be inducted until March 1958, a year after "Rock 'n Roll Rookie" aired. Can't blame Bilko's producers for striking while the iron seemed to be hot, though.) Carter is in the front row, and never leaves the frame; for all the difference it makes to the joke, he could have just as easily been in the back row.



Appearing less frequently was P. Jay Sidney as Private Palmer; he and Carter get a decent bit of dialogue together in "Doberman's Sister" from November 20, 1956, in which the platoon are trying to pimp out their sisters to each other. The episode happily objectifies women, and also features a cross-dressing joke, ugh — the show wasn't that progressive — and it's a safe bet that they were paired up in particular to avoid the spectre of interracial dating, but still, they're just a couple of guys, and nothing like the kind of stereotype Eddie "Rochester" Anderson was currently playing on The Jack Benny Program.



I'm not suggesting that Sgt. Bilko was ever a contender for an NAACP Image Award (especially because those wouldn't exist until 1967), but it made some attempt to treat people of color as people rather than punchlines, and it was funny more often than not. Not bad for 1950s television.
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Sherilyn Connelly

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