Thursday, November 20, 2014

Sly Fox: The Phil Silvers Show

Billy Sands, Phil Silvers, and Paul Ford in The Phil Silvers Show

Last summer, one of The New York Times’ fourth-string film reviewers wrote a blunt little screed complaining about how many old TV shows are now readily available for viewing thanks to home video, streaming sites, and “classic TV” cable channels such as MeTV, Antenna, and Cozi (whose appeal is probably based on nostalgia for the golden years of Nick at Nite and TV Land as much as it’s based on the days when the shows on such channels were actually new). Some of the writer’s objections to specific shows were based on political correctness: surely those who appreciate Mad Men for its glacial pace, lavishly furnished period anomie, and tsk-tsking attitude toward the male chauvinism of our fathers and grandfathers must view the marriage of Ralph and Alice Kramden as “more sad than funny,” Gilligan’s Island is chock-full of “dismaying stereotypes,” and watching Green Acres can make you feel that rural people in the red states are a bunch of rubes, which is an unacceptable message for a TV show to be peddling unless it’s The Daily Show. Mainly, though, the Times seemed to be concerned that too many people are pissing their lives away binge-watching The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis when they could be doing something constructive, like organizing a recycling drive or watching Rectify.

I’m not sure that the ready availability of fifty-year-old sitcoms is the major societal problem that the Times thinks it is. When it comes to popular culture, I’m of the Libertarian persuasion: the stuff should be out there where anyone who wants it can get their hands on it, and if that makes it easier for those with a tendency toward substance abuse to get a hold of the hard stuff, that’s their cross to bear. From the censorious tone of the Times article, it’s not clear that its author—who I prefer not to refer to by name, because I have a theory that he might really be Candyman—knows that the best comedy of the early years of TV is less faded now than the first season of True Detective, and that some of it is still hard to find. In the case of the great early work of Sid Caesar and the Your Show of Shows crew, Ernie Kovacs, and Steve Allen, we’re dependent on the efforts of cultural archeologists digging through private collections of kinescopes, since much of that material predates the network practice of archiving programs that were originally thought to have no long-term financial value.

But some shows, such as the Jack Benny and George Burns and Gracie Allen shows that now run in the witching hours on Antenna TV, are seen as limited-audience investments, because they’re stagy and in black and white. Now, thank God, Shout! Factory has filled in a giant, lightbulb-head-shaped hole in the culture by releasing the complete four-year run of The Phil Silvers Show on DVD. (The first season was released on DVD four years ago by Paramount, but there’s been no follow-up.) Like the Jack Benny and George and Gracie shows, and unlike Leave It to Beaver and The Twilight Zone, Phil Silvers isn’t seen as being hardwired into the culture memories of baby boomers. (Even so, the cartoonist Bill Griffith is a fan, and included the show’s characters in a few long-form adventures of Zippy the Pinhead.) A 1996 movie version starring Steve Martin had the hopeless, limp-noodle feel of something made by people who weren’t exactly sure just who they were supposed to be pandering to. But if funniness counts for anything, then The Phil Silvers Show, which stands comfortably alongside Fawlty Towers, The Bob Newhart Show, and Community as one of the funniest half-hour comedies ever made, is a prime contender for best TV show of all time.

Silvers plays Ernie Bilko, who runs the motor pool of a small Midwestern Army post as his personal fiefdom. The show, which ran from 1955 to 1959, predates the Vietnam-era counterculture, but its basic setup is a good illustration of just how much subversion you can achieve using a calm, ripple-free environment as a front. Bilko is a con man who’s made a career in the peacetime army because the bureaucracy and relative dimness of his superiors makes it a sweet environment in which to operate. (The steady flow of new recruits and the beaten-down eternal privates at his mercy also provide a rich field of lambs for the fleecing.) Bilko thinks big, but his ambitions are manageable; he’s content to be a fat frog in a tiny pond. Silvers’ ebullient performance makes it clear that, however low the stakes are, he could never see himself as a small-timer. From minute to minute, he has the greatest gift any Pope or King could imagine: the pleasure of always being able to listen to the sound of his own voice.

The Phil Silvers Show is a star vehicle, but the supporting cast—which includes Paul Ford as the commanding officer, Harvey Lembeck and Allan Melvin as Bilko’s chief sidekicks, and Maurice Gosfield, Joe E. Ross, Ned Glass, Mickey Freeman, Billy Sands, Herbie Faye, and others as assorted dogfaces—all contribute to its busy, happy bustle. They’re like the human cartoons that populated Hollywood comedies in the 1930s, and the plots they’re involved in, which range from Bilko’s efforts to turn a new recruit into a singing star to his managing to gracefully work through a mishap that’s resulted in the accidental induction of a chimpanzee, are like rough drafts for W. C. Fields two-reelers. The difference is that Fields would have been more misanthropic and treated the characters around him as irritants and obstacles. The comedy in The Phil Silvers Show comes from Bilko’s satirical super-competence, his ability to talk or scheme his way out of anything, but its rich good feeling is partly the result of Silvers’ own delight in performing and his enjoyment of the people he’s surrounded by. The regular soldiers have names like Ritzik, Doberman, Paparelli, Fender, Pendleton, Mullen, and Zimmerman. What graduate of vaudeville and the burlesque houses wouldn’t be thrilled to have a steady job calling out those names?

After The Phil Silvers Show ended, its producer-creator Nat Hiken had another half-hour comedy, Car 54, Where Are You? Starring Joe E. Ross and the young Fred Gwynne as patrol cops in the Bronx. Car 54, which made it to DVD a couple of years ago, only lasted two seasons, and it’s not of Phil Silvers’ stature. (It’s not a comedy of competence, either; Ross and Gwynne’s characters, Toody and Muldoon, are well-meaning bumblers. But it’s a pretty funny show, with a relaxed, affable early’60s vibe and a similar character-ensemble feel: it’s full of funny-face “ethnic” comedians like Molly Picon and Al Lewis, doing their thing. And seen today, it has a special homey charm. Despite the cartoonishness of its underpinnings, it’s set in a New York where people actually live and raise families, unlike a more recent Gotham fantasy like Sex and the City.) Hiken never had another series, and he died in 1968, at the age of 54. But by then, he and his collaborators on The Phil Silvers Show had been name-checked in the greatest Cold War movie of them all, the 1962, The Manchurian Candidate, in which a patrol of U. S. soldiers on a Korean War mission is said to have included Private Silvers, Captain Allan Melvin, Private Lembeck, and Private Hiken. For devotees of the Bilko Universe, this is no mere in-joke, but a surreal tone-setter for the whole movie: you may hear a lot of people in this story talking about patriotism and heroism and democracy, but always remember—the fix is in.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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