Silvers And Gold - A Treasure Hiding In Plain Sight!


By Joseph Owens 


I first entered the world of Ernest G. Bilko in 2014.  There were no nostalgic childhood memories to fuel my infatuation, nor any reason to believe my appreciation would reach beyond that of enjoying classic television.  On the surface, it appeared to be a quaint little sitcom about army life.  I imagined a great deal of cannon fodder, bumbling privates, a constant thorn in the side of their sergeant, engage in hijinks and somehow learn a lesson at the end of each episode.  Once I received the first season in the mail, my preconceptions led to it remaining a bookend for my film and television collection for many months. 


Finally, I ventured to Fort Baxter for the first time.  It would forever change my perceptions about comedy.  "New Recruits" served as the perfect introduction for the circus to come.  I remember cracking a grin as "Reveille" was cued up on a record player.  Then came the motor pool, which was as I expected, full of bitter or bumbling caricatures.  It would have served me ill to rush to judgment based on those first couple of minutes, because everything which followed shook up the status quo. 


Television was already a mainstay when Bilko hit the airwaves, and as such had already developed and repeated formulas deemed to be successful.  Nat Hiken and Phil Silvers didn't simply want to venture outside the box.  They sought to redefine its parameters, making it a place where people could get their laughs while simultaneously generating a far more satisfying viewing experience.  The setup and punchline were still there, but it was the emphasis on the design of the setup, the journey to the punchline, which held the most importance.


Often times, that journey contained more laughs than the endgame.  Hiken and Silvers were most certainly brothers in a past life.  Their upbringing was similar, but comedic harmony like theirs could only be explained on a cosmic level.  Sitcom is sometimes viewed as a derogatory term, which is fine, because Bilko was no sitcom.  It was an education, refining everything comedy was and defining what it could be when treated with respect.


I remember an immediate feeling of warmth wash over me when I saw Silvers enter as Bilko.  It felt like I knew this man, like he was a grandfather in another life.  It is so unusual and yet delightful all at once, when you form subconscious connections to fictional characters.  It enhances the viewing experience.  It also makes it easier to build an investment in all other aspects of the show.


The first season took a bit of time to pick up momentum in the ratings, yet further proof of how progressive the series was.  While most early sitcoms offered the prize before you got to the bottom of the box, Bilko challenged its audience to enjoy each helping of irreverence.  Nat Hiken's writing and Silvers' comedy acumen provided jab after jab, before delivering a knockout punch.  This was seen in so many of the first season's episodes.


The jabs were quite literal in "The Boxer", one of the show's early gems.  Of the many slow burns Bilko ran on Fort Baxter in the quest for a buck, his demonization of the chrysanthemum to incite the rage of Pvt. Dillingham, a reformed tough guy and Golden Gloves champion turned cuddly horticulturist, was one of the most memorable.  As the con is being played out, we are treated to the delightful Billy Sands as Pvt. Paparelli.  He is the motor pool's only willing volunteer to participate in the post's boxing tournament, and his ineptitude at the sport banks hearty laughs.  The running gag is seamlessly woven into the bigger joke. 


Once Bilko discovers Dillingham's natural ability, he dupes Sowici into a bet pitting the mess sergeant's best against Bilko's newest golden ticket.  Unfortunately, the two pawns are found to be the best of friends, which sends Bilko into full shyster mode.  I challenge anyone to find a more clever and original piece of comedy than Silvers convincing Corporal Egan that a harmless flower could kill his loved ones.  There are so many of those moments just in the first few episodes, it's astounding.  Even putting one's bias aside, the series was a beacon, setting the bar and raising it, only needing to outdo itself to remain successful. 


For most of the uninitiated, "The Court Martial" is pointed to as being the finest example of what Bilko is all about, and to be honest, it doesn't get much better than a monkey being inducted into the army.  Although initially, I was a detractor of this episode, I came around.  While I searched for flaws, repeated viewing left me in awe of the simplistic brilliance of it all.  It flows perfectly, and is a showcase for Silvers to show the audience just how skilled Bilko is at the art of the con, regardless of the reason for its initiation.  It was not always a get rich scheme.  Ernie's powers could be used for good, evil, or in this case, to avoid humiliation for the entire United States Army. 


As a thirtysomething, already greying, I am often the subject of ridicule from those who cannot understand my tastes.  Comedy has regressed during its evolution, leaving the laughter without the joy.  Groucho Marx may have said it best to Dick Cavett:  “Anybody can say something dirty and get a laugh, but say something clean and get a laugh, that requires a comedian.” 


Bilko was a shining example of this idea, weaving a tapestry of wit and satire in accordance with the standards of its day.  Although his motives were rarely clean, the comedy was; although the undertones of something more inappropriate were there.  This was one of the great joys I encountered while watching the series for the first time.  This was thinking man’s humor.  You had to pay attention and read between the lines to truly appreciate the punchline.  I recall the first deep belly laugh the series gave me through “The Transfer” episode.


Bilko is caught cruising about Roseville with a platinum blonde in Colonel Hall’s staff car.  After a severe tongue lashing, Bilko decides to put in for a transfer, to show the Colonel just how lost Fort Baxter would be without him.  Much to his surprise, the Colonel signs off immediately, to which Bilko replies, “I’m gone.”


Upon arrival at his new post in Kentucky, he finds the brass and new platoon all too willing to buy into every con.  They’ve never encountered someone like Bilko before.  For them, it’s exciting.  Meanwhile at Fort Baxter, Colonel Hall brings in a new motor pool Sergeant who makes life on the post a nightmare, keeping the WACs and Colonel Hall buried in paperwork.  Eventually, Bilko becomes frustrated with his new surroundings because the post keeps throwing money at him without putting up a fight.  He misses the chase.  Both Hall and Bilko ultimately want the same thing, but Hall doesn’t want Bilko to know how desperate he is.


God bless Joan Hogan in this one.  When Bilko enters Hall’s office to request a return to Fort Baxter, Joan “accidently” mentions the transfer papers in Ernie’s presence.  The non-verbal gratitude Bilko shows to Sgt. Hogan in this moment is what caused my long and hearty laugh.  For me, everything else in the episode fed into this.  It was a reward.  For every chuckle banked throughout the episode, I withdrew a joy and a memory on payday.  I couldn’t ask for anything better.  You didn’t get that from other shows of the time, and it is a quality we’ve seen sparsely throughout television history.


The right people come together at the right time only a handful of times in a generation.  Bilko was never pigeonholed by its era, nor has its quality diminished over the years.  The problem I find is the lack of appreciation for the series in the states, or even awareness of its existence.


Maybe I should start a group in the U.S. called the American Phil Silvers Awareness Society.  The goldbricker has so much happiness left to give, and I will never stand at ease as a member of the Silvers army.