Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: In honor of Netflix’s Special Correspondents, we’re honoring our favorite military-themed comedies.
Comedian Phil Silvers started in vaudeville, where he honed the persona that would carry him on to gigs as an MGM contract player, then on Broadway, and ultimately into his best-known role as TV’s Ernest G. Bilko. Silvers’ strength was his quickness. He talked fast and thought fast, and always seemed to be working multiple angles simultaneously. Writer-producer Nat Hiken built an entire sitcom around that schtick, first calling it You’ll Never Get Rich and then The Phil Silvers Show (although it became popularly known as Sergeant Bilko, a name it would take into syndication). The premise was simple: As a scheming U.S. Army Master Sergeant, Silvers would spend each episode talking his troops into giving him their money.
Sergeant Bilko’s main source of extra income is gambling, but in the first season episode “The Twitch,” his busy schedule of bingo games and betting pools hits a snag. Fort Baxter’s straight-laced commander Colonel John T. Hall (played by Paul Ford) gets fed up with Bilko laying odds on everything around camp—from the speed of the messenger-pigeons to what color hair dye the officers’ wives will use—and decides to redirect the soldiers’ interests by forcing them to attend a highbrow presentation about the music of Beethoven. But when word gets out that their lecturer is a fidgety woman who has a habit of tugging at her girdle, Bilko is back to taking action from military outposts from as far off as Japan. The proposition: How many times will this lady “twitch” during one speech?
The episode’s high point is the lecture itself, which sees the men in the recreation hall leaning in close and counting quietly in unison with each yank and jerk, while outside the company’s radio operator peers through the window and broadcasts the results overseas. Like so many of the best Phil Silvers Show half-hours, “The Twitch” is funny because the plot is so weirdly specific. The characters aren’t just gambling addicts; they’re so far gone that they’re enthusiastic about someone’s uncomfortable underwear.
But the episode—and the series—also work because they evoke a familiar everyday ennui. Hiken and his writers envisioned middle-aged Army lifers as bored, ambitionless grunts, stuck in a Kansas cowtown. Silvers’ Bilko took advantage of their simplicity to fatten his pockets, but he also made their lives exciting. He turned every aspect of military life into a game, holding out hope to all the schlubby losers that someday they could win.
Availability: The complete run of The Phil Silvers Show is available in various configurations via multiple Shout! Factory DVD box sets.