34. "A Mess Sergeant Can't Win," The Phil Silvers Show (1956)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here (and on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
Phil Silvers was a motormouth comedian, someone who got laughs just from the way he wouldn't let anyone else talk. This used to be a fairly common type (Groucho Marx, Abbott of Abbott & Costello, Bugs Bunny, lots of people in Preston Sturges movies), but motormouths seem to have gone out of fashion, maybe because no one wants to risk enabling another Robin Williams. There are some fast-paced sitcoms on the air now, but none are as exhausting as The Phil Silvers Show.
If you're under 60, you may know Silvers from the endlessly repeated film It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World or from the Gilligan's Island episode "The Producer" (the one with the Hamlet musical). But in the 1950s, The Phil Silvers Show was ... well, it was moderately popular. It was sort of the Taxi of its day, winning lots of Emmys and getting a lot of love in New York, but getting beat by westerns in the national ratings.
Mess Sergeant Rupert Ritzik, known as Bilko's "pet pigeon," is about to leave the Army — pressured by his wife, who's sick of seeing their money squandered on bad bets. But deep down, Bilko has a conscience (did you think this was The Sopranos?) and wants to return all the money he won from Ritzik so that the latter can start his own business. Bilko raises the money with an impomptu auction of his possessions.
Bilko: (to assembled soldiers) Do you recognize this? This is the sword tendered in surrender on the USS Missouri to General MacArthur. This sword belonged to Tojo, who was heard to say (Japanese-sounding gibberish). Translated, that meant "General, take Japan, but don't take my sword." But General MacArthur, stern taskmaster that he was, said, "Oh, no. To the victor belongs the spoils." And then there was this confusion. A third cousin of mine, named Victor Spoils, was confused at the time. He thought this was a gift to him, and he confiscated this sword. Innocently, but he had it. Now the Smithsonian Institute has been looking all over the world for this prize relic! Now how much— I've turned down any number of offers. What am I offered?
Soldier: Ten cents.
The problem is that Bilko is so deep into Ritzik's head that the poor mess sargeant won't even accept cash when it's literally thrown at him, figuring there must be some kind of trick. So Bilko tries to come up with surefire ways for Ritzik to "win" the money from him. The first attempt not only backfires but almost breaks up the marriage of the camp commander, Colonel Hall. (Hall's constant befuddlement was perfectly conveyed by actor Paul Ford, who frequently forgot his lines.)
So Bilko moves up to the truly absurd, making a bet that Ritzik was born in Kenya Singapore to a "dancing girl" (as close to "whore" as you can say on 1950s TV) instead of his beloved, all-American hometown of Peoria. Instead of punching Bilko in the face, Ritzik feels compelled to take the story seriously. He calls his mother and the clerk in charge of birth certificates at Peoria City Hall, who reassure him that he was born in the Land of Lincoln. But even after all of Ritzik's research, this happens:
Bilko: Is it a bet?
Ritzik: Don't rush me. Let me think.
Bilko: Is this a betting contest or a staring contest?
Ritzik: Well, let me get it straight. I say that I was born in Peoria.
Bilko: I say you were born in Singapore.
Officer 1: Right. Now you make the bet. Then we'll open up the sealed permanent records and we'll know.
Bilko: Right. Now is it a bet?
Ritzik: (hestitating) Now you're sure that I was born in Singapore.
Bilko: Sure? Who could be sure? Life is a gamble, but I like to gamble. Now is it a bet?
Ritzik: Now I don't know.
Officer 1: (to Ritzik) Don't blow this, now.
Ritzik: Don't confuse me.
Officer 2: You know you were born in Peoria!
Ritzik: Gee, I don't know what I know.
Bilko: Now look, I want to bet. Pick any side!
Ritzik: (to others) You heard him, you heard him. He said pick any side!
Bilko: (worried) What are you talking about?
Ritzik: All right, wise guy. I'm calling the shots now. I take Singapore!
There aren't any real jokes in the above exchange, but there wouldn't be any time for them anyway, given the show's fast pace. (For most of its run, it was performed with barely any interruptions before a live audience.) Instead, the comedy is from the escalating absurdity of the situation — specifically, Ritzik losing his grip on reality and Bilko getting tangled in his own reputation for deviousness. ("I knew it, I knew it," Ritzik mutters every time he loses to Bilko, and one can imagine him repeating it over and over in a rubber room.)
Most of the classic Phil Silvers Show episodes are like this, with the star never letting the momentum slow down and plot twists muliplying until they crash into the show's half-hour running time. The synopsis for "The Con Men" is typical:
When Doberman gets a $500 windfall from an insurance policy, he loses it in a poker game with three con men. Bilko gets it back by conning the con men, but then Doberman loses it again by being conned into buying the hotel from another con man.
You're not going to find much character development on The Phil Silvers Show, but you can never accuse Silvers and company of slacking off.
• The complete first season of the show is on DVD and has several classic episodes. Be sure to watch "The Court Martial," in which a chimpanzee is accidentally inducted into the Army, a second time with George Kennedy's wry commentary. Kennedy served as a military advisor on The Phil Silvers Show and had so much fun that he left the military to pursue acting as his full-time career. Sitcom standby Allan Melvin (at left in the above photo), later of The Brady Bunch and All in the Family, also provides commentary.