Willingly Bilked

When I was the mere wisp of boy, one of the chasms of TV time was Sunday morning. I was a good catholic boy. 1993 Ukrainian Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral Altar Boy of the Year. The pre-church festivity was an ordeal with my dearest mother putting on her fashion show of hats and heels as the Cathedral aisles were her own Bryant Park Fashion week runway. So there was a good window of chillin’ before actually going off to save my soul on a weekly basis. Sunday morning was a tough television landscape. Infomercials, political roundtables, live auto racing from Europe all had me just flipping – or forcing me to read.

One morning in my flippage, I stumbled upon a black and white comedy called The Phil Silvers Show (often and commonly referred to as Sergeant Bilko). I knew from my folks and society that black and white equaled quality. I knew and enjoyed the The Honeymooners and always was tickled pink by old Johnny Carson clips when tomahawk axes would be hucked at the crotches of wooden dummies.  I scurried to find Ma in the midst of her jewelry selection for high mass as to what this was. She knew. “He’s bald with glasses. He’s in the army and it’s funny” And that pretty much it right on the nose. So every Sunday I kicked it old school.

Modern knowledge of Bilko might come from an OK Steve Martin movie in a run where he just decided to take other well known characters and remake them – The Out of Towners/Pink Panther – before he became the global ambassador of the banjo. But the actual sitcom features Silvers as the fast talking, shrewd, army man in a weekly showcase of get rich quick schemes on a sleepy motor pool in a base in Kansas. Bilko’s everyday job is easy as he just moseys about and cracks wise. He really wants to be rich and famous. He wants prestige and glory but he loves the action of schemes and capers. Every show, he goes on misadventures. He gambles, organizes cotillions, tries to get on the Ed Sullivan Show and it goes on and on. The jokes are hit-and-miss but the style of the show is fascinating. Silvers speaks tremendously quickly in his vaudevillian jokester rhythm, barking out nonsense orders when he’s amongst authorities and pivoting to schemes behind the brass’s back with much aplomb. Despite not having matinee idol looks he still maintains the role of the womanizing con man simply by charm and the will to be one. He talks to the few ladies who pop by with an overabundance of compliments which in the early ’60s was apparently all that was needed to be a lothario.

I rediscovered The Phil Silvers Show as somebody has put up pretty much the whole run of episodes on Youtube. They flow really well and go down easy. It’s very stark compared to modern network TV. Ever since Friends, everybody on TV has to be young and good looking. Bilko has nobody in the principal cast who is young or good looking. They all look like people from a nondescript Kansas army base. Fat, short, and grizzled rather than the chiseled army strong man that one might see today. Bilko’s men are abused by him. Bullied if you will as he pounces on them for his schemes and barbs, but they are loyal to him endlessly, basically as it’s the devil they know. If somebody else came in they would have to do army stuff like march or do maneuvers rather than gamble or oddly enough choir practice. Several episodes have the crew singing as if as I guess in this world singing army men is the equivalent of a boy band which is an easy way to fame and fortune.

The big bits themselves are pretty cool. Bilko uses a missile to try and get a bet to a race track on time, but the army thinks he’s a spy and all hell breaks loose. He gets revenge. He grifts his way into a hospital to see his hurt bookie to place a bet in Australia. He tries to go around the world in 80 hours to try and win a contest he convinces the army to sponsor in support of the David Niven film all in quest to meet a shapely lady. And it goes on and on. Some episodes drag but the good ones have a frenetic pace to match the fast talking dialogue. So it’s all free for you to check out at your leisure or during one’s goof off time at work. Ma eventually did pick her church hat, but Ernest Bilko did not get rich quickly or slowly. But we are richer for having known him. I get a month of the streaming service Shomi for free due to me being a loyal Shaw cable customer, so next go around I shall see if something tickles my fancy in colour.

Raphael Saray is currently writing a pop song called “All The Time Partyin’ (And bein’ the best)”. He spent last weekend in Nipawin, Saskatchewan where he met people who call cigarettes “darts” and a shy but charming 10-year-old girl who is hoping to pay for figure skating lessons by selling hockey programs.

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