Bright Lights Film Journal

The King of Chutzpah: On the Singular Pleasures of Phil Silvers

“Silvers raised the smart-aleck, rapid-fire monolog to high art.”

In 1955, a year of military turmoil, the most famous American in uniform wasn’t Dwight Eisenhower, or Omar Bradley, or even Douglas MacArthur, who had been forcibly retired two years earlier. It wasn’t Sergeant Mike Strank or Private Frank Sousley, who were in the forefront of raising the Stars and Stripes over Iwo Jima, nor was it Admiral Nimitz or Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle. The subject of the most newspaper column inches in 1955 wasn’t even a real soldier. It was a middle-aged, bespectacled comedian from Brooklyn named Phil Silvers, and his TV alter ego Master Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko.

He’d come, seemingly, from nowhere. A cross-eyed and rapidly balding bit player whose teeth fell some way short of the Hollywood ideal, Silvers had begun his career working in New York burlesque houses before appearing in a string of largely forgotten movies — 23, give or take, between January 1941 and December 1942, earning him credit for sheer perseverance if nothing else. He did score a minor box-office hit in Top Banana, a Broadway revue in 1952, in which he played one Jerry Biffle, the motor-mouthed star of a major television show allegedly based on Milton Berle. But Silvers’s one enduring artistic feat prior to 1955 wasn’t anything to do with acting at all. It was to have the morbid good luck to have been fooling around at a piano with composer Jimmy van Heusen when Frank Sinatra walked by, liked what he heard, and promptly commissioned the two men to write him his next single. The result was “Nancy (With the Laughing Face),” a number one hit in 1944 that became a staple of Sinatra’s live performances for the next thirty years. I say “morbid” because Silvers would spend much of those thirty years trying to extract properly accounted royalties for his contribution — only to leave most of them on the roulette tables of Vegas.

Silvers (or “Silver,” as he was then known) was born a century ago, on May 11 1911, the eighth and youngest child of Russian-Jewish immigrants. His school reports weren’t enthusiastic — “this kid is a cretin,” his fifth-grade teacher concluded, mild stuff compared to the reaction of Silvers’s family rabbi when he caught him, aged 13, sidling out of an illegal New York casino one night with an older female companion whose dress, in the words of the formal parochial reprimand, “was of the most sparing cut.” But the teenager could, he soon discovered, “work a crowd … Whenever the projector broke down in the movie theater, which in those days it usually did, I’d jump up and tell jokes for twenty, thirty minutes, and what I’d always felt deep down in my heart, without being able to put it to the test, was proved to be true. I could make people laugh.”

Silvers’s first real chance to show his stuff came in a short-lived 1939 play called Yokel Boy. He was fifth on the bill and by the time he appeared in the second half of the show he had to face noisy barracking, which led to spirited fighting on the floor of the theater. But Silvers mastered the uproar, improvised a few snappy lines, and generally turned the situation to his advantage. He could make even tough, off-Broadway audiences chortle with his mimicry and win their approval by the quick-wittedness with which he zinged hecklers. He spent hours practicing his verbal shtick and facial expressions in front of a mirror, and studying the shots the house photographer took when he was speaking, in order to select the most effective and dump the rest. Pretty soon he had the basic act down cold: Silvers raised the smart-aleck, rapid-fire monolog to high art, and in the process more or less single-handedly recast the American comic persona (see Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Chris Rock, et al.). Before Silvers, there was no shameless slagging of authority figures, no poking fun at network bosses, and above all no verbal anarchy (script? what script?) on prime-time TV screens. As with all the best comedians, it seemed he wasn’t even trying to ingratiate himself with the viewing audience. He was doing what he thought was funny. And it worked. Brilliantly.

You know you’ve arrived as a comic genius when audiences laugh with you and eggheads in the media simultaneously attempt to “explain” the deeply subversive nature of your humor. To critics like the arts correspondent of the New York Times, Silvers in his Bilko incarnation was at the head of “a momentous, exhilarating yet underappreciated sexual and social revolution which occurred through the wonders of television. TV provided the opportunity, quickly exploited, for the representation of emergent social types who spoke, sometimes invented, a language that was to become the American idiom … [Silvers] was the embodiment of one of the most impressive and influential creations of the tube — the fast-talking, anti-authority wiseacre.” In practice, this seems to have meant that the “King of Chutzpah,” as he was affectionately known, gave the fifties, that decade of deference, their distinctive comic glitter. Or put another way, Silvers gave the generation coming up after World War 11 permission to enjoy itself — more than a year before the “Folk Music Fireball” (as Elvis Presley was known in those days) well and truly kicked out the jams and signaled the beginning of the end of decent, respectable culture for all time.

So much for the theory. The facts are that The Phil Silvers Show (originally entitled You’ll Never Get Rich) ran for 143 episodes from 1955 to 1959. Compared to the likes of Beulah and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Silvers’s at-the-double army satire was a kidney punch of fresh air, juxtaposing an essentially decent, even lovable central character with lickety-spitfire humor and a notable absence of anything resembling a tugged forelock toward his superior officers. The shows were largely shot live, giving them their engaging sense of always being about to implode without ever quite doing so; sometimes Silvers would forget the script altogether, blurt out a single word, and then run with it like a bow-legged quarterback, unerring in his sense of how to parlay the call into a comedic touchdown. There was “Money!,” “Gambling!,” and of course “Dames!,” all exclamations he could riff on uproariously while the rest of the cast caught their breath. It was brilliant, seat-of-the-pants stuff, and it could probably only have worked as well as it did with that particular character and at that particular, socially buttoned-up time in American history. When Silvers attempted to reprise the act in 1964, transplanting it from an army barracks to a factory, audiences — already being seduced by a whole new mutant strain of anti-authority energy from the likes of the Rolling Stones — turned away, embarrassed. It would take another twenty years or so (bringing us up to the Reagan administration) for the original show to be seen as the subversive classic it is. In Britain, meanwhile, where Silvers is revered as a sort of male version of the Statue of Liberty, Sergeant Bilko and the gang are up there with Steve McQueen, the Beach Boys, and The Simpsons, quintessentially American icons that instantly render the most gnarled among us happily, helplessly teenage: not a bad legacy.

Phil Silvers was married twice, and divorced both times. He and his second wife had five daughters. He was a compulsive gambler who suffered from manic depression on and off over the years. His memoirs were entitled This Laugh Is on Me. He died, essentially broke, in November 1985, aged 74. But for all that, the world was one vast opportunity for the unlikely middle-American pinup who made even President Eisenhower (not to mention Sen. Joseph McCarthy) cancel his other appointments in order to keep a regular Tuesday night date with the ragbag personnel of Fort Baxter and their renegade Master Sergeant. “Sometimes I can’t figure out why I thought a scene might ever have been funny,” Silvers once remarked of Bilko’s often acquired charm. “And yet, as it happens, I’m laughing at it.”