You can go home again; it’s just not a lot of fun when you get there
“She’s so Jewish!”
That’s what the Jewish woman who sat next to me said to the Jewish woman who sat across from me about the Jewish woman who handled our mailings at Plus Publications, back in the yellow foolscap/typewriter days of yore. And she was Jewish, too, almost as Jewish as nice Jewish boy Nat Hiken, who dreamed of a world where all men would be brothers, where men and women of all races, religions, and colors would live as one.
Yes, Nat Hiken was a nice Jewish boy, but he also had affection for bad Jewish boys — gamblers, bookies, Broadway hustlers, conmen, and sharpies — all those fellows who come out when the sun goes down and people want to spend some money and have a good time. And World War II had given him an affection for slow-moving, all-male, back-scratching, ass-covering, nest-feathering outfits like the United States Army. Hiken had the smarts to put these enthusiasms together to create black-and-white TV sitcom gold, You’ll Never Get Rich: The Phil Silvers Show, telling the tale of Master Sgt. Ernie T. Bilko (Silvers) and his never-ending war against Col. John T. Hall (Paul Ford), the Eternal Gentile, earnest, affable, slow-witted, always determined not to lose his temper but always destined to fail, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd set down in Ft. Baxter, Kansas, the most boring, least important base in the U.S. Army.1
Hiken, writer-producer of the show, left after two seasons (the show lasted two more), in part due to differences with Silvers, whose compulsiveness clashed with Hikens’ own. When the Bilko show fell apart,2 Hiken scooped up Bilko cast members Joe E. Ross (Mess Sgt. Rupert Ritzik), Fred Gwynne (occasional guest star), and Beatrice Pons (Emma Ritzik, wife of Rupert) and converted the U.S. Army into the New York Police Department. Ross became Gunther Toody, New York’s dumbest if not finest, married to harridan Lucille and partnered with nice Irish boy Francis Muldoon (Gwynne). Also featured heavily were Al Lewis as Officer Leo Schnauser and Charlotte Rae as his exuberant wife Sylvia (both Lewis and Rae had appeared several times on the Bilko show). Nipsey Russell and Ossie Davis both turned up from time to time to add local color, while Jake “Raging Bull” LaMotta added some muscle. And now Shanachie has given us the first year (of two) of the show on DVD.
I loved both shows as a boy,3 but watching them today, well, half a century can change a guy. Hiken was a superior comedy writer, turning out tight, clever plots week after week rather than a simple collection of tired, unrelated gags. He loved “cascading confusion,” the way simple rumors and misunderstandings (accidental or deliberate) can spin wildly out of control. Perhaps the most famous was the Bilko episode “The Strange Case of Harry Speakup,” in which a WAC’s misunderstood command “Hurry, speak up” leads to the induction of a chimp in the army.4
So why aren’t I laughing? Part of the trouble is that in Hiken’s scripts, virtually every line of dialogue is plot-driven. The stories never breathe. Once you see where the story is going, actually getting there can seem a little mechanical. The primitive production values — frequent close-ups of the actors earnestly repeating their lines, the lack of background music, the dingy sets and costumes — give the shows the desiccated odor of things that have dried and died.
Fortunately the first season contains my favorite Car 54, wittily titled “Today I Am A Man.” Muldoon, tired of being ridiculed as a mama’s boy, pretends to have a date at the fashionable Club Chi-Chi. Unfortunately, anticipation at the 43rd precinct runs so high that his fellow officers tail him on the night of the “date,” forcing Muldoon to actually go to the club to maintain the charade. Once we’re inside the club we cut to a hopelessly square couple, accompanied by their young daughter, who appears terrified, her hair in a tight bun and staring out at the world through coke-bottle glasses (also known as “Hillary Clintons”).
“Well, daughter,” her father says, “you wanted to go to a night club on your twenty-first birthday. I hope you’re satisfied. These people must all be gangsters — gangsters and molls.”
“Yes, papa,” she responds.
Muldoon naturally sits at their table and asks them to pretend they know him. He reaches for a champagne bottle to make things more festive, revealing his sidearm. A gangster! Those policemen must be after him! The terrified family does everything he says. Muldoon, trying to keep an eye on his buddies, never notices that his new-found friends regard him as a murderer.
They quit the club and go home. The pursuing officers keep up a running commentary, redolent of fifties prudery: “He put his arm around her! What a wolf!” Eventually, Muldoon thinks he’s stayed long enough to establish his bona fides with his buddies and gets ready to leave. The daughter suddenly loosens her hair, throws off her glasses, and launches herself at Muldoon.
“Take me with you! I’ll be your woman! I’ll go anywhere! I’ll do anything!” “I’ll be your woman”? That was a line you didn’t hear too often on TV back in 1962.5
A whole lotta afterwords, actually. I’ll number them.
1. Car 54 fans sound off at the myriad inadequacies of the Shanachie reissue here, calling for the head of designer Lorien Babajian, whom I somehow suspect of not being a real person.
2. Did you know that lovable Joe E. Ross was in fact a complete shithead? Well, he was, according to “Klip Nesteroff” who may in fact be related to Lorien Babajian. . For whatever reason, Klip has devoted a massive amount of time and energy detailing what a huge slob Joe E. Ross was, including the fact that he had eight ex-wives, all of them former hookers. Well, I have only one ex-wife, and she was a violinist, not a hooker, but somehow I think Klip could make me look as bad as Joe E. if he tried. Still, I’m very much in debt to Klip, for embedding a clip from Irving Klaw’s immortal epic Teaserama (1955), a sadly neglected film that preserves the golden age of fifties burlesque for all mankind and for all time. Looking at these overweight, overage, pasty-faced babes strut their stuff should make every one of us get down on our knees and give thanks to God that we’re living in the age of such miracles as lipo, implants, and tan in a bottle.6
3. After the demise of Car 54, Ross appeared briefly in the famously bad sitcom It’s About Time. Gwynne, however, moved smoothly into the famous The Munsters, taking Al Lewis (“Grandpa”) with him. Gwynne, who mugs pretty furiously in Car 54, matured into a highly successful and (I guess I can say it) even beloved character actor.
4. Post Bilko but pre Car 54, Hiken teamed with Phil Silvers for two offbeat TV movies, The Ballad of Louie the Louse and The Slowest Gun in the West (also starring Jack Benny), which happened to be my Jewish high school girlfriend Carol’s first and second favorite TV shows of all time. The Slowest Gun I could get, but Louie was waaay over my head. Unfortunately, neither seems to be available on disc or download.
5. My fondest memory of Phil comes not from Bilko or Louie or Slowest Gun but rather The Ed Sullivan Show, when he introduced me to meta-humor. Phil was doing some sort of routine and asked the band for a downbeat, which they refused to supply. After some back and forth, Phil went to Ed and said “Ed, the band isn’t cooperating.” Ed turned to the band and said “Guys, you want to play ball with Phil?” Two band members stood up, wearing baseball gloves, and started throwing a baseball back and forth. Phil turned to Ed: “Funny, Ed, funny! You’re a funny man! Funny!”7
- The final episode of the show ended with Bilko in jail, saying to the audience “The-the-that’s all, folks!” (Actually Porky Pig’s line, but you get the picture.) Seinfeld co-creator Larry David is a huge Bilko fan, which is probably why Seinfeld also ended with the cast in jail. [↩]
- Supposedly, the show ended its run because the cast was so large. They couldn’t fire people? [↩]
- I still remember the jolt when Bilko “moved” from Ft. Baxter to Camp Fremont in California for the last season. Why do things have to change? [↩]
- Col. Hall wants to prove that Ft. Baxter can induct men quicker than any other post, which means that no one has the nerve to stop the line. [↩]
- Naturally, she becomes Muldoon’s date, not his woman, at the end of the episode. [↩]
- For most, the main attraction has got to be that tap-dancing rage, Bettie Page. Yes, the queen of B&D and S&M could also tap, just like Gloria Steinem. Sadly lacking, however, is my favorite fifties stripper, Stormy Abramowitz, the Sultry Semite. [↩]
- More meta: In 1951 Silvers appeared in a Broadway show, Top Banana, bouncing off the then incandescent career of Milton Berle. A filmed version of a live performance of the show was made, which I saw on TV about twenty years ago. Jack Albertson, “the Man” on the star-crossed NBC sitcom Chico and the Man, played a comedy writer. The show included lines like “It was so hot the Hoboken ferry went out without her slip!” TB is not out on disc as far as I know, but apparently was once available on VHS (maybe). If you’re dying to know more, the IMBD has six (six!) reviews here. [↩]