Well, this is some good news, and news I didn’t expect to see: CBS/Paramount is going to put out an extras-packed five-disc set of the first season of The Phil Silvers Show, aka You’ll Never Get Rich, aka Sergeant Bilko. That’s absolutely spectacular; the only previous DVD representation of the show was a “best-of” set that didn’t sell particularly well. Now we’re going to get all thirty-plus episodes from the first year of probably the best sitcom of the ’50s, and still one of the all-time greatest examples of the art of television comedy writing and performance.
Will they ever get to the second of the two great seasons? I don’t know; I hope so. Still, season 1 is more than I thought we would ever get.
I should explain the “two great seasons” remark: Series creator Nat Hiken, who co-wrote and directed every episode in the first two seasons (someone else directed the cameras, but Hiken was in charge of directing the actors), left after that. The show never again achieved the level of greatness of those first two years, even though it was still amusing and won a third Emmy award without him. Hiken was one of the first scripted TV producers to put that kind of personal stamp on every episode of a television series, and to advance the idea that the creator could be as important a force as the star in a television sitcom or drama. With I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners, the writers were important, but they were clearly taking orders from the star or a non-writing producer (sometimes a non-writing producer/star like Desi Arnaz). Or sometimes, as with Ozzie Nelson, the star would himself be in control of the writing, directing, and producing. Hiken was a completely behind-the-camera figure on Bilko, yet it was as much his show as Silvers’, and that’s the ancestor of the modern “showrunner” concept.
This scene is from an episode that’s already available in the best-of set, but I have to include it here because it includes the line “What’s your stand on socialized medicine?”