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Phil Silvers as Sgt. Bilko (center), surrounded by the soldiers of the motor pool



Colonel Hall, on many occasions

Originally titled You'll Never Get Rich, The Phil Silvers Show was a popular 1950s sitcom created by Nat Hiken and starring Phil Silvers as Sgt. Ernest Bilko, the man in charge of the motor pool at the fictional Fort Baxter military base in Kansas. Running from 1955 to 1959 on CBS (notably over a decade before the same network ran M*A*S*H), a total of 143 episodes were produced, of which only 18 have yet been released on DVD.

Most of the episodes revolved around Sgt. Bilko's incessant quest for wealth and influence, which usually took the form of get-rich-quick schemes ranging from (supposedly) simple games of poker to trying to dupe Bing Crosby into performing a show on the base. Standing in his way was Colonel Hall (Paul Ford), the commanding officer of the base, who was always suspicious of Bilko's motives for anything he did. Luckily for Bilko, the Colonel was also quite gullible and manipulable, something he frequently took advantage of. Bilko frequently showed an ability to manipulate a wide range of other people as well. Nevertheless, like in many sitcoms to follow, the Reset Button was all-powerful, and by the end of the episode Bilko would inevitably end up back in roughly the same position he started, but occasionally slightly better or worse off.

After the original show had ended, in 1963, Phil Silvers attempted to start a new show to match his previous outing. Called The New Phil Silvers Show, it featured Silvers as Sgt. Bilko-Expy Harry Grafton, foreman at a factory; the new show lasted less than a year. A film based on the original show, called Sgt. Bilko and starring Steve Martin in the title role, was released in 1996, but it was panned by critics and audiences alike.

Despite its relative obscurity compared to other contemporary sitcoms like I Love Lucy, The Phil Silvers Show was highly critically acclaimed in its day and still remains popular among critics. It won three consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series from 1956 to 1958, and in 2003, the Radio Times Guide to TV Comedy named it the best sitcom ever made, beating Seinfeld and Fawlty Towers to the top spot.

Tropes used in The Phil Silvers Show include:
  • Animated Credits Opening: Albeit a very tame one.
  • Armed Farces
  • Bald of Evil: While not evil per see, Bilko tends to be self-centered and manipulative, and his baldness is one of his signature physical traits.
  • Batman Gambit: Frequently used by Bilko.
  • Braids, Beads, and Buckskins: Subverted and played straight in "Cherokee Ernie": While traveling to the home of a Native American soldier, Bilko daydreams about the stereotypical Indian village only to find himself on a rather standard upper-middle-class ranch. The elders, on the other hand, are depicted in full traditional dress and living in tipis.
  • Brick Joke: In the movie, there's an early throwaway line about Bilko's department being one of the best military glee clubs around. Turns out later on that they really are.
  • Butt Monkey: Duane Doberman.
  • Disability Superpower: Doberman gains the ability to sing beautifully when he catches a cold.
  • Dream Sequence: In one episode, Bilko tricks the platoon into thinking that Doberman's sister is a beauty, and we see the men dreaming of her.
  • The Eponymous Show
  • A Father to His Men: Bilko tries to pass himself off as one of these, but is quick to drop the ruse when it is no longer useful to him.
    • This is altered slightly for The Movie, where it's obvious that Bilko really does care about and like his subordinates, he's just not above insulting them or using them as necessary as well.
  • The Film of the Series: Sgt. Bilko (1996), starring Steve Martin.
  • Framing the Guilty Party: In the movie, Sgt. Thorn's decision to do this is ultimately his downfall. He has proof of every single one of Bilko's actual crimes, any handful of which would suit his purposes, but instead chooses to frame Bilko for sabotaging the already nonfunctional hovertank. Bilko manages to turn this around on him by convincing Thorn to frame himself and then admit it in front of the brass.
  • Game Show Appearance: In one episode, Bilko trys to cheat on the already rigged The Sixty Four Thousand Dollar Question about a year before the quiz show scandals broke.
  • Get Rich Quick Scheme
  • Good-Looking Privates: The WACs.
  • Honest John's Dealership: While Bilko never has a formal store, it doesn't stop him from always thinking about profit and acting accordingly.
  • Meaningful Name: Ernest Bilko. Please don't make me explain it.
  • Mighty Whitey: In "Cherokee Ernie", having been re-baptized as Bald Eagle of the Cherokee Nation, Bilko uses inconsistencies in the original treaty ceding Oklahoma to the United States to lead a statewide Cherokee secessionist movement.
  • Once Per Episode: Bilko's get-rich-quick schemes.
  • Playing Cyrano: Bilko plays this role for one of his soldiers in one episode, aptly titled "Cyrano de Bilko".
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: The drafting of Elvis inspired an episode in which rock star Elvin Pelvin gets transferred to Bilko's platoon.
  • Reset Button
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules: Bilko's good side occasionally shines through. Occasionally.
  • A Simple Plan
  • Soldiers At the Rear
  • Special Guest: Bing Crosby (and his brother/manager Everett Crosby), Ed Sullivan, Kay Kendall, and others appeared as themselves, with the three major ones mentioned here receiving top billing in three separate episodes titled "[Sergeant] Bilko Presents [name of celebrity]".
  • Studio Audience: The first 59 episodes were performed similarly to stage plays in front of a live audience; this changed when Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) producer Mike Todd, who was making a guest appearance, suggested that it would be better to film the show out-of-sequence like a Hollywood movie.
    • In both cases, no laugh track was used... the completed episodes would be screened exclusively for an audience of Military personnel whose laughter would be recorded and dubbed in later.
  • Syndication Title: Sergeant Bilko, or simply Bilko.
  • Title Drop: The army chant that serves as the source of the original title of the series is often recited by new recruits to show their eagerness.

Privates: We're in the army now / We're not behind a plow / You'll never get rich / By digging a ditch / We're in the army now.