On an unrelated thread, Philip Portelli wrote:
"To the Commander: I would be very interested to hear your views on M*A*S*H, McHale's Navy, and particularly Hogan's Heroes, given your service. I know that they were comedies but I would like to hear your views, if or when you want. Heck comment on CPO Sharkey for that matter!"
First, let me state that, with regard to military series, both dramatic and comedic, television imposes certain necessary restraints to accuracy. I understand this. J.A.G. demonstrated a few of these necessary bars to accuracy. For ten years, the two stars served in the same billets at J.A.G. headquarters (except for occasional story arcs which temporarily shifted them around). Normal tours in the military are eighteen months to three years, at the most, and usually are two years. So, no way that would have happened in real life. But I understand that a popular show just can't go retooling itself with new formats and new cast members every couple of years. So I can accept that as a necessary fictional device.
Also, the two stars would not have reported to the Judge Advocate General of the Navy directly, as they did in the show. There would be a Chief of Staff and other ACOS's in the hierarchy. But then you're talking about the expense of additional cast members, so I can accept that as a necessary fictional device, as well.
Those kinds of things I grudgingly give a pass to. Other things I do not. Things which do not affect the budget, such as improper military protocol or errors in the uniform. These things don't cost a cent to fix, and J.A.G. had the least excuse of all shows for such mistakes creeping in. J.A.G. had a retired rear admiral on the payroll as an advisor. He must have been asleep through many of the episodes, though, for all the uniform mistakes---and obvious ones to anybody in the Navy---to have gotten by.
And, sure, many military-related series, especially sitcoms, didn’t hire a military expert as an advisor. But you can sure bet the shows received mail from vets who watched the show and called them on errors. So when I see mistakes of this sort appear, my estimation of the show immediately drops.
Now, to military sitcoms.
I understand, in order to evoke humour, certain aspects of military life have to exaggerated or lampooned. But the key here---from my standpoint as a military man---is to not go beyond my willing suspension of disbelief. Granted, the bar is higher for me than it is for someone who has never served. And there are lots more of career civilian television watchers than there are career military television watchers. So, if a producer wants to play the numbers game, he can go as extreme as he wants.
On the other hand, television history has had several military-oriented sitcoms that were successful and never strayed across my line of believability.
Let’s start with the two military sitcoms that are remarkable in the fact that neither one of them ever---ever---committed an error in protocol, uniform wear, or general military practice.
The first was Hennesey (CBS, 1959-62), starring Jackie Cooper. This show was so remarkable that it is tied, with Father Knows Best, as my favourite sitcom ever. It tells of a newly minted Navy physician, Lieutenant Charles “Chick” Hennesey, stationed at the Naval Dispensary in San Diego.
It’s a show that takes it’s humour from the characters’ reactions to simple, yet logical twists and developments in Navy life. While Hennesey and his nurse, Martha Hale, pretty much play it straight (though they are not beyond a witty line or two), there are some characters who are “characters”---Hennesey’s commanding officer, Captain (later, Rear Admiral) Shafer, and Chief Corpsman Bronsky. Yet, they never get so broad as to be unbelievable and underlie their minor eccentricities with remarkable humanity. It’s a show loaded with sentimental moments, but never saccharine ones, mostly because Hennesey is just a decent, likeable man, usually right but not always.
As I said, Hennesey never committed a single error in military protocol, not even a situation that bordered on being impossible to really happen. I credit this to the fact that Jackie Cooper, who also produced the show, hired a great number of military veterans as staff and he himself was a Navy veteran. The show was also distinctive in utilising techniques infrequently seen on television then, especially in sitcoms. It relied strongly on overlapping dialogue. And for most episodes, it eschewed an opening credit sequence. The show would begin with a cold open and a minute or so into it, the dialogue track go silent and the theme would play, while the credits got “painted” over the scene, which would still be going on. Even without the benefit of dialogue, the viewer could still follow the gist of the scene.
Many episodes were done without a laugh track. Particularly one tour-de-force episode which has only two cast members---Cooper, as Hennesey, and guest star Don Rickles as a chief petty officer. The TV Guide entry for this episode probably read: “Hennesey gives a C.P.O. a reënlistment physical.” Because that’s all it was. But the dialogue keeps you so riveted that you don’t realise that nothing else takes place.
As in many other Hennesey episodes, something pointed out early on comes back as the clincher in the end. And for this episode, throw away any previous conceptions of Don Rickles. He performs with nuance and subtlety. And in the last shot, which shows him walking toward the camera, away from the examining room, he looks and moves like every thirty-year C.P.O. I ever met.
Personal Sidebar: I was a tadpole when Hennesey aired and it was the first exposure to the Navy that I ever had, and from it, I got the idea that maybe the Navy wouldn’t be such a bad place to spend my life.
Fast-forward to 1999. It was Christmas Eve, and I was in my stateroom, lying on my rack, on board the flagship Blue Ridge, in Yokosuka, Japan. I had just been assigned to the staff of Commander, SEVENTH Fleet, and the Good Mrs. Benson, having a good job that neither of us wanted her to sacrifice, was back home in the States. The ship was quiet, practically deserted, except for duty personnel, everybody else home with his wife and family. And I started thinking about all the events that led me to that particular point, at that particular time.
I followed that thread all the way back to Hennesey, which I hadn’t thought about in years. It was about mid-night, Christmas now, when I got an idea. I was going to write Jackie Cooper a letter, telling him how his show had been my first inspiration to join the Navy and how much satisfaction my Naval career had brought me.
Right then, I went down to my office and wrote. Getting his mailing address wasn’t difficult---Cooper was still famous enough and, hey, I worked for an admiral. And I mailed it.
About three weeks later, there was something on my desk from mail call. It was a letter from Jackie Cooper, written in his own hand. He said that my letter was one of the nicest Christmas presents he had ever received. He was glad that Hennesey had been such an inspiration to me. And, to me, the most important thing he wrote was that “of all the things I’ve done as a producer, director, or actor, Hennesey is the thing of which I am proudest.”
(The same night I also wrote and sent a letter to his Hennesey co-star, Abby Dalton, that produced some interesting results. But that’s another story, for another post.)
The other error-free military sitcom came much later in television’s history, but has many of the same qualities as Hennesey. That was Major Dad (also CBS, 1989-93). As Hennesey was for Jackie Cooper, Major Dad was obviously a labour of love for Gerald McRaney. While the central premise was different---die-hard Marine Corps officer meets and marries a liberal-minded lady journalist with three daughters---it shared Hennesey’s impeccability in showing both the light side and the serious side of military life, including the grimness of combat, without diluting either. Like Hennesey, some of the regular characters were slightly eccentric but never beyond feasibility and were always underlaid with professionalism and competence.
Major Dad wasn’t a “quiet” sitcom, like Hennesey. It played comedy a bit more broadly and cranked in the generational humour with the three daughters. And it vested Major MacGillis with a Marine Warrior image that the plots both validated and poked fun at. It also plumbed the sentimentality well a bit more deeply, along with adding the cuteness factor of pint-sized youngest daughter, Casey.
It’s telling that the then-Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Al Gray, appeared in a guest spot on the show. The Marine Corps usually doesn’t go in for that kind of thing, unless they respect a show.
Since I’ve rambled on here, Philip, let’s make this “part one”, and I’ll get to some of the military sitcoms you specifically mentioned on the next go ‘round.
I saw Bilko in reruns as a kid in the '60s and thought it was pretty funny, but I never much considered how plausible it was. It was just fun to see Phil Silvers smooth-talk everybody. Likewise with McHales's Navy. Borgnine, Conway and Flynn were a great comedy team. Flynn was from my hometown, so there were a lot of newspaper articles about him, especially when he came back to town.
As a kid, I had a great skill to buy into whatever situation I was presented with. That's how I could enjoy all those SA Superman comics. When I read them now, I shake my head and say, "Why on Earth did I find this at all reasonable? Was I really that clueless?"
I watched Hogan's Heroes all the time, for which I have no excuse. It's really pretty offensive when I think about it any more. I'm surprised it even got on TV back then, and it'd have no chance today.
I too will be interested in your comments on various military sit-coms, Commander! As well as NCIS, which I'm watching in mega-doses via USA's marathons. I expect forensics experts especially are rolling on the floor at what those guys can get done in a day. I have a lot of complaints about their dramatic skills, especially in later episodes when they forgo any red herrings at all, but I don't know how realistic their Navy facts are the times they come up.
IMHO: Abby and Ducky are basically the heart of NCIS, while Linda Hunt's Hetty serves the same purpose on NCIS: LA.
And for what it's worth, I totally agree with Mark S. Ogilvie about Porky Pig.
I feel blessed that I have a local, non-network TV station here in town, and they run a five-or-six hour block of reruns every day. Just in case you can dial it up on your satellite dish, the station is WGCB out of Red Lion, Pa.
On its daily afternoon schedule is Hogan's Heroes, McHale's Navy, Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Family Ties, The Cosby Show, Little House on the Prairie, Father Knows Best, My Three Sons and Gomer Pyle USMC. A while back they were also showing Lone Ranger and the Rifleman.
It's a pretty awesome station if you're into that kind of stuff.
And right now? A three-hour block of "Combat!"
I've never expected a military sitcom to be accurate in its portrayal. Same goes for, well, any sitcom set in any workplace. I can appreciate it when I do learn that they've done things "right." The Commander says that Major Dad, a show I did enjoy, was good. I've heard that Scrubs was pretty accurate about how interns live and work, too. It just wouldn't bother me if things weren't as accurate because I wouldn't know.
On the other hand, I am a former tow truck driver and it does annoy me when a tow truck driver shows up on a show looking (and often acting) unprofessional and using 30 year old equipment instead of a modern wheel lift. I would guess that anybody's level of tolerance depends on whether or not they are in the field being shown on the show.
When I first saw the movie Battle of the Bulge I went to the IMDB to read the reviews. Several of the commentators said the German tanks in the film were obviously a type of US tank painted gray. I can see how that would be glaringly obvious to people who know their tanks. But since I don't, I didn't notice any problem at all.
As I noted above, I never watched Bilko.
I may've seen an episode or two of Gomer Pyle, but I know I didn't watch it regularly. I never was a big Jim Nabors mark.
I remember watching alot of McHale's Navy - it mus'tve been in re-runs, as the show went off the air when I was three - but I'll be blessed if I could tell you the details of even a single episode, except for a vague notion that they would've McHale and company trying to get away with something behind Captain Binghamton's back, while Captain Binghamton tried to pin something on McHale so as to get rid of him. I would've been watching when I was a little kid, and I had no knowledge of the Navy or the War in those days, not even the relatively limited knowledge I have now. Also, I wasn't the most critical television watcher in those days - I haven't watched it in many years, I don't know what I would make of it now.
I watched alot of Hogan's Heroes, too. Again, I would've been a kid when it was on, and wouldn't've had any sort of historical knowledge concerning the setting, except that we had fought a war against the Germans at some point, a war in which some of the older guys in my neighborhood had taken part. I certainly wouldn't've thought of it as "offensive" in those days - thinking back on it now, it certainly seems like an odd choice to set a comedy. Another thing I didn't know at the time was that so many of the actors who played Germans and/or Nazis on the show (Werner Klemperer, John Banner, Leon Askin and Howard Caine) were all Jews themselves, as was Robert Clary, who survived Buchenwald in real life. Of course, my impression of the show is frankly, affected by the fact that I used to watch it with my late paternal grandfather, who was a great old guy, whom I loved dearly, and with whom I liked very much to hang around. So, one could certainly say that alot of my positive feeling about the show was due to my memories of watching it being intertwined with my memories of being with Grampa. I suspect that alot of our fondness for these old show rests a just as much on our fond memories of the time and place we used to watch them (as well as who we watched them with), as it does for the relative merits of the programs themselves.
I bought the first season of the show when it came out, but I haven't looked at them in awhile. I never bought the other seasons, because around that time, my DVD budget dropped to zero, and stayed that way for quite some time. By the time my financial robustness increased to where it might've been possible to purchase them, I had lost interest in the idea.
As a kid, I sued to think that it would've been nice had they been able to do an episode showing the end of the war, with Klink finally learning what had been going on under his nose - or, alternatively, that he had known all along what was going on, and that was why Hogan and company had gotten away with so much, because Klink had been quietly "greasing the skids" for them, as it were.
Of course, once I had learned a little more about how the Gestapo actually worked, then I had to wonder why, if, as he so often said, Major Hochstetter believed that Hogan was "the most dangerous man in all Germany", he didn't just have Hogan shot. It's not as though the Gestapo ever scrupled about such things.
It was when I saw the MAD parody of Hogan's Heroes that I realized how people could find it offensive. Even though it was a prisoner-of-war camp, not a concentration camp, it must have rankled some Jewish people to see Nazis on TV, despite being funny, "harmless" Nazis. The threat of the Third Reich could not be erased by some jokes. Even MAD had an article about how Colonel Klink was at the Nuremburg trials (ironic since Werner Klemperer was in Judgement of Nuremburg, another favorite) but was only found guilty of comic ineptitude. Perhaps the show was the creators' way of dealing with the anger at the Nazis by making them buffoons and clowns. I haven't seen the show in NYC for at least twenty years and I saw it every day when I was a kid.
I recently saw Stalag 17 and felt the acting was a bit dated. I could see the inspiration immediately though I think The Great Escape a better one.
At least, it's one childhood TV memory that they won't make a bad movie out of!