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!"

 

I'll try.

 

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.

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I watched quite a bit of Hogan's Heroes, although I wasn't that big of a fan, I thought it was okay. My dad was a big fan though, and he would come home to eat lunch quite often when it was on. So, when me and my brother were out of school we watched it then.I like Gomer Pyle quite a bit when I was a kid. I also watched Major Dad, and I lusted after the lady who played his wife.

I never cared for Mchale's Navy, or Sgt. Bilko. I did like Steve Martin's remake of Bilko, I thought that was pretty funny.

I've talked about MASH before, I liked it until I saw the original movie, after that I couldn't stand the TV show any more.

For me:

Never heard of or seen Hennesey until this column, although I agree with your opinions of Jackie Cooper Commander.

Have heard of, but never seen any of Phil Silvers/Bilko. Are these available on DVD?

Liked Hogan's Heroes until the last season, when they switched Kinchloe's and started repeating stories.

Am interested in hearing your opinions on NCIS Los Angeles and its parent show, especially in light of the fact that NCIS has been on long enough that current episodes are starting to address some of the longevity issues you raised while discussing JAG.

I thought Bilko was a much loved and highly respected old sitcom, but it's not getting much love here... perhaps we were just TOLD it was much loved etc. Maybe it got more love at the time?
I think BIlko was loved - it just happens not by many of us, apparently.

...Re M*A*S*H:

has anyone either read William Nolan's original novel or the plethora of paperback originals that came out in the 70s ( " M*A*S*H Goes To Maine/London/Morocco/Your Aunt Tillie's Garage Sale " , etc. ) ?

When I saw an episode of The Phil Silvers Show back in the 80s I thought it was hilarious. Perhaps not the episode so much as Phil Silvers.

Figserello wrote:

"I thought Bilko was a much loved and highly respected old sitcome, but it's not getting much love here..."

 

While that appears to be the case right now, please note that my only comment was the fact that I have never seen the show myself.

I did see Phil Silvers during an extended guest stint on The Beverly Hillbillies and will concede that the guy was a good comedian. But between that and his role in It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, is con artists all he ever played?

I've never seen The Phil Silvers Show, not even in reruns. Which is odd given that it was canceled because the producers wanted to put it in syndication and thought you shouldn't do that while the show was still on the air. Boy, how times have changed! Law & Order got canceled basically because, with 20 years' worth of reruns (and three spinoffs!) floating around, it had too many episodes!

 

And so far as I know, Phil Silvers perfected the wisecracking fast-talking conman schtick, the same way Bill Saluga always did the Raymond J. Johnson character, Phil Leeds was always the sleepy old man, and so on.

He was already playing pretty much the same character in A Thousand and One Nights in 1945.
...A few years back , Vanity Fair had a retrospective on Phil Silvers , in it , they said that , at that time recently , TV Land had bought the rights to re-show Sgt. Bilko/The Phil Silvers Show/You'll Never Get Rich , and found , to try and quote accurately , in the spirit if not the letter IIRC , " the show basically appealed to over-55 males , not TV Land's demographic " , so they dropped it quickly (but , since they had gotten new tapes prepared , the VF writer was able to watch many eps:-) - for him) .


Mark S. Ogilvie said:

  I used to buy them as they came out.  I was so young I didn't realize how... bad they were.  Not Mash Goes to Maine, but the ones that came after that.  The satire was still there but different.  Those and the Executioner books were two of my favorite childhood reads though.

 

 

...Richard Hooker was the " real " ( pen ) name of the original novel's main writer ( per Wikipedia , he had a collaborater on the original novel - um , " as well " , although strictly sequentially speaking I suppose that " as well " referrs to something I haven't said already here , so...) , not what I wrote above .

  ...Goes To Maine was the only one of the Goes Tos he had anything to do with , the " prolific paperback hack " who is co-credited with them apparently wrote the rest 100%...

  Until after the pb series concluded , when Hooker wrote a novel titled M*A*S*H MANIA , a final novel carrying on from Goes To Maine .

It appears that Hooker never wrote - well , published - anything not M*A*S*H-oriented .

Emerkeith Davyjack said:

...Re M*A*S*H:

has anyone either read William Nolan's original novel or the plethora of paperback originals that came out in the 70s ( " M*A*S*H Goes To Maine/London/Morocco/Your Aunt Tillie's Garage Sale " , etc. ) ?

...At least in the 20th , it appears that Sgt. Bilko got periodically revived in Britain every few years of so .

  Myself , when IIRC I caught a few episodes as a teenager in the 70s , it didn't do much for me .

  Perhaps I wasn't old enough to appreciate its sublety , I don't know ???

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