Military-themed comedies were once a staple of network TV and FOX will try to revive the genre this fall with Enlisted, premiering Friday, November 8. The show stars Geoff Stults, Chris Lowell and Parker Young as three brothers serving together in the same platoon at a small Florida Army base.
Early clips suggest a show with a debt to Stripes: Stults is charged with shaping up Rear Detachment unit, portrayed as a crew of misfits that happens to include his two brothers. There’s an exasperated commanding officer, played by the great Keith David (Platoon).
By our count, it’s been at least twenty years since the networks tried this kind of thing and almost forty since military comedies were a regular viewing option. So we made a list of ten shows that the Enlisted crew can use either as inspiration or as cautionary tales about how terribly things might go wrong.
There are a few show you might think are missing from the list, so let’s explain why we left them out.
- M*A*S*H is sort of a category unto itself and it’s not really about enlisted men and women. That doesn’t mean it’s not great.
- Hogan’s Heroes is also funny but it’s set in a POW camp.
- F Troop is set in the 19th century and doesn’t really fit with the modern training theme of most of these shows.
So, here are ten military-themed shows that could provide a roadmap for Enlisted. The first three are all great role models and the rest offer some cautionary tales for the show.
1. The Phil Silvers Show (a/k/a Sgt. Bilko): This is the gold standard, one of the greatest comedies in history of television and ran for four seasons from 1955-1959. Silvers stars as Army Sgt. Earnest Bilko, who runs the motor pool at Fort Baxter in Roseville, KS (Both the name and location were inspired by an actual Civil War post). Bilko ran an endless series of get-rich-quick scams and schemes designed to reduce his workload. The series featured a huge number of future stars: George Kennedy, Fred Gwynne, Dick Van Dyke and Paul Lynde all made guest appearances. Even though the show ran in seemingly constant reruns until the late ’70s, it’s not available to stream anywhere these days. You can buy the first season on DVD and there’s a ton of bootleg episodes on YouTube.
2. Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.: This spinoff from The Andy Griffith Show ran five seasons from 1964-1969 and starred Jim Nabors as a goofy Marine who’s always in conflict with Drill Sgt. Carter, played by Frank Sutton. Though the series aired during the height of the Vietnam War and was partially filmed at Camp Pendleton, the series focused on antics in the barracks and stayed away from the political controversies that war inspired. Hugely popular during its run and also a big hit in reruns, the show succeeded largely because of the ccomic hemistry between Nabors and Sutton. Not available for legal streaming, but you can buy the entire series on DVD or watch a ton of bootleg episodes on YouTube.
3. McHale’s Navy: Sort of like a Navy version of Sgt. Bilko and airing for four seasons between 1962-1966, the show was set on a remote Pacific island during WWII. Ernest Borgnine played Lt. Cmdr. Quentin McHale and commanded a small group of men who survived a Japanese air attack on their base. Cut off from the rest of the Navy, the men go native and set up their own rules while engaging with the local culture. When a straight-laced officer parachutes onto the island to deal with the situation, hilarity ensues. This show was popular in syndication for years, even getting colorized in the ’80s (remember that bad idea?) It also inspired a terrible 1997 movie starring Tom Arnold. Make sure you don’t watch that by accident. You can stream all episodes on Hulu, buy DVDs of individual seasons or check out bootleg episodes on YouTube.
4. C.P.O. Sharkey:
This show ran for two seasons from 1976-1978 and cast insult comic Don Rickles as a Chief Petty Officer on a Southern California Navy base. Even though Rickles himself served in the Navy during WWII, the series was more about his insult jokes than an attempt to portray the camaraderie of military life. The episode embedded above is pretty much the only evidence we can find: no streaming, no DVD and no more episodes on YouTube.
5. The Wackiest Ship in the Army:
Based on a popular movie starring Jack Lemmon and Ricky Nelson, the series ran for one season between 1965-1966 and featured Jack Warden and Gary Collins. The WWII-set series was about a schooner whose mission was to place spies behind Japanese lines. This hour-long show sticks out from the rest because, despite the promised wackiness, the series tried to find a mix between comedy and drama. America wasn’t really buying. There’s no proper streaming and no DVD release, but you can find a few episodes on YouTube.
6. Private Benjamin: Right after getting an Oscar nomination for her role as Captain Doreen Lewis in the movie, Eileen Brennan recreated her role in a TV series inspired by the movie. Even thought Brennan won an Emmy, the show struggled to find an audience and was cancelled shortly after Brennan had to leave the show after being struck by a car. Again, no legit streaming and no DVD and, aside from the other half of the episode embedded above, there’s not much on YouTube.
7. No Time for Sergeants: This series didn’t launch until 1964, six years after the classic movie starring Andy Griffith and Don Knotts. Starring a virtually unknown actor named Sammy Jackson, the series shared little beside a title with the movie and novel. No one watched and it disappeared without much fanfare. Aside from the clip embedded above, not much to see out there: no DVD or streaming available.
8. Operation Petticoat: This show, based on the 1959 hit movie, ran for parts of two seasons from 1977-1979 and originally featured John Astin (The Addams Family) in the Cary Grant role and a young Jamie Lee Curtis getting a career break (maybe because her dad Tony had been in the original movie). Astin’s performance was more Gomez Addams than Cary Grant and most of the cast was replaced for season two. The additional of ’70s teen heartthrob Randolph Mantooth didn’t do much for ratings and the show was quickly cancelled. This show is also pretty much MIA these days. You can see the opening from the revamped second season on YouTube but there’s no complete episode streaming or DVD release.
9. Major Dad: Even though it’s more about the Gerald McRaney’s battle-of-the-sexes marriage than it is about day-to-day military life, the show was a huge success when it ran for four seasons between 1989-1993. It’s hard to believe it’s the most recent military comedy we could think of and it’s been off the air for twenty years. Even though it’s not on DVD and not really bootlegged on YouTube, you can watch the entire series on Hulu.
10. At Ease: Jimmie Dy-No-Mite Walker starred alongside David Naughton (from An American Werewolf in London and those Dr. Pepper “Be a Pepper” commercials) and Richard Jaeckel (The Dirty Dozen) in a Sgt. Bilko-inspired show about shenanigans on an Army base in Texas. It ran for a handful of episodes on ABC in 1983 and there’s no video evidence and barely any photos online. Was it funny? Who knows?
Did we forget any great comedies about the military? Are you looking forward to Enlisted? Does America need a network comedy about military life? Let us know in the comments.