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The Light from the TV Shows: This One’s for the Veterans – 20 Military-Set Sitcoms

With Veteran’s Day coming up quickly – it’s on Sunday, Nov. 11, in case you don’t tend toward looking at the calendar – now seems like a perfectly appropriate time to take a look back at some of the many sitcoms set in the world of the military. Granted, not all of these are necessarily what you’d describe as military sitcoms, per se, nor is this intended to be perceived as a comprehensive list, but everything that’s on here does feature the military in a significant capacity. Just call it our little tribute to the men and women who’s fought for our country…and to the ones that made us laugh, too, of course.

The Phil Silvers Show (1955-1959): Otherwise known as the adventures of notorious US Army con-man Ernie Bilko, who regularly pulled the wool over the eyes of the perpetually befuddled Col. Hall while trying to earn a fast buck whenever possible. Although consistently ranked as one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, Silvers’ show had such an extensive ensemble cast that it was also one of the first series to get the axe not because it didn’t get ratings but because it was simply too expensive to maintain.

Ensign O’Toole (1962-1963): Starring future Disney staple Dean Jones as the title character, who was stationed aboard the U.S.S. Appleby. Although it only lasted for a single season, the series had a heck of a cast, featuring former “Phil Silvers Show” regular Harvey Lembeck as well as Jack Albertson and a very young Beau Bridges.

McHale’s Navy (1962-1966): Kids, if the only version of Lt. Commander Quinton McHale you know is the one played by Tom Arnold, you really don’t know “McHale’s Navy” at all. Head for the nearest wayback machine and check out the original series, starring the recently-departed Ernest Borgnine and the still-alive, still-hilarious Tim Conway. With a supporting cast that includes another future Disney stalwart, Joe Flynn, as well as noted prestidigitator Carl Ballantine, the show has, aside from the occasional – and, given the era, somewhat inevitable – politically-incorrect moments, held up well over the years.

No Time for Sergeants (1964-1965): You may be familiar with the one-hour television production, the stage production, or even the film production, as they all featured Andy Griffith as naive USAF newbie Will Stockdale, but for a single season in the ’60s, there was also a weekly series based on Mac Hyman’s original novel, with Sammy Jackson in the leading role. Ironically, the biggest reason the show was cancelled was that it couldn’t compete with the ratings of its competitor, “The Andy Griffith Show.”

Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. (1964-1969): And speaking of “The Andy Griffith Show,” this spin-off featured Mayberry’s favorite gas station attendant after he went respectable and joined the Marines. Sure, Gomer was a hayseed, and a marathon of more than a few episodes in a row is enough to drive just about any sane person mad, but in single-installment doses, Jim Nabors and Frank Sutton have some pretty outstanding comedy when they work together.

Mister Roberts (1965-1966): Another case of a property moving from the big screen to the small screen and only lasting a single season. Roger Smith does his best in the titular role, but what can we say? He’s good, but he’s no Henry Fonda. It’s interesting to note, however, that one of the show’s other stars, Richard X. Slattery, turned up a decade or so later in another military-set sitcom. (You’ll know it when we get to it. It starred Don Rickles.)

Mona McCluskey (1965-1966): One of the more unique yet less-remembered series on the list, Mona – played by leggy Juliet Prowse – was an actress who married a USAF sergeant (Denny Scott Miller), a manly-man type who wanted to be the breadwinner in their marriage and have them live on his salary rather than hers. You’d never catch a show that sexist making it on the air today, that’s for sure.

F Troop (1965-1967): Westerns were still decidedly in vogue in the ’60s, as was slapstick comedy, so why not blend the two? Set in a US Army outpost in the ironically-named Fort Courage, Texas, Larry Storch and Forrest Tucker were one of the great ’60s sitcom duos, not to mention one of the most memorable theme songs of the decade and a list of guest stars playing various cowboys and Indians to rival the star power that played bad guys on “Batman.”

I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970): As you may have guessed, this is one of the series I was referencing in the intro when I noted that these aren’t all what you’d call military sitcoms, per se, but it was, at least by my recollection, the first time we ever saw an astronaut as a major character in a television series that wasn’t outright science fiction. (Not that a show about a genie is exactly reality TV, but you know what I mean.)

Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1971): Because nothing says comedy like the Nazis! Although it’s kind of amazing by today’s standards that a series about a WWII prison camp – and a sitcom, no less – would get on the air, let alone last as many seasons as this one did, but as silly as the plots often were, Bob Crane, Werner Klemperer, and their respective ensembles were pretty darned funny.

Dad’s Army (1968-1977): A British institution revolving around the nation’s Home Guard during World War II, which was basically volunteers who for whatever reason couldn’t officially serve in the military but still wanted to support their country during wartime. The series proved imminently quotable throughout the UK, spawning a radio show, stage play, and even a feature film, helping maintain the precedent that the best war-themed sitcoms last far longer than the wars that inspired them.

M*A*S*H (1972-1983): At last we reach the first show that I actually watched when it was still in new episodes rather than just reruns. (Granted, it was the last few seasons, when the series wasn’t firing on the same kind of comedy thrusters than it had been in its first several years on the air, but it still counts.) Set in the Korean War, the members of the 4077th M*A*S*H unit may have switched in and out throughout the run of the series, much like the US Army soldier in the real conflict, but the blend of comedy, drama, and social conscience made “M*A*S*H” one of the greatest TV shows of all time, military or otherwise.

Roll Out (1973-1974): Don’t remember this one? It’s no surprise, given how short-lived it was, but it was an attempt to capitalize on the success of “M*A*S*H,” except set in World War II rather than the Korean War. You’d think the fact that future “SNL” star Garrett Morris was part of the cast would at least have earned it a footnote in TV history, but, frankly, I didn’t know anything about it at all until I started putting together this piece.

C.P.O. Sharkey (1976-1978): Don Rickles needn’t have done anything in his career beyond his stand-up act and he’d still be a legend today, but once in awhile he’s tried to branch out a bit, doing movies here and there (I’m most partial to “Kelly’s Heroes” and “Casino”) and, for a few years in the ’70s, a sitcom as well. Looking back, it’s not much more than a glorified “Gomer Pyle” retread except with Sgt. Carter as the lead character, but as with everything he does, Rickles was memorable throughout.

Operation Petticoat (1977-1979): And so we come to yet another freaking movie adaptation, this one lasting at least a little bit longer than “No Time for Sergeants” and “Mister Roberts” by hanging on for two seasons. This one has become a bit of a footnote, however, as it offered us a good look at Jamie Lee Curtis. Not as good a look as we’d get in some of her later films, of course…but I digress. This was another they’d-never-get-away-with-it-today premise, with the male crew of a submarine going ga-ga for the girls who join their ranks, yet the reason it sank in the ratings was likely more to do with the fact that they retooled it after the first season and left viewers wondering what happened to the show they’d been watching the previous year.

Laverne & Shirley in the Army (1981-1982): I get that ABC wanted to capitalize on the cross-generational success of their prime-time series “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley” by making animated versions of them for their Saturday morning line-up, but while Fonz and the gang got to travel through time, poor Ms. DiFazio and Feeney had to make do with joining the Army. You can blame the premise on the next show on our list, but as for the quality of the writing, address your complaints care of Hanna-Barbera.

Private Benjamin (1981-1983): Adapted from the Goldie Hawn film about a socialite who joins the US Army, this three-season series got namedropped recently in conversations about how NBC is switching “Up All Night” from a single-camera affair to a multi-camera operation with a live studio audience. (That’s more or less what “Private Benjamin” did after its first season, albeit with a laugh track rather than an audience.)

At Ease (1983): You’ll need to flip a coin and decide if this short-lived series was more of a career killer for Jimmie Walker or David Naughton. Personally, I’m of the belief that it was a last chance for prime-time success for Walker, who’s never managed to come anywhere near replicating the success of “Good times,” but, man, you’d think Naughton, who’d had a hit single (“Makin’ It”) and a hit film (“An American Werewolf in London”) by this point, could’ve drawn at least a few viewers in.

Blackadder Goes Forth (1989): There is no such thing as a bad “Blackadder” episode, but many would argue that the best of the bunch tend to come from this edition of Rowan Atkinson’s series, which was set in World War I, placing Blackadder, Baldrick and George in the trenches. Although the series is hilarious throughout virtually its entire run, the final moments of the final episode prove unexpectedly poignant, reminding viewers that although it’s not impossible to find laughs in a war, it’s still hell.

Major Dad (1989-1993): Jameson Parker may have failed to make the jump from “Simon & Simon” into another successful series, but his co-star, Gerald McRaney, had the good fortune of stepping straight from eight seasons of playing USMC Vietnam vet Rick Simon into playing USMC Major John D. “Mac” MacGillis for four seasons on “Major Dad.” Hey, once a Marine, always a Marine, right?

Honorable Mention: Charo and the Sergeant (1976)
I’ve never seen this, and I freely admit that the sum total of what I know about it comes from the Wikipedia entry of the Cuchi-Cuchi girl herself, but it’s too completely goofy not to mention. Apparently, the pilot was green-lit in 1975, with Harry Bowman of the Dallas Morning News describing the premise as “probably the worst idea of the season,” but it didn’t see the light of day until August 1976, and even then it was only as a one-off. (TV Guide responded the episode thusly: “Charo’s first U.S. job is to be a dancer at an off-limits night club and her conservative Marine Corps husband finds out.”) Supposedly several episodes of the series were produced and eventually aired overseas on the American Armed Forces Network, but given that there’s not even so much as a clip to be found on YouTube, one presumes that it wasn’t what you’d call a roaring success. Damn, I’d like to see it…