‘The Phil Silvers Show’ Inspired ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘The Office’
Phil Silvers might not be a household name to a 2021 audience, but his legacy on television cannot go understated. At the dawn of television’s era, comedy often relied on likable protagonists who, despite some flaws, always did the right thing.
Now, comedies are more likely to involve a heavily-flawed protagonist who makes you laugh while shaking your head at despicable behavior. Audiences can trace this back to The Phil Silvers Show, and two television titans spoke about its lasting impact on their lives.
Who was Phil Silvers?
Phil Silvers’ brand of humor is best summed up by a line his daughter, Tracey, said in the 1985 obituary for her father after his death in 1985.
“My dad told me comedy is no laughing matter. To be very funny, you have to be very serious about it,” said Tracey. “I’ve never forgotten that. He really was a genius. He was funny till the last minute. He always had a joke for every situation. He was a funny guy.”
This was on full display on his show. Sgt. Bilko, the most famous creation of Silvers, was a character who lacked the tact and empathy to be an average sitcom star. It’s a template that, while common today, took some getting used to for a 1950s audience who cared more deeply about having a likable protagonist.
To this day, the question remains about how to handle characters such as this. Talking about this very issue, Larry David and Ricky Gervais spoke about Silvers’ legacy on television comedy.
What Larry David said about Phil Silvers
People who don’t know Silvers’ name by heart have likely seen the shows that he inspired. Larry David, who shot to the mainstream as the co-creator of Seinfeld, spoke with Ricky Gervais about Silvers’ role in his development as a television writer and eventual leading man.
“He was doing what we were doing, in a way,” David said. “Doing these guys who were saying and doing things that nobody else would say and do. Nasty things, and being unlikeable and being deceptive.”
Those who have followed David’s work on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm will recognize these as staples of a show. Just because a show is about people with questionable character, it doesn’t mean that their actions are condoned.
Sgt. Bilko was verbally abusive to everyone in his path, a known grifter, and a man who burnt more bridges than he built. Whether David is working behind the scenes on a show about nothing or playing his fictional self in Curb, he has Silvers to thank for paving the way. According to Gervais, it also paved the way for The Office.
What Ricky Gervais thinks about Phil Silvers
“It laid out the blueprint for the sitcom, I think,” Gervais said, speaking about the late Silvers penchant for irreverent comedy.
While American audiences might better know The Office for its Steve Carell-led American reboot, Gervais was the man behind the original series. Like Bilko, Gervais’s David Brent, the inspiration for Michael Scott in the American remake, was a man whose penchant for ignorant statements and crossing many lines was directly related to Silvers’ work.
Curb, Seinfeld, and The Office are far from unique in this regard. While some shows work on the back of a lovable protagonist, others are statements about their unlikability. It’s a complicated aspect of comedy that helped these shows stand out above the rest. However, with Silvers’ inspiration, they might not have come to be.
Silvers has been integral in some of the biggest comedies in history. While many might not know him by his name or work, they likely know the shows he inspired. Thirty-six years after his death, and his legacy can still be felt on shows like Curb, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. For that, they can be grateful for Silvers.