TV Times, Northern Edition
1 November 1963
Why I’m everyone’s darling
by Phil Silvers
Talking to Henry Gris in Hollywood about his own new show, starting on Tuesday
What makes them love me? I’m the people's choice. It’s as simple as that. In my comedy, I knock down authority. That’s the tack I’ve chosen. But the audience always knows I’m kidding about it.
When I think back to some of the things I’ve been identified with, like “High Button Shoes,” which was quite a time ago. I did every darned thing that a “con man” does.
I hit children, absconded with the young girl of the family. I was absolutely despicable and yet the audience forgave me. In other hands, it might turn out grim, but somehow I’m forgiven.
One reason that might be is because I’m an impatient comedian. I think you should do things quickly or the audience will turn away.
When I entered show business, I wasn’t a comedian. I started into the business with a violent desire for it, but I had no pattern to go by. None of my family or even my ancestors had ever been in show business or any remote form of it.
Actually, I got into the tail-end of what was the really great show business, the Palace Theatre era. I used to sing then, very well I must admit. However, I used to be very funny off-stage, in dressing rooms and at parties. But not on the stage.
When I did get the opportunity to be funny on stage, I was green. I wasn’t relaxed . . . I couldn’t bring to the stage what I used to do off it. None of the things I’ve done has been planned, but I seemed instinctively to know that this was right when I went into burlesque and it was there that I got loosened up.
Since I had started in a higher echelon of show business I knew when I was being over-risque. But as they say, when in Rome . . . I did what I had to do, knowing all the time that there was a better way to do comedy.
What is so important in burlesque is that you do so many things—you run the gamut of comedy. I grew up comedy-wise more in those five years of burlesque than I can tell you.
With that invaluable experience, I usually know what’s funny, but when people ask me, “How do you make yourself funny?” I can’t answer them.
There’s no such thing as the comedy gimmick that never fails. Every comedian utilises gimmicks, but there’s always the doubt that they’ll misfire. There’s always that little bit of doubt and you have to attack it.
I instinctively have a vision and a kind of up-on-the-fence viewpoint of what I do. It’s technical and it comes from vast experience. If I’m definitely sure it’s funny, then I’m very seldom wrong. If I feel at that explosive moment that it’s funny, then it usually turns out that way.
Of course, I have a couple of favourite situations that are usually funny. And others I idolise as they come along. For me, everything starts with the world.
Although I usually play a brash kind of overbearing guy, I’m not as cocky and carefree with my approach to comedy as it looks. I think everything out, and then when I do something, no matter how obscure, I believe it.
Take a favourite of mine, the “convincing situation,” where I try to make someone believe something that they have their doubts about. It’s essential for me to believe what I’m saying and what I’m doing, otherwise I can’t convince the character or the audience.
This new television show I’m doing is a real challenge to me because, unfortunately, it’s bound to be compared with Bilko. It’s unfair, but there’s nothing that I can do about it. You see, I’m starting from scratch, with a show that’s been well thought out.
My character, Harry Grafton, is a foreman in a factory. He’s a scamp, but he also happens to do his work very well. We haven’t established what the factory is, but it’s a huge one.
Harry and his crew are in the maintenance part—we fix the things that run the factory. Except that Harry can’t stand the boredom of it. He’s got a million things going for him. He manages the company coffee wagon and he owns vending machines.
Frankly, this new show is life and death with me. It’s like anything I approach. After I make the deal and the contract’s signed and, believe me I’m as tense as the next guy, I want the top rate.
But when our producer-director Rod Amateau says “Roll ’em,” all that disappears. I mean all the money. I’m not neurotically ambitious, but it’s got to be good.
At night when I go home from the studio, I disappear for hours to go over the script. It’s as if I was in a laboratory dissecting or creating something. I spend so much time preparing that when I do or say the most obscure thing I mean it.
But when it’s done, I drop it. I have many other interests. I don’t wallow in my work night and day. I love other things—my wife, my four daughters, sports. I have a smattering of knowledge on most things. I’m a great hero worshipper.
I idolise great athletes or other performers. Take Peter Sellers. Just before we met recently I was standing there mouth open, gawking like a schoolboy. It was a thrill to meet him. And you know what? He said he felt the same way.
But right now, I’ve got to concentrate on the show. We've got a wonderful staff, and I'm very happy at work. Frankly, I’d go nuts if I didn’t work. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I’m still the people’s choice.