Monday, June 23, 2014

The 100th Birthday of the Amazing Nat Hiken

Unless you are a television historian, a fan of The Phil Silvers Show or Car 54, Where Are You?, or a very devoted fan of classic television, chances are that you have never heard of Nat Hiken. That having been said, you really should have heard of Nat Hiken. The man was as close to an auteur as television ever gets. He not only created The Phil Silvers Show (AKA Sgt. Bilko) and Car 54, Where Are You?, but he also wrote, produced, and sometimes even directed them as well. His brand of comedy was character driven and fairly cerebral, presaging everything from The Dick Van Dyke Show to 30 Rock. Nat Hiken was born 100 years ago today.

Nat Hiken was born on 23 June 1914 in Chicago, Illinois. He began his comedy career while he was at the University of Wisconsin writing for the school newspaper The Cardinal. He wrote a column called "The Gripers' Club" that was a parody of newspaper advice columns. While students were invited to send letters complaining about life at the university to the column, in truth most of the letters were written by Nat Hiken himself.

 It would be "The Gripers' Club" that would lead to Nat Hiken's career in radio. He was able to interest Jack Lescoulie (who would later work on NBC-TV's Today), a radio announcer for KFWB, in the idea. As a result The Grouch Club debuted on the station in 1937. It proved popular enough that in 1938 it started airing nationally on CBS, moving to the NBC Blue Network in 1939. On the show "grouchmaster" Jack Lescoulie listened to grouches (played by such performers as Jack Albertson, Arthur Q. Bryan, and Ned Sparks, among others) complain about anything and everything. The Grouch Club was popular enough that Warner Brothers even produced a twelve minute short based on the show, "The Great Library Misery" (1938), starring Jack Lescoulie and Arthur Q. Bryan.

"The Great Library Misery" would not be Nat Hiken's only work for the big screen in the late Thirties and early Forties. He also wrote several screenplays for Warner Bros. short subjects from 1938 to 1941. If there was any doubt that Nat Hiken had hit the "big time" it would have been erased in 1940 when he became one of the writers of the phenomenally successful radio programme The Fred Allen Show. Nat Hiken would leave The Fred Allen Show in 1947 for the radio version of Texaco Star Theatre, starring Milton Berle. Mr. Hiken was the show's head writer, director, and producer. He remained with the show until 1949. It was in 1950 that he created, wrote, produced, and directed the short lived radio show The Magnificent Montague. The show centred on a fading Shakespearean actor who must work in radio for a living.

With radio losing its audience to television, Nat Hiken eventually moved to the new medium. He began his television career as a writer for Martha Raye on the variety show Four Star Revue. Nat Hiken continued to write for Matha Raye in 1954 when she received her own show, The Martha Raye Show. The Martha Raye Show proved fairly popular, but Nat Hiken's greatest success in television was just around the corner.

It was on 6 February 1954 that Phil Silvers played the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C. Among those present was Hubbell Robinson, then vice president in charge of programming at CBS. Mr. Robinson was so impressed by Mr.Silver that he offered him a contract with the network for a situation comedy. As to the man Hubell Robinson sought out to create Phil Silvers' new sitcom, that was Nat Hiken.

For the next several months Nat Hiken and Phil Silvers tried to figure out a concept that would suit the comedian. In the beginning Mr. Hiken had wanted Mr. Silvers to play a conniving Army sergeant. Mr. Silvers rejected the idea. At last Nat Hiken and Phil Silvers developed eight different ideas, including Nat Hiken's idea of a conniving master sergeant. When they offered their eight different ideas to CBS, it was Mr. Hiken's initial idea of Phil Silvers as a master sergeant that the network liked. The Phil Silvers Show was born. Of course, in the beginning it was called You'll Never Get Rich. The series' title would be changed after its first few months on to the air to The Phil Silvers Show. Its title would change once again in its original syndication run to Sgt. Bilko, a title by which it is still popularly known.

Although it would become one of the most successful sitcoms of all time and it is now regarded as a classic, The Phil Silvers Show would not be an immediate success. Ironically it aired against shows starring comedians with whom Nat Hiken had worked, The Martha Raye Show and  The Milton Berle Show on NBC (the two show rotated each week) on Tuesday night. Fortunately CBS moved The Phil Silvers Show a half hour earlier on Tuesday night and it was in that time slot that its audience began to grow. By December The Phil Silvers Show was regularly beating both The Milton Berle Show and The Martha Raye Show. While The Phil Silvers Show struggled in the ratings in its first few months, it was critically acclaimed from the very beginning.

Not only did The Phil Silvers Show receive sterling ratings, but it also received a good number of Emmy Awards. In 1956 alone it won the Emmys for Best Comedy Series, Best Actor - Continuing Performance (for Phil Silvers), Best Comedy Writing, and Best Director - Film Series (for Nat Hiken). In 1957 it won Best Series - Half Hour or Less and Best Comedy Writing - Variety or Situation Comedy. In 1958 it won essentially the same two awards as well.

Of course, while The Phil Silvers Show was fairly successful in the United States, it proved to be an outright phenomenon in the United Kingdom. The show debuted there in 1957 and it was not long before 75% of all fan mail sent to Phil Silvers came from Great Britain. The show would be repeated frequently on BBC One as part of its late night line up in the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties. In the Nineties it moved to BBC Two, where it was run not only late at night, but during the daytime and early evening.In 2003 The Radio Times named The Phil Silvers Show the best sitcom of all time. The Phil Silvers Show would also prove to be a hit elsewhere in the world. In 1975 Mr. Silvers joked, "I go to Italy, and they follow me around and sing under my hotel window."

Sadly, the success of The Phil Silvers Show would place a bit of a strain on Nat Hiken. It was not unusual for him to work twelve hour days. Eventually the stress of working on the show would even affect his health. After two seasons Mr. Hiken was simply exhausted. It was then in 1957 that he left the show. The Phil Silvers Show would continue for two more seasons without him. Although no longer working regularly on the show, Nat Hiken would continue writing episodes for it into its final season.

After The Phil Silvers Show ended Nat Hiken wrote two television specials for Phil Silvers, The Ballad of Louie the Louse in 1959 and The Slowest Gun in the West in 1960. He would return to sitcoms with Car 54, Where Are You?. Car 54, Where Are You? emerged from a visit to a New York City precinct house where Nat Hiken realised that real life policemen were a far cry from their counterparts on radio, on television, or in films. It occurred to him that the day to day work of policemen could be fodder for comedy, and he made further trips to the precinct house for research. Unlike the portrayal of precinct houses on television and in films, Mr. Hiken found it in his words to be "...a very warm, friendly atmosphere."

Nat Hiken quickly found a sponsor for his new show in the form of Proctor & Gamble, who financed the show's pilot. NBC picked up the show and it debuted on 17 September 1961. Like The Phil Silvers Show before it, Car 54, Where Are You would be critically acclaimed. It also won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy in 1962. Unfortunately it was never a ratings giant. It spent its entire run opposite the second half of The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS. As a result its ratings were never particularly high. After two seasons Car 54, Where Are You? ended its run. Like The Phil Silvers Show before it, however, it would go onto a highly successful syndication run.

Of course, here it must be pointed out that Nat Hiken not only wrote, directed, and produced Car 54, Where Are You?, but he also wrote its theme song with John Strauss. Indeed, while Mr. Hiken's career in television is well known, it must also be pointed out that he also worked on Broadway. He provided music for the productions Along Fifth Avenue (1949) and Two on the Aisle (1952).

Nat Hiken went onto write the special Carol + 2 starring Carol Burnett in 1966 and to write and direct the feature film The Love God? (1969) Unfortunately Mr. Hiken died at the age of 54 from a heart attack on 7 December 1968. The Love God? was released posthumously the following year.

Nat Hiken left behind a legacy of comedy that is not often matched. His humour was cerebral and emerged from the actions of his characters rather than in situations into which they were placed. While Mr Hiken's humour could be broad at times, it was at the same time more realistic than that of many situation comedies of the Fifties and Sixties. If The Phil Silvers Show and Car 54, Where Are You? are still remembered, it is perhaps because viewers knew individuals like Sgt. Ernie Bilko or Officers Toody and Muldoon in real life.

Given the continued popularity of his shows it should be little wonder that Nat Hiken would have a lasting impact on television. James Burrows, co-creator of Cheers with Glen and Les Charles, has cited both Car 54, Where Are You? and The Phil Silvers Show as an influence. Larry David, co-creator of Seinfeld, has called The Phil Silvers Show his favourite television programme. What is more Nat Hiken's influence was truly international. In the United States  Hanna-Barbera virtually lifted the entire format of the show for their primetime animated cartoon Top Cat. Taxi, Cheers Seinfeld, and many other American sitcoms were heavily influenced by The Phil Silvers Show, Car 54 Where Are You?, or both. In the United Kingdom shows from Dad's Army to Only Fools & Horses demonstrate the impact of The Phil Silvers Show there. Nat Hiken did not simply create two of the greatest sitcoms of all time. He also changed the course of both American and British situation comedies.

1 comment:

Hal said...

Fortunately Me TV still has both of Hiken's classic creations on the schedule, but I really wish they'd move BILKO and CAR 54 into prime time periodically.

Larry David has always cited Hiken as a big influence, and it's easy to see it in watching his shows.

Great tribute.