"Sure, I think I'm the best, and every other professional comedy writer who's any good thinks he's the best . . . but don't let them kid you. I'm really the best." Nat Hiken
The mind behind this sly plot to bring realistic comedy to television belonged to Nat Hiken, an uncommon, soft-spoken humorist who approached his work with all the gaiety of a Funeral Parlour Director. Nat was a small, trim, sober man, who made a career out of being different and irreverent. These were felony offences in television, but he got paid for committing them.
It was Nat, too, who created the classic 1950s Sergeant Bilko show, easily the most intrepid goof-off in the United States Army. While television’s standard GI was leaping onto hand grenades and dying for Old Glory with a smile on his lips, Ernie Bilko was leaping onto his comrades’ wallets and making millions laugh. A heroic con man? Again, unusual.
Nat Hiken was not just exceptionally funny; he was exceptional. In an occupation where comedians tell their writers, “Never mind last week’s success. What are you doing for me this week?” he had demonstrated staying power. During twenty five years at his trade, he had caused Fred Allen, Milton Berle, Martha Raye, Phil Silvers, and others to do and say very funny things.
After such an extended period of hilarity-crafting, much of which was conducted during twelve-hour working days, Nat was thoroughly grey-haired, looked slightly older than his 46 years, smoked too much, and gave the impression that his stomach vaguely hurt.
That’s funny? No, that’s show business --- in which the behind-the-scenes professional was accustomed to being taut, ulcer-prone, and underslept as he created humour for performers to display as their very own. For the man behind the men, the wages of fun --- aside from the good pay --- is drudgery.
Yet Nat seemed reasonably content, perhaps because his weakness for originality had been both enjoyable and lucrative. Earnings from the Bilko shenanigans was handsome and the potential of Car 54 was positively exhilarating.
Because it seemed dramatic, publicity operatives alleged that Nat’s idea for Car 54 sprang full-blown from an eye-opening visit he had to a real police station. That was not quite accurate. Early in the summer of 1960, the Leo Burnett Company, one of several Proctor & Gamble, television’s champion sponsor ($110 million last year), asked him to create a new comedy. Like most humour writers, Nat was full of ideas that had been simmering for years; one concerned a pair of policemen who were not tight-lipped tragedians locked in perennial combat with sneering, stereotyped mobsters.
To harden his concept of the real life of an average cop, Nat visited
a few station houses in New York and one day observed a bookie
being led in. No one, he noticed, cried, “Ah, Nipsy, you dirty dog!
We’ve got you at last!” Instead the desk sergeant yawned and
said, “Hi, Joe. What’s new?” and proceeded to book the more or
less constant malefactor.
“As a matter of fact,” Nat recalled, “the cops greeted him like an old
Mixing such observations with ingredients from his comedy bag,
Nat crammed his idea for the Mutt and Jeff cops into two
paragraphs and submitted them to Proctor & Gamble in mid-summer
1960. And while Proctor & Gamble had been strongly loyal to the
tried, true, and trite in television, the company and its ad men liked
the off-beat notion. Encouraged, Nat prepared an expanded
outline. Impressed, Proctor & Gamble put up money for a pilot fil
m. Suddenly in business, Nat cast his show.
For Gabby, bumble-headed Gunther Toody, he chose Joe E. Ross, a chubby, smash-faced, night club trouper who is almost as much a buffoon off-stage as on. For the moody Muldoon, Toody’s squad car partner, he selected thoughtful, towering Fred Gwynne, a product of Shakespearian theatre and a serious practitioner of the acting art.
Both had appeared in The Phil Silvers Show, Ross was Sergeant Rupert Ritzik, and Gwynne played a Corporal in a couple of classic episodes. The suspicious asked the inevitable: Why wasn’t owlish Phil Silvers in the new series? Did he and Nat have a falling-out?
Nothing that exciting, Nat explained, for the several hundredth time, “We were just going in
different directions. Phil had put four years into the Sergeant Bilko show. He wanted to go
And so without his fave old anchor man, the pilot film was made in December 1960.
The man whose comedy was endowed with such seemingly awesome power fails, as do
most professionals, to stir much awe at home, a Manhattan apartment he regularly
abandoned for the solitude of a tiny midtown office or the clamour of the Bronx studio.
His wife, having worked for MGM and later for a group of writers, was hardly starstruck:
his daughters, were 13 and 16, and in the position of Caroline Kennedy, unawed that her
father is President --- to her, that’s all he has ever been.
Nat squirmed at this lofty comparison, but also admitted that his daughters don’t knock
those of his shows that fall on their faces “They know better,” he said wryly. “I’m human too.”
And being human, he had his limits. He composed most of the scripts during the first season
of Car 54, but the pressure of time and his desire to put more effort into direction (for which
he won a television Emmy) forced him to bring in other writers.
Back in 1937, when this serious funny-man first assaulted show business, his problems
were much simpler. He just had to make a living. As a depression-era journalism student at
the University of Wisconsin, he had displayed an early penchant for the offbeat by
conducting a Gripers Club campus column. Then he went to Hollywood to break into
radio and teamed up with a new friend, Jack Lescoulie, to become a disc jockey. Lescoulie
did the commercials and Nat spun the records.
Nat also listened to other morning radio shows and found them insufferably cheerful; they
were dedicated to the incredible proposition that people ought to be happy before their
first cup of coffee. So Nat and Jack struck back with a Gripers Club show, reading
crotchety letters mostly written by Nat. Before long the pair were no longer splitting $7 a week; they were splitting $10. When they dramatised a “gripe of the week,” Nat brought in relatives to act out the parts. But one day in 1938 the station manager agreed that professional talent was needed --- he allowed them to hire a youngster named Alan Ladd, for $2 a week.
Nat was hardly nostalgic for those days, but he did not forget either, that they suddenly led to the big time. Fred Allen heard his cantankerous skits on an evening version of the grouch show and hired Nat in 1939. Then it was onward and upward.
When World War II broke out, Nat joined the Winged Victory troupe in the Army Air Force. Hitting his full stride with the end of the war, he developed a radio show for Milton Berle and another The Magnificent Montague, for Monty Woolley. But television then burst onto the nation and as he recalled without fondness, “In those days, even people who didn’t have television stopped listening to radio.” The shows died.
Adroitly hitting his talents to the all-conquering new medium, Nat became the producer/writer of The Jack Carson Show in 1951, then of Martha Raye’s show, where, reaching for the offbeat again, he startled show biz by casting boxer Rocky Graziano as the comedienne’s foil.
When television evicted live variety shows in favour of canned situation comedies, CBS asked Nat to create a series for night-club veteran Phil Silvers. No admirer of saccharine “family comedies,” he thought of fashioning a bumptious Army Sergeant --- another idea that had been loitering in his mind for years. But Silvers, a stand-up gag man, couldn’t see himself playing a uniformed soldier. Finally he agreed to try the Bilko role, and hardly a man, woman, or child is now alive who failed to laugh at the half-blind but keen-eyed con man.
Some say the series ended too soon, but Nat quit while he was ahead; during the first season of Car 54 the wacky cops rated with a comfortable 34.5% of the TV audience, just a shade under Ed Sullivan’s 35.5% and far ahead of Lawman with 26.5%.
But Nat was contemptuous of the entire ritual of living and dying by ratings. “They’ve killed too many good shows,” he says. “They reached their most ridiculous when Perry Como knocked off Jackie Gleason’s Honeymooners because he was one point ahead of Jackie. The Honeymooners was at its peak, but the panic was on.”
When Car 54 ended what would Nat have liked to have done next?
He did know what he’d like to do....a weekly show similar to the legendary Friars Club luncheons at which the guests of honour are lampooned unmercifully. Nat would not restrict his targets to show business personalities, but would take off on anyone who was then in the news.
He did a show of this kind as a special in 1958; it appeared in the Ed Sullivan time slot and hilariously lampooned Sullivan, but CBS could not find a sponsor interested in anything that new and different. When the time comes, Nat will try again.
Asked if genuine comedy was doomed on television? Nat feared that the writer of “true” humour (as distinct from the formulaic situation comedies) was a disappearing tribe.
“There are no minor leagues any more,” he said. “No place for a young humorist to develop his craft. Today a man has to go directly into the big leagues and with costs where they are, few people will take a chance on a new talent. It’s dismal. It couldn’t be more dismal.”
On this note, the professional funny-man concluded his contemplation of the future of television humour. He had attempted originality and made it pay off, and he wished more writers had a chance to do likewise.
To Nat Hiken, a man who has worked with sights and sounds for so long, the best noise in the world was the noise of laughing......................
Car 54 Where are You? went on to be a huge international hit. Indeed, many critics put it on an even higher pedestal than the Bilko series!!
Sadly, Nat's career was cut short when he died of a sudden heart attack on December 7, 1968 in Brentwood, California. He was only 54.