Talking Pictures

Bilko Bagged

Pop-culture maven unimpressed by Steve Martin remake

By David Templeton

David Templeton specializes in taking the world’s most interesting people to see interesting movies in an ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, Templeton persuades the eccentric collector/cultural observer Mickey McGowan to take a second look at the new comedy Sgt. Bilko, a movie McGowan has walked out of in disgust once already.

My agreement with Mickey McGowan is as follows: If, at any point during the film today, he is overcome with a desire to run out screaming, I will support his right to flee; in fact, I will be right behind him. “Fine,” he says, as we march side by side into the auditorium. “To be honest, though, I’m rather proud that I walked out of , but now I want to prove I can tough my way through it.”

Twenty-five minutes later, we have reached the moment of his first departure. A tank whirls crazily, bashes noisily into things. Actors leap about, silly expressions pasted on their mugs. I glance at McGowan; his resolve appears to be holding strong. “I’m going the distance,” he whispers. “I’m watching the audience instead of the film. It’s more interesting this way.”

McGowan, a legendary collector of records and “stuff” from the ’50s and ’60s, is best known as the curator of that state-of-the-mind, Bay Area phenomenon known as the Unknown Museum. An eye-popping collection of over 1 million pop-cultural doodads, the museum has stood as one of California’s leading underground tourist spots, though it currently exists “between homes” and is closed to the public. McGowan’s collection of weird LPs earned him a chapter in the book Incredibly Strange Music (RE:Search, 1993), and his crammed-to-the-rafters warehouse, in a business park in San Rafael, is a kind of mecca for collectors of offbeat music and 40-year-old castoff mementos.

Which brings us to Sgt. Bilko. Based on the classic, Emmy Award-winning ’50s TV show, Bilko stars Steve Martin as the military’s most industrious con man (played in the series by the great Phil Silvers). It’s not a fine film, though there are glimmers of the original’s straight-faced satire. This Bilko seems obsessed with finding ways to trip overweight people into mud puddles. The 10-year-olds in the audience were laughing hysterically. “You can’t compare the two, and I won’t even try,” McGowan shrugs later.

We have made our way back to the museum warehouse, where McGowan has just uncovered a videotape containing several episodes of the origin-al series. He plugs it in. “Oh, look at this,” he almost purrs, waving his arm at the TV. “Most people haven’t seen the poetic beauty of these early shows. Look at this black-and-white photography! You never see shows today that look as good as that. It’s fantastic! I miss the simplicity of black and white, I really do.”

How difficult is it to accurately adapt classic TV programs to the big screen? Is it simply impossible?

“Closer to impossible, though it’s been done. Flintstones was OK. The Fugitive was great, though that was a complete rethinking of the concept. The best adaptation of a TV show, by far, was The Brady Bunch Movie.


“Oh absolutely,” he laughs. “The only thing weird about it was seeing the Brady family standing around that kitchen and not hearing that incessant canned laughter. The Brady TV show was unbearable because of that laughter, and that was 1970s canned laughter. That was the worst decade for canned laughter, aside from the ’90s. It sounded especially fake.”

Wait. Can someone really become a connoisseur of laugh tracks, able to distinguish one decade from another? “Why not?” he responds. “I’m a seasoned viewer. And believe me, ’90s canned laughter is the worst. Have you seen Married with Children lately?”

He shudders. “There’s nothing worse than laughter when nothing is funny.”

From the April 18-24, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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