October 15, 2013

Mitchell's Top Ten, #2: Hogan's Heroes

Each week for the next couple of months, I’ll profile one of the series that appear on my personal Top Ten list. I don’t claim that these are the ten greatest series of all time; that would be presumptuous. However, I do presume to identify those shows that mean the most to me.

These aren't academic histories or encyclopedic entries; rather, they’re personal memories of shows that, through the years, have brought me delight, influenced my way of thinking and doing, left their indelible traces imprinted on me. Think of it as a memoir of my life as seen on TV.

A favorite point of discussion is to name the television shows you loved as a kid but as an adult are embarrassed to admit having watched. We all have them; I’ve got a few that I’m even too embarrassed to mention, although that embarrassment would fade away pretty quickly if I thought I could get some good material out of it.

There was a time when Hogan’s Heroes fell into that category for me. I’d enjoyed the show immensely in first-run, and then kind of forgotten about it while living in the world’s worst town. By the time I returned to civilization, in 1978, the show had long been off of CBS. But it continued in syndication, and in 1978 it was a constant presence on Channel 5 at 5:00pm, just before the national news.*

*This was in the days before many local stations prefaced the evening news with what might be called the pre-local news, more of a 30-minute teaser for the 6:00pm broadcast. Now, of course, local news is a cheap source of programming, not to mention commercial plugs, which means you can’t get away from it. But then, when I was born, both the local and national news were 15 minutes each.

I can recall a few times when people would stop by at our apartment during the 5pm hour, and my reflex action was to turn to Channel 4, which did have a 5pm show. I thought it more appropriate to my image as a college student and budding politician to be seen watching the local news, rather than a mere sitcom about World War II POWs that many thought of as being in somewhat questionable taste. Hogan’s Heroes didn’t quite have the gravitas that I wanted. I was a TV snob, in other words.

Once, though, I hadn’t changed the channel – I might have been out of the room when company came – and so I explained to our guest, somewhat apologetically, that Hogan was just something that happened to be on in order to have some noise, and that I could turn back to the news. “Nah,” the guest said*, “I remember that show – used to love it.” Feeling that I no longer had to introduce myself as if I were at an AA meeting – “My name is Mitchell, and I’m a Hogan’s Heroes fan” – I was no free to embrace my inner Hogan.

*Or something like it – this should be taken as a paraphrase rather than an exact quote.

I’ve written before about Hogan’s Heroes, so there’s no reason to go into great detail once again. Suffice it to say that few sitcoms displayed the cleverness of Hogan, combined with almost perfect casting, to achieve a show that can simply be enjoyed on its own merits. There are no “very special episodes,” no heavy themes, no underlying meaning – just a show that managed to be both very entertaining and very funny. There aren’t that many shows that can make me laugh out loud, and only one current one – Top Gear – but Hogan was constantly able to do it.

I’ve never been able to understand the disapproval some people have for Hogan’s Heroes. Yes, it’s set in a POW camp, and I suppose you could argue that the camps weren’t appropriate sources for humor. But there have always been war comedies (see: M*A*S*H), and it’s important to distinguish a POW camp from a concentration camp, which probably would cross the line when it comes to comedy.* The Nazis aren’t glorified; in fact, Schultz and even Klink show more than a trace of humanity. Hogan’s Heroes owes less to shows like M*A*S*H, and more to another military comedy: Phil Silvers’ Sergeant Bilko. At heart, it’s a show about a bunch of guys working together, trying to pull one over on the none-too-bright boss. It’s just that in this case the guys are soldiers who happen to be working together as part of the underground, and the boss is the camp commandant.

But what I’ve liked about this show over the years is what lies just under the surface. Hogan is the glib, cocky colonel – the quintessential American who has a way with the one-liners as well as the ladies with the curvy lines. Make no mistake, though: the writers gave Hogan a dimension that many sitcom characters lacked. When push came to shove you knew Hogan meant business, and he’d do whatever was necessary to make the mission a success. In one story, pointing a pistol at a reluctant turncoat, he warned that “You can do it my way or you can die my way,” and though I’m not sure you ever saw him actually kill someone in that manner, enemy soldiers did die as a result of those successful missions. That could have been a major flaw in some series, but the way the role had been written and acted, it was completely plausible. The show never came close to drifting into pious dramedy, but there was a serious context in which it existed, and the war itself was never taken lightly.

You can’t say enough about the cast, starting with Bob Crane and the rest. And imagine the challenge that was presented to Werner Klemperer and John Banner as Klink and Schultz. To make Nazis funny – to make them real characters, rather than cardboard buffoons, while still enabling the audience to look at them affectionately, is quite the job. Not one that you’d ask, say, Dabney Coleman to undertake. Unlike Burkhalter, who may have harbored some doubts but was nonetheless a loyal lieutenant of Hitler, or the SS colonel Hockstetter, who probably did believe the party line, I’m not sure that either Klink or Schultz were really dedicated to Nazi ideology; they were men who were following orders and defending their country, but at heart I don’t think they were killers. They were, however, very funny.

Hogan’s Heroes was the first complete TV series I collected on DVD, and one of the few that I can watch repeatedly. The only reason I tend not to watch it on broadcast TV nowadays is because the prints are faded and cut up, while the DVDs are the real deal, crisp and uncut. Having said that, though, there have been times when a Hogan marathon would pop up on one of the oldies stations. Running across it, I’d pause to see how the heroes’ latest scheme turned out; I already knew the answer, of course, but the payoff is always in the punch line. And, of course, the next thing I knew it would be two hours later, and I’d sat through four episodes and was well into a fifth.

*Although who knows? I wouldn’t have thought you could make a sitcom about Hitler, either.

Hogan’s Heroes is one of the few comedies on my favorites list, as I tend to be more of a sucker for the heavy, existentialist stuff. But, as Agent Cooper once said in Twin Peaks, you have to treat yourself every day, and Hogan’s Heroes is one of my favorite treats. One that I don’t feel guilty about.

Next week: we move into top gear to reveal the number one show on the list!
Last week: Doctor Who


  1. Always liked Hogan's since the beginning. I was never "embarrassed" about it. Understood the concept and everything, plus have that whole DVD series myself.

    One thing I did notice is that Newkirk is the only one who fires a gun at the enemy when they were under fire. I didn't see that from any other character. It's the episode where Hogan and his men drive up to a gate and the guard asks for the password and he responds with "Don't move" and the rest of the crew point rifles at him.

    1. That's very interesting - I hadn't noticed that before. It's coming up to time for me to start at the beginning with Hogan again, and I'll have to look for that. Thanks!

  2. Quite possibly the best show ever! Many childhood memories attached and so forth.

  3. "Hogan's Heroes" acknowledged their being more or less a continuation of "Phil Silvers" in a new setting, by naming Col. Hogan after Sgt. Bilko's romantic interest, Sgt. Hogan.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!