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King of the Half Hour: Nat Hiken and the Golden Age of TV Comedy

Nat Hinken is a figure who has always been with me, even if I didn’t always know his name. I’ve often recounted my childhood spent reveling in the joy of classic television and one of the biggest examples of this is, Car 54, Where Are You. In fact, I have to admire my parents’ stamina (or perhaps I should say, stupidity)… showing a child that particular sitcom leads to a lot of obnoxious “Oooh-Ooooh!”-ing at the most inopportune times.

I’ve done my fair share of poetic waxing about my frustration at just how little love and respect we pay the writers and creators from the Golden Age of Television. Sure, we remember some of the big names from the industry during this era; however, just as many have faded into obscurity with the passage of time– often unjustly. One of these is Car 54 and The Phil Silvers Show (Sergeant Bilko!) creator Nat Hiken. 

In King of the Half Hour: Nat Hiken and the Golden Age of TV Comedy, author David Everitt crafts the lone take on the influential, but shamefully under-remembered creator. While Nat Hiken is generally considered a generational talent and is known to be a driving force behind the success of performers like: Phil Silvers, Martha Raye, Milton Berle and others, his premature death at the age of 54, as well as his reticence to follow the evolution of television out to Los Angeles likely stood in the way of furthering his reputation. 

Throughout the book, Everitt dives into his research with tenacity and manages to paint an intriguing picture of New York and the Borscht Belt entertainment scene beginning with the heyday of radio in the 1930s through its waning days in the 1960s. He speaks with the few members of this exclusive club who remain with us, most notably actor and comedian Hank Garrett (who recurred as ‘Officer Nicholson’ on Car 54…). Everitt also incorporates archival research, citing interviews with performers and creatives no longer with us, like: Al Lewis and Mickey Deems. King of the Half Hour is a riveting read and Everitt’s research really serves to enrich and shine a light on not just Hiken, but also the New York comedians and artists flying alongside him in the nightclub culture of the era. 

This is a definite must read for anyone at all like yours truly, who thrives on New York culture of the middle of the twentieth century: creators like Fred Allen and Nat Hiken, comedians like Larry Storch, Gene Baylos, Joe E. Ross, Martha Raye and B.S. Pully. These might not all be household names to a contemporary audience: however, the early years of television thrived on the work of these journeymen. With each turn of the page, it quickly becomes clear not only how small this world was, but that we’ll never see anything like it again. 

At the same time though, my biggest struggles with the book came in its handling of the peripheral figures surrounding Hiken. Much of the book assumes a sense of scholarly objectivity; however there are two places where this falters with striking ferocity. The first is in the book’s discussion of actor Maurice Gosfield, best known for his portrayal of Duane Doberman on the The Phil Silvers Show.

There are two crafted “antagonists” in this story, Gosfield and Joe E. Ross; however, the biography spends more time developing Ross’ story, so there’s more insight to the comedian as a man and why he behaved the way he did. Gosfield, however, simply exists as a punching bag for Hiken’s story and is painted as little more than a fat, stupid, slob (those exact words are all mentioned).

Everitt isn’t shy about knocking Gosfield’s acting ability, his intelligence and his appearance in the book (Gosfield admitted in interviews to being 5 foot 3 inches and weighing more than 200 pounds). The Emmy nominated actor received one of the biggest popularity bumps among the Bilko team after joining the cast a virtual unknown. However, while fans loved him, journalists and writers apparently didn’t share the sentiment. Gosfield was often a punching bag during his short life before he passed away in 1964 at the age of 51. 

Obviously, Gosfield hasn’t been able to speak for himself since his 1964 passing. It’s impossible to say that the ferocity of the attacks against him in the book don’t come from a place of truth– only those who were on the Bilko cast and crew can really speak to what happened (especially in regards to the Hiken, Silvers and Gosfield dynamic). However, with such vital personalities at play, it’s difficult to assume that any of these versions are completely true. Unfortunately though, when considering the bullseye painted on Gosfield’s back throughout his life (a 1956 write up in the Philadelphia Enquirer describes him as looking like “an unmade bed” while a 1960 write up in the Hartford Sentinel includes the line “Maurice sank back in his chair, rubbing his third chin from the top”) for a biography to adapt such a shallow tone in its depiction of the actor, it certainly rubbed this writer wrong. 

At the same time, the book takes a very similar attitude in describing the television industry outside of New York, particularly in the last few chapters. As with the harsh treatment of Gosfield, the ferocity with which Everitt goes after the Hollywood television fair of the mid-1960s; namely, presenting thinly veiled insinuations that these shows appealed to rural viewers (who, based on the writing, the author envisions looking straight out of Green Acres) feels misplaced, overly biased, and at times, elitist. There is plenty of room for more analysis in this area, but Everitt doesn’t provide it in this book.

Ultimately though, the strength of this book is in Everitt’s complex portrayal of Hiken and his ability to hone into a striking sense of his humanity. The love and respect for Hiken’s creative output shines with each page– as it should for any fans of this era in television. However, in conversations with Hiken’s daughter and his various creative partners, the writing refreshingly refuses to shy away from his struggles with control and overwork (which likely contributed to his very early death). Everitt paints a picture of a man who, while blessed with a brilliant comedy mind, had trouble not only shutting his brain off, but was terrified to relinquish control. 

All in all, King of the Half Hour: Nat Hinken and the Golden Age of TV Comedy is an essential read for classic TV fans. In his research, writer David Everitt shines a much needed spotlight on a creator who doesn’t get anywhere near the respect he deserves in popular culture, while at the same time crafting a clear sighted portrait of Hiken’s quirks, his eccentricities and his struggles. It’s just unfortunate that this well-crafted analysis didn’t reach other segments of this book.

King of the Half Hour: Nat Hiken and the Golden Age of TV Comedy is available here!

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