CPOSharkeycoverGrade: B/B-
Entire family: No
1976-77, 374 min. (15 episodes), Color
Not rated (would be PG-13 for rude/racial humor)
Time Life
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Bonus features: B+
Amazon link

Stand-up comedian Don Rickles made a career out of insult humor and politically incorrect jokes aimed at all races. So what better sitcom for him to star in than one that has him playing a Chief Petty Officer at a U.S. Naval training facility in San Diego, where he gets to go off on recruits—especially when those recruits include a Polish American, a Jewish American, an Italian American, and a Puerto Rican?

Call it Sgt. Bilko revisited, because Rickles is surprisingly good at playing a tough, acerbic CPO with a warm heart. The show lasted only two seasons, but it’s not because the sitcom isn’t funny or because the cast isn’t likeable. My guess is that it was another case of bad timing. The public already had one sitcom with politically incorrect humor, and did America really want or need another Archie Bunker?

That’s not fair, though, because Bunker was racist without knowing or admitting it. He tolerated black neighbors but wasn’t really friends with them. Sharkey is best buddies with fellow CPO Dave Robinson (Harrison Page), an African American with whom he feels comfortable enough to make racial jokes. Notice I said “racial,” not “racist.” There’s a difference, and in today’s hyper-politically correct world that difference isn’t acknowledged—hence the warning on the back of this DVD: “Some of the jokes and ethnic references heard in these episodes would most likely not be allowed on network TV today and reflect the tenor of the times.” Because of that racial humor, CPO Sharkey will only be for families with children old enough to realize that such jokes can’t be made today, no matter how fond you are of a person.  

CPOSharkeyscreenStill, CPO Sharkey is a refreshing change from the steady diet of family sitcoms that TV serves up, and it’s also a part of television history. The series’ big claim to fame is a tie-in to The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Rickles appeared on the show, as he often did, and with guest host Bob Newhart presiding slammed down a cigarette box that Carson kept on his desk. But the gag went wrong, because Rickles accidentally broke the box. The next night, after Carson discovered what happened, he took his camera crew to the studio next door where CPO Sharkey was being filmed and interrupted the filming. That stunt is included here as a bonus feature, and as an artifact of a bygone era of television it’s pretty fun to watch. So are the episodes.

This first season a female commander (Elizabeth Allen) takes over, after Sharkey swore he’d quit if the Navy ever admitted women. CPO Sharkey was based on contrasts, and that included a 6’7” tall aide named Pruitt (Jonathan Daly) that Sharkey had to get on a stool to go eye-to-eye with. Some of the humor is topical and has lost its comic edge, but the bulk of the jokes are of the insult variety—what Rickles was known for—and that never goes out of style. Just ask your junior high or high school family members.

This season, Sharkey adjusts to having a woman CO, a recruit wants out of the unit because he thinks Sharkey is prejudiced, Robinson thinks Sharkey is a ladies man when he glimpses a note in his typewriter, the men smuggle in an inflatable female doll (don’t ask), a shy recruit announces he’s marrying a cocktail waitress after two dates, the men mutiny over boot camp, Kowalski sleepwalks, Sharkey has to go to Tijuana to bail his men out of jail, some of the recruits get in trouble for sneaking women into the barracks (a step up from inflatables, at least), Sharkey and Robinson “boogie on down” to celebrate a birthday, Sharkey contemplates moving to a quiet apartment, the recruits mistakenly think Sharkey is gay, Pruit plans an end-of-training party without consulting Sharkey, and a wino who spent the night in the barracks complicates final inspection.

In a letter to fans that’s included here, Rickles says the show was a labor of love and that the Navy is close to his heart because as an 18-year-old enlistee he served during WWII on a “mother ship” that took care of PT boats. “I hope that this collection brings you some good laughs,” Rickles says. And though there are a few clunkers or head-snappers, for the most part it does.

Language: Tame, but the insult humor and rude humor can seem abrasive
Sex: Some talk, some situations
Violence: N/A
Adult situations: Some drinking,
Takeaways: It’s hard to believe what TV got away with in the ‘70s, and CPO Sharkey deserved more than a two-season run.

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