Don Rickles has made a living out of being rude, boorish and politically incorrect. He’s a short man with a shark’s grin and eyes that grow too large for his face when he can’t tolerate the people in front of him.
Rickles said things out loud that other people were thinking but would never have the nerve to say. None of it was nice, but somehow it always came out funny.
In 1976, Rickles starred in a sitcom called CPO Sharkey. Sharkey was a career Navy man with dreams of commanding a battleship at sea. But instead of giving him a battleship, the Navy gave him command of the new recruits at the Naval training center on dry land.
This set-up put Rickles in front of an ethnically diverse group of young men during a time of unrest and change. Long hair. Jive talk. Anti-war sentiments and women’s lib are all way out of Sharkey’s wheelhouse but a Navy man never backs down from a challenge so he takes it all in stride – grinning manically to mask the pain from the opening credits to the end.
CPO Sharkey doesn’t look like your average sitcom because it was shot on video tape. It feels more like you’re watching a play than a TV show. Most of the episodes play out in the barracks and Sharkey’s office which adds to the stage feel.
There’s nothing about this show that feels natural; from the character entrances and exits, to the rhythm of the jokes and forward facing delivery. But that’s not a complaint. Actually, I think it’s this unusual style that makes the series work. Rickles is a comedian; a stage performer and he’s at his best when all he has to do is sling sarcastic comebacks at the innocent people around him.
If that’s all he did, the show wouldn’t be watchable. Just when you begin to wonder why Sharkey hasn’t been relieved of his command, he does something nice for a homesick young recruit and you realize that he’s not all bad. Maybe his harsh exterior is his way of turning lost boys into men. . . . or am I over romanticizing this forgotten gem?
In it’s own weird way, CPO Sharkey is like a cross between Gomer Pyle and All in the Family. It’s a light-hearted comedy that was clearly written just to feature Rickles’ routines. But watching it with new millennial eyes, I marvel at how they got away with some of the ethnic humor. It’s like that scene in Airplane where sweet, suburban housewife Barbara Billingsley offers to translate because she speaks “jive”. But Sharkey isn’t a parody, it’s a product of a time in TV when we were just starting to explore social phobias through both humor.
Again, I don’t think the series makes its point as well as Chico and the Man or The Jeffersons, but it has its moments. Including the one where Sharkey finds out that his new commanding officer is a women. His pride leads him to turn in his resignation. Up until that time, the Navy was a boys club and the idea of having women in the ranks was crazy enough without having one in charge. In the end, he comes to terms with the fact that times are changing and he has to learn to change, too because the Navy was and will always be his life.
If you can get past the cliche jokes and Rickles’ constant mugging for the cameras, you’ll find an interesting story here. CPO Sharkey is a comedic time capsule of a pivotal time in both real and TV history. Viewers who grew up in a military family will find it particularly relevant and amusing. For everyone else, it’s worth watching just to see Don Rickles do what he does best. So buy this DVD, you hockey puck and have your teenager teach you how to play it.
CPO Sharkey: The Complete First Season is available now for less than $20 on Amazon.