Imagine you walk into a studio executive’s office today and said, “Hey. I’ve got a great idea for a television show. It’s a sitcom…set in a prisoner-of-war camp in Nazi Germany.” They’d probably tell you to get out of their office. Well, in 1965, you might have had a better chance of someone taking your pitch seriously.
Hogan’s Heroes ran on CBS from September of 1965 to March of 1971, for six seasons and 168 episodes. Let me put that into perspective: that’s more episodes than Game Of Thrones (67, currently), the original series of Star Trek (79), LOST (121), and the same amount of episodes as The Mary Tyler Moore Show. That’s a LOT of f**king episodes!
(Let me clarify something quickly: when soldiers are captured in war, sometimes instead of being killed, they’re put into these prisoner-of-war camps. It’s like jail. It’s not the same as a concentration camp or a death camp. Honestly, Hogan’s Heroes doesn’t even really have to do with the Holocaust. So it’s not making light of genocide or anything. Don’t get mad.)
What it does make light of, however, is the Nazis themselves. Pretty much every German soldier in the story suffers from such incapacitating stupidity that it makes you wonder how the Allies didn’t win the war a lot sooner.
The heroes of the story (ha ha), are five prisoners of war who are imprisoned at German POW camp Stalag 13. Their leader is American Colonel Robert Hogan, played by Bob Crane. Hogan is basically the love child of Captain Kirk and Tony Stark–he’s dashing, quippy, ingenious, sneaky, and quite the ladies’ man.
His cohorts are Sergeant Andrew Carter, Corporal Louis LeBeau, Corporal Peter Newkirk, and Sergeant James Kinchloe. Carter is the Chekov of the group (because he’s the baby). His character can basically be described as “dumb blonde explosives expert bordering on mad scientist”. (He’s a little too eager to blow stuff up, you know?) He’s also scary good at impersonating Hitler, so much so that it’s a running gag in the show, and he actually dresses up and poses as Hitler in an episode–and the Germans fall for it! They really believe he’s Hitler! I told you–the Nazis are f**king idiots in this show.
Then, there’s LeBeau, who is the token French character: he wears a beret, he’s the group chef, he’s short, he’s scrappy, he’s a snob about food and wine and art, and he turns into Pepe le Pew when he’s around women. But, he’s adorable. Newkirk is English and is played by the immortal Richard Dawson, and he’s a magician, safecracker, and pickpocket. And finally, Kinchloe is the radio technician and expert in other communications and electronics. It’s understated in the show, but he’s also second-in-command, which is kind of a big deal, since this show is from the 1960s and Kinch is a black man. So, yay, racial progressiveness! (Seriously, between Kinch and Star Trek, the CBS is on fire in the ’60s with positive race representation.)
Okay, why is this show so damn funny? Well, the premise of the show is that despite the fact that they’re imprisoned, these five men are secretly running an Underground Railroad out of their camp to help other prisoners of war escape Germany, and just aid the war effort in general. And it’s right under the Nazis’ noses–they don’t suspect a thing.
The two main German characters in the show are the man who runs Stalag 13, Commandant Wilhelm Klink, and the ranking German staff officer, Sergeant Hans Schultz, and both are complete idiots. Colonel Klink is such an overconfident, neurotic loon that he proudly believes that no one has ever escaped from his camp. It’s part of why it’s so easy for Hogan and the boys to carry on their business. The Heroes have a series of intricate tunnels underneath the camp, where they have a ham radio station, a mint for printing up counterfeit German marks, a tailor shop where they make German uniforms and civvies to help the escapees disguise themselves…even a barbershop.
…like I said, it’s a really ridiculous show!
Sergeant Schultz is a big coward. He more or less knows everything that’s going on, but he’s so afraid of being shipped off to the Russian front fighting lines, that he just turns a blind eye to everything Hogan and his team are doing. His catchphrase is, “I see/hear/know nothing, nothing!” So if you’ve ever heard anyone say that…that’s where it’s from.
I think the reason this show worked so well in the ’60s is because the war was long over, and even though its effect shook the lives of many individuals, it must have been a comfort to some to watch a show about five funny, inventive guys just taking the piss out of the Nazis. It may seem insensitive to make light of such a horrible event in history, but like M*A*S*H*, Hogan’s Heroes maybe gives WWII a more positive outlook. It’s by no means a deep show, but when I think of Hogan’s Heroes, I take away this message: even when you’re in an impossible situation, you’re not helpless. And people who hate are stupid, and inevitably, good will win out over evil. And when things look dark, you can still find things to laugh about, because laughter is our biggest weapon against despair. That’s what Hogan’s Heroes means to me.
So if you ever get the chance, go watch the show; it’s on some of those classic TV channels (TV Land, MeTV, etc.). The characters are endearing, the antics are hysterical–it’s worth the time, I promise. ~TRL