I’m not writing in praise of Gomer Pyle – USMC, or to sneer at it. I haven’t really watched it since I was a kid. I remember it being an okay show, the sort of thing you watched because something you really liked was coming on afterward, or because it was too hot to go outside.
Jim Nabors did a fine job in the title role, proving himself a very capable comic actor and one with considerable personal charm as well.
But in spite of his friendly grin and folksy drawl, Gomer Pyle was a killer. A competition killer. A cold, remorseless destroyer of anything a network might send against him.
The first and most familiar example was Jack Benny, unquestionably one of the greatest and most popular performers in the history of broadcasting. I would argue that Benny lost a step in the late 1950s, when he stopped recording his show in front of a live audience— I think it threw his comedic timing off a little, but that’s a debate for another time. The Jack Benny Program was still great. It continued to be a hit too, tied for 12th place in the Nielsens for the 1963/64 season.
And then came Gomer, his finger on the trigger.
In May 1964, the last episode of The Andy Griffith Show‘s season was basically the debut of Gomer Pyle – USMC. The spin-off was already a go, and the series held the 9:30 slot on CBS’s Friday night schedule throughout the 1964/65 season. Its competition was Twelve O’Clock High on ABC and The Jack Benny Program on NBC. The result was a pair of notches on Gomer’s gun.
ABC shows tended to underperform in the ratings anyway, but the mortal blow to The Jack Benny Program was a shock. Benny had been a primetime staple since 1932 on radio, and on television since 1950.
Benny claimed in an unpublished autobiography that his show was still a hit that fateful season of 1964/65, citing a weekly audience figure of 18,000,000. But the Nielsen figures don’t agree, not even close— the only show of the season with such an audience was Bonanza at 19,130.100. Gomer Pyle – USMC emerged in third place in the Nielsens for the season, with an average audience of 16,178,900. Benny’s show didn’t finish in Nielsen’s top thirty.
For the 1965/66 season, Gomer continued on Fridays on CBS, airing a half-hour earlier. The opposition was a pair of debuts— Honey West on ABC and the last half of Convoy on NBC. Neither show returned for a second season, and neither finished in Nielsen’s top thirty. Gomer Pyle – USMC rated #2 for the season.
For 1966/67, Gomer marched over to Wednesdays, looking for new victims. His opposition in the 9:30 time slot was Peyton Place on ABC and the last half-hour of Bob Hope’s show on NBC. (Hope’s comedy/variety series alternated weeks with Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater.) The results were predictable. Gomer came away with a bruise or two, slipping to a tie for tenth place in the Nielsens. But Hope’s Chrysler Theater scored only 26th and did not return in the fall. Peyton Place was relocated to Mondays with its lowest ratings to date.
Gomer Pyle – USMC returned to CBS’s Friday evening lineup for the 1967/68 season, airing at 8:30. This time, the competition was ABC’s Hondo and the first half-hour of the legendary Star Trek on NBC.
The previous season, Star Trek had survived CBS’s My Three Sons on Thursdays with ratings that were okay but not great. Its small but passionate legion of fans had every reason to feel apprehensive now. Gomer Pyle loomed as menacingly as a Klingon battle cruiser, and was even more destructive. His ratings actually improved, scoring third place in the Nielsens for the season. Hondo was obliterated and Star Trek was slated for cancellation as well. Only a well-publicized outpouring of begging and pleading from its fan base saved the show for a final season, which it spent in a later time slot.
Gomer was as formidable as ever in the 1968/69 season, remaining on Fridays at 8:30. ABC moved its veteran crime show Felony Squad into position to shoot it out with the Mayberry Marine, only to be cut down by plunging ratings. Its last episode aired in January 1969.
Perhaps surprisingly, NBC fared better with The Name of the Game, which failed to crack the top thirty but nevertheless survived until March 1971. The clear winner as always was Gomer Pyle – USMC, scoring #2 in the Nielsens. It was also CBS’s highest-rated show for that season.
And then— it was suddenly over. Just as Andy Griffith had done with his own show the year before, Jim Nabors left to pursue new opportunities. With sighs of relief gusting through the halls of NBC and ABC, Gomer Pyle hung up his rifle. The carnage was over.