Wednesday 20 September 2023

The Show For People Slightly Weak in the Head

Critics hated Gilligan’s Island.

Don’t take my word for it. Read just about any newspaper column in 1965 about the show. They all pointed out critics hated the show.

I’ve tried to find even one columnist who didn’t. I have kind of succeeded. Donald Freeman of the Copley News Service admitted he watched the show, even though he found little good in it.

He wrote two columns about Gilligan in 1965, plus one after interviewing with Natalie Schaffer. We’ll bring you the first two.

This one appeared in papers around March 21, 1965.

Ridiculous, But Nevertheless Still Tops
Copley News Service
ACCORDING TO the latest Nielsen ratings, a CBS comedy show called "Gilligan's Island” now roosts in third position, tied with “The Fugitive,” giving it status therefore as one of the undeniable hits. How do you explain It? How do you explain hula hoops?
“Gilligan’s Island,” to put it another way, is this year's “Beverly Hillbillies," the comparison being apt all down the line.
Like its predecessor, this slice of nonsense fixes a group of ridiculous people in a ridiculous situation wherein they perform ridiculous antics. And next to “Gilligan’s Island," let me add that “Beverly Hillbillies” shapes up as advanced Noel Coward.
They share something else, these two epics—both “Hillbillies” and “Gilligan's Island” come on with a theme song that eloquently, step by step, states the premise of the series in its lyrics. They do this, you see, because our power of retention—yours and mine—is so severely limited. Or possibly—this is the more plausible theory—because the premise of “Gilligan’s Island” is so easily forgotten.
AS THE SONG explains, these weirdly assorted people set out on a cruise and a storm sets them instead on an uncharted island named for one Gilligan, the captain’s mate played with endearing idiocy by Bob Denver.
Playing Hardy to Denver’s Laurel is Alan Hale Jr. as the captain. Laurel and Hardy imitations are big this year, with Jim Nabors and Frank Sutton doing just that each week in “Gomer Pyle”—and that is meant as a compliment. In attempting to analyze “Gilligan’s Island,” I find myself wrestling first with my notes, which are largely incomprehensible—
“Count number of times Hale bumps into Denver is one message I seem to have jotted down here.
“Gilligan’s Island," clearly, is two-reeler silent comedy with dialogue as well as a kind of witless version of the Marx Brothers (never confuse mere motion with action, Hemingway once advised. This show has plenty of motion). THE NONSENSE that transpires on “Goilligan’s Island” may stir up some laughter If you are a child or unsober or slightly weak in the head.
Having thus caviled, I will now confess that I have occasionally laughed at “Gilligan’s Island” because I am slightly weak in the head—that is what television does.
Laughing at “Gilligan’s Island” is a secret, solitary, vaguely shameful vice on a level with handicapping the thoroughbreds behind a volume of Toynbee. If you were applying for a job, it is unlikely that under Hobbies you would list "secret laughing at ‘Gilligan’s Island’.”
Mostly I laugh at Jim Backus who wanders about the island as though it were his digs on Long Island Sound, doing a reprise of his old radio character, Hubert Updyke, the richest man in the world.

One person who strikes me as a man who never met an interviewer he didn’t like was the mastermind behind Gilligan’s Island, Sherwood Schwartz. He was 94 when he died in 2011, and always praised his creation. This story appeared in papers around July 24, 1965.

Sherwood Schwartz: Man Behind A Successful Myth
Copley News Service
SOMEONE suggested recently that the real star of “Gilligan’s Island,” that crazy mixed-up comedy, was one of the tallest leprechauns who ever punched a typewriter. a producer-writer with the liltingly mellifluous name of Sherwood Schwartz.
But Mr. Schwartz, a man of startling plasticity whose expression can change in a twinkling from that of a genial professor to a disbarred lawyer, sidesteps the compliment.
"No, it's the idea that’s the star of our show,” said Mr. Schwartz the other day, sitting in shirt-sleeved splendor in the cubicle that serves as his office at CBS Studio Center. "The idea, the concept—a deserted island suddenly inhabited by seven diverse types. That’s the star.”
Mr. Schwartz goes back 25 years in the comedy business, having started out as a writer on the Bob Hope Show in radio. Most recently he was on Red Skelton's staff. He has, you would say, a general idea of what makes people laugh. A touch of truth helps, he points out.
"All right, take the first show of the coming season,” Mr. Schwartz said. "It's called ‘Smile, You're On Mars Camera.' Crazy Idea? Yes, but timely. The camera has a soft landing on Gilligan's Island—but the scientists believe it landed on Mars. Enter the sub plot—Gilligan is gathering feathers. Who knows why? But Gilligan is gathering feathers and soon everybody is wearing feathers, a sight the camera faithfully records.
"NOW THEN,” Mr. Schwartz continued, rubbing his hands with glee, "sitting in their labs the scientists see all these crazy people in feathers.
"Ah, they all say exultantly, so that's what life is like on Mars. Wild, yes?”
Wild, yes.
I mentioned the critics and the reactions to "Gilligan's Island" and Mr. Schwartz shrugged. "Well, the critics didn’t enjoy the show when we first came out," Schwartz noted. "But there's more public than there are critics. Next year the Intellectual critics will probably take another look at ‘Gilligan’s Island’ and then they'll write learned treatises on our 'social satire on many levels.'
"Maybe the professors will look for deeper satire. All I want is for everybody to have a little fun and not get gray-headed. The first time I explained my idea of the island and the people to a bunch of agency executives I happened—just happened, mind you—to use the word 'microcosm,' a world in miniature, which is what 'Gilligan's Island’ is.
"There was a hasty shuffling of seats and a tentative clearing of executive throats. A MICROCOSM? ‘Mmmmm,’ said one. ‘Isn’t that too lofty?’ To think that somebody once considered ‘Gilligan’s Island’ too ‘lofty!’” I asked Mr Schwartz if he had acquired his idea from "Robinson Crusoe.”
“Once the idea of the island occurred to me,” Schwartz said, "I recognized the universality of the concept. And then I did some research into ‘Robinson Crusoe.’ I learned it's been translated into 63 languages and that it’s the 16th top selling book of all time.
"EVERYBODY has said to themselves, ‘What would I do If I were left on a deserted island?’ I've said it myself. Not lately . . . but I have said it "Now the question arises, when someone like Wrong-Way Feldman lands on Gilligan's Island, why doesn't he return from civilization later with a rescue party? Good point, except that Wrong-Way Feldman, as you'll recall, is not internationally known for his sense of direction.”
What is the source, the wellspring of the popularity that “Gilligan’s Island" has enjoyed?
"We appeal to everyone,” said Mr Schwartz. “The kids love Bob Denver as Gilligan. Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer hit the sophisticates. Tina Louise and Dawn Wells are girls.
"A touch of reality, however, is very important. When the scientist on the island uses sea water, copper pennies, coconuts and bobby pins to recharge a battery, kids went to their science teachers. ‘Does that work?’ they asked. ‘Sure,’ the teachers said.
“Comedy,” said Mr. Schwartz, "fortified by truth.”

Gilligan’s Island was silly. Critics didn’t like silly. They wanted clever. But, sometimes, people want silly. And the characters were likable.

The internet tells me, right now, you can pay just under $3 to watch the Skipper hit Gilligan with his hat. Paying good money to watch something you may have seen for free 60 years ago? Sherwood Schwartz would be laughing at that.


  1. Hans Christian Brando20 September 2023 at 07:38

    It was the era of the dum-dum (or "hayseed") sitcom, based on absurd premises, whose only purpose was to amuse. "All in the Family" and social consciousness temporarily put the dopey comedies out of style, but they were back a decade later: remember "Small Wonder" and "The Charmings"? "Seinfeld" (hailed as an innovation by a generation who had forgotten "The Jack Benny Show") and "Roseanne" set the sitcom standard for a while.

    To give the dum-dum sitcoms their due (after all, "Gilligan's Island" has become iconic despite its unenthusiastic reception and brief three-season run), at least they were unpretentious and didn't purport to share profound human insights the writers gleaned from therapy and/or rehab like today's laugh-track-less lot.

  2. It's always bugged me how critics never seem to like silly. Minnow can bemoan all the cartoons and far-out concepts he want, I like those shows, and more importantly, audiences liked them too. (Well, maybe not the cartoons, whoever decided to move Quest against Munsters deserves a boot to the butt). At least as far as I've seen though, ever since the 71 purge every dang show has to be "smart", and "have sometimes to say". I wonder how those same critics can say we're in a second golden age of television when the stuff on now isn't even half as good as the old stuff. Give me aliens who pretend to be uncles any day over that any day.

  3. Never paid to watch " Gilligan's Island ". I watched it in it's initial network run, then in re-runs ever since. Owned it on VHS, now the entire series on DVD. I certainly enjoy smart comedy , ala " The Bob Newhart Show ", " Mary Tyler Moore Show ", " The Dick Van Dyke show "and their ilk. . But, I can just as easily pull out the DVD's, turn to METV, and other digital side band television Networks to laugh at, and enjoy " F-Troop ", " Green Acres ", " My Favorite Martian ", and " Gilligan's Island ". Alan Hale in a loving nod to Oliver Hardy would break the 4th wall, and look into the camera when dealing with Gilligan's latest disaster. Plus, Mr. Howells political comments( Stabs at President Johnson, Medicare, The Culture-The Beatles, etc ), and mumble-offs still make this silly series enjoyable to me.

    1. Errol, I agree with you. Sometimes I feel like "smart" TV, but just as often I like something "silly" (all your examples and many more). Jim Backus got off some really funny, stuffy lines, so he was my favorite in the show.

  4. For Dawn Well's midriff alone it's worth watching.

  5. The show was meant to be silly fun, and succeeded at it. But I always loved Dick Cavett's story of when he was on The Tonight Show couch and Johnny Carson asked them all to promote their next projects at the end. Cavett had been canceled again, and Carson said something like, you must not have anything going on. Cavett said, "I'm working on a pilot. It's a humorous version of Gilligan's Island." And Carson nearly died laughing.