More than 50 years ago, a tiny ship called the Minnow set sail on a three-hour tour of the Hawaiian Islands. Suddenly the weather started getting rough, and the tiny ship was tossed. If not for the courage of its fearless crew the Minnow would be lost.
Six decades later, Gilligan’s Island remains stranded on the desert isle of American television. And why not? The show was awesomely terrible!
Yet Gilligan’s Island remains a beacon of pop culture, a Statue of Booberty, welcoming the huddled masses home to our happy harbor. I laugh, you laugh, we all laugh at Gilligan, the Skipper too, the millionaire and his wife and All the Rest (later ID’d as the Professor and Mary Ann).
The show could just as easily been called “All in the Schwartz Family,” since it was the creation of genius producer Sherwood Schwartz, orbited by two lesser Schwartzes, brothers Elroy and Al. They needed a job so why not?
Like many folk in early American TV, Sherwood made his bones writing for what’s now called “Old Time Radio,” those radio programs broadcast in America between ca. 1932 and 1962. While Europeans spent the 1930s devising sinister ways to liquidate themselves and their Jewish citizens, Americans laughed themselves silly listening to its Jewish citizens, famous comedians like Jack Benny, Groucho Marx and George Burns. So there’s another argument against the Holocaust for you.
CBS Radio was the last to shut down its radio program division for good in April of 1962. People demanded color talkies at the theater, and radio with pictures at home. Thus video killed the radio star, and AM radio declined, sinking first into rock-and-roll music, until finally bottoming out into the wreck it is today, a sunken waste inhabited only by ventriloquists like Rush Limbo and his dummy Sean Hannity. (He’s a ventriloquist – on the radio!)
Among Sherwood’s best radio work was The Alan Young Show, which ran between 1944 and 1950. This was a raucous yet influential program starring “the young Mr. Young” from Canada, who is still with us today as the old Mr. Young, celebrating 94 years of joy. Mr. Young would win TV immortality as the human belonging to Mr. Ed, a talking horse. While writing for Young’s show, Schwartz would work with a young Jim Backus, developing a funny millionaire character named Hubert Updike III, the lodestone for Thurston Howell III. (When you think about it, which might be hazardous, the real star of Gilligan’s Island was Jim Backus. He always had the best lines.)
Yet it was on Gilligan’s Island that Schwartz would excel, learning to squeeze every drop of humor out of material so illogical, so thin and so nonsensical that the Three Stooges would have shook their noggins on it.
The army wants to test a new nuclear weapon. Where to drop it? How about that island where nobody lives. The Army knows because it hasn’t been there.
A misanthropic aviator seeks to vanish from civilization. So does a South American dictator, and developer Zsa Zsa Gabor. And a Broadway/Hollywood producer (played by the show’s owner, the treacly Phil Silvers). A champion surfer. A lonely woman who’s ugly because she looks like Ginger Grant — but with glasses. An actor planning to play an ape man. An ape boy who resembles Kurt Russell (pre-Goldie Hawn). All of them and many more show up on the island with the castaways and leave without telling a soul.
Perhaps more celebrated than these inanities is the show’s ridiculous set-up. Why did the movie star wear an evening gown for a three-hour boat tour? Why did a millionaire and his wife sail on a tiny tub instead of one of the many yachts they bragged about owning? Why did any of the passengers bring luggage with them? Including the Howells, who brought along a steamer trunk full of money? And of course, why couldn’t the professor, who could create an oil refinery out of coconut shells, fix the boat? And since Gilligan always messes things up, why not just kill him?
Because it would have sabotaged the premise, that’s why. It’s absurdist humor. Asking Why Gilligan? Is like asking if Pluto is Mickey Mouse’s dog, what is his best friend Goofy?
This is the secret treasure of Gilligan’s Island. Jokes aren’t needed any more than reason. We are compelled to watch. From the bright red and blue jerseys worn by the Skipper and Gilligan, to the handsome ensemble acting, it is comfort TV, unthreatening, predictable and safe. The world is beset by monsters, the Viet Cong and racial unrest in the sixties, and ISIS and Vladimir Putin today, but we know that on Gilligan’s Island, no rescue this week means next week’s show is still waiting for us.
And who needs a joke to be funny when you have a laugh track? “’Hello Gilligan.’ ‘Hello Skipper.’” Yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk.
The unfunnyness of Gilligan’s Island continues to inspire today’s most unfunny comedians: Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, and one of two late night Jimmys. And where would The Big Bang Theory be without the prophecy of Gilligan’s Island: If it ain’t funny, just up the laugh machine. We must teach the children when to laugh. (“’Hello Penny.’ ‘Hello Sheldon.’” Yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk….)
Later Sherwood would create another icon of American entertainment, The Brady Bunch. That’s why to this day he is known as “America’s Shakespeare,” although I’ve never heard anyone call him that.
We must salute the subversive genius of Gilligan’s Island. It should have sunk to the bottom of the sea decades ago. Instead it foundered the industry of modern television comedy. Take that Ayatollah Axis!