Americans are really good at creating cheesy culture. From the pink flamingo and the lava lamp to the velvet Elvis and the Chia Pet, some of our most beloved popular art is best consumed with tongue in cheek and elbow in rib. Our citizens are better than anyone else in the world at reconciling mockery and adoration when it comes to cheesy art, and no one ever did cheesy as well as Sherwood Schwartz.
Although he started out performing yeomen duties as an Old School writer for such master comics as Bob Hope and Red Skelton, Schwartz went on to create two goofy masterpieces that penetrated the culture in extraordinary ways. First with “Gilligan’s Island,” and then with his magnum opus, “The Brady Bunch,” Schwartz carved out a special place in the national psyche during the heady days of the network era of American television.
Neither show was a big hit when it first aired on network TV. “The Brady Bunch” never spent a season in the Nielsen top 30, and “Gilligan’s Island” peaked at number 22.
Most people came to love these shows later, when they started airing five days a week in syndicated reruns, often in after-school time slots. The world of Gilligan and the Bradys caught fire in the years after cancellation.
“Gilligan” spawned three made-for-TV movies and “The Brady Bunch” sired a spin-off (“The Brady Brides"), a musical variety show, a cartoon series, a Christmas special, an hour-long dramatic series, a stage production, a few big-screen movies, and a cottage industry of memoirs and guest appearances by members of the cast and by Schwartz himself.
Needless to say, the theme songs for these shows, also written by Schwartz, became American musical standards, as easily recited as “White Christmas” and “Happy Birthday.”
Among the TV series introduced in the 1960s were some of the trippiest, most hallucinogenic, in the medium’s history. There were shows about talking cars (“My Mother the Car’), talking horses (“Mr. Ed”), suburban witches (“Bewitched”), suburban genies (“I Dream of Jeannie”), suburban monsters (“The Munsters”), aliens (“My Favorite Martian”), and even nuns that could fly (“The Flying Nun”).
Schwartz was working within this tradition, but his shows had a sweet and earnest quality that made them stand out from all the rest.
Furthermore, while all these shows were slouching toward Dada, Schwartz and his writers were way ahead of them all.
I offer up as a case in point an episode in the third and final season of “Gilligan’s Island” entitled “The Producer” (written by Gerald Gardner and Dee Caruso), the jewel in the crown of the Sherwood Schwartz oeuvre.
In this episode, Phil Silvers stars as Herald Hecuba, a producer who casts the castaways in a musical version of “Hamlet” set to tunes from the opera “Carmen.” Phil Silvers, Shakespeare, Bizet: all in 25 minutes.
I’ve encountered a lot of truly wonderful stories that take place on islands: Homer’s “Odyssey,” Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe,” Melville’s “Typee,” Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” the first season of “Survivor.” But I don’t think I’ve ever really enjoyed an island story as much as I enjoyed this one in which Gilligan, the Skipper, the millionaire and his wife, the movie star, the professor and Mary Ann performed “Hamlet” under the direction of Harold Hecuba.
Sherwood Schwartz was not only a subject of study for me, he was also my friend. We first talked after I had written a chapter about him in a book published in 1992, and after that he invited me and my students to his home.
He delivered the keynote address at Syracuse University when our television center opened in 1997, and he was always willing to take calls from my students.
The last time I talked to this kind and generous man, he promised me an invitation to his 100th birthday party. It was an event to which I had been looking forward with great anticipation.
Robert J. Thompson is the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, where he is also a Trustee Professor of Television and Popular Culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. He was a visiting professor for six summers at Cornell University and served for nine years as professor and director of the N.H.S.I. Television and Film Institute at Northwestern University.
Robert Thompson is founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University and a trustee professor.