The Med-School Reject Who Created ‘Gilligan’s Island’ and ‘The Brady Bunch’
A new book on sitcoms shows how the late Sherwood Schwartz, N.J. Jew in L.A., invented the modern high-concept comedy
Sherwood Schwartz, a well-regarded young television writer in the early 1960s, had pitched a show about seven desert-island castaways trapped together to his longtime agent in Hollywood and got an unexpectedly virulent answer: “Sherwood, you’re out of your fucking mind. Who the hell is going to watch the same goddamn seven people on the same goddamn island every week?”
Schwartz changed agents and wrote out 31 two-to-three-sentence story ideas on a long roll of butcher paper he tacked up in his office and brought the roll into his next meeting. While CBS bought the show almost immediately, network president Jim Aubrey was insistent that it required far too much explanation of its guiding premise each week to make sense to viewers. Schwartz believed otherwise: His goal was to find a setup that would force disparate characters together without anyone being able to leave. “All my shows, actually, are how do people learn to get along with each other?” he would later note.
Aubrey’s objections, Schwartz insisted, would be solved by the show’s introductory theme song: He originally had a Harry Belafonte–inspired calypso rhythm in mind but was ultimately convinced to abandon it in favor of the sea-chantey style of the final version, which introduced the five passengers, the three-hour tour, and the tiny ship that got tossed. And so Gilligan’s Island was born.
Schwartz was born in 1916 in Passaic, N.J.—a wool town just over from the silk-producing city of Paterson. His parents had lost two children before Sherwood, and his father, a grocer, went broke during the Depression. Sherwood’s older brother Al was dead-set on becoming a writer, but his parents insisted he attend law school. Al passed the bar exam, handed his mother his diploma, then said, “Here, now I can write.”
Sherwood’s dream was to become a doctor. After attending DeWitt Clinton High School—alma mater of Neil Simon and Paddy Chayefsky—then NYU, he applied to medical school, but the quota system then in place for Jewish medical students kept him from getting in. Schwartz figured that acquiring an additional degree might make him a more attractive candidate, and he headed out to Los Angeles, where his brother worked for Bob Hope, to attend USC. While he was waiting for school to start, he asked his brother if he could write some jokes. Hope liked the jokes and offered him a seven-year contract as a writer. “It really didn’t seem that difficult,” said Schwartz. Perhaps Schwartz’s professional experience, losing out on a medical career because of blind prejudice, helped to inspire his interest in impromptu societies that must embrace tolerance and cooperation in order to flourish.
After a stint in the Army, Schwartz returned to southern California, where he wrote scripts for the radio programs Ozzie & Harriet and Beulah, which won awards from the NAACP for their open-hearted depiction of African-American life. His attention turned to television when he found his young son watching Hopalong Cassidy, toy six-shooter in hand, upset that he might have accidentally plugged the show’s hero. Schwartz went on to write for I Married Joan, The Red Skelton Show, and My Favorite Martian. Decades of experience as a writer had taught Schwartz the unwritten rule of TV comedy, which is that the writer should not take center stage: His job was to make his stars shine.
Schwartz’s shows also showcased the writer’s unspoken commitment to high-concept comedy presented at face value. “You have to promise an audience a certain thing when you do a show in comedy. And you should stay in that box,” he said in an interview for the Television Academy Foundation. “You can’t say suddenly, ‘Oh, by the way, he can turn himself into a lion.’ ” His shows were high-concept in the manner of 1960s television programming, which sought to incorporate Martians and genies and flying nuns and witches and deserted islands into the dominant kitchen-and-living-room sitcom repertoire. Sitcoms had begun to understand that the normal was an illusion and were intent on passing off the deliriously strange as a true mirror of normalcy. Gilligan’s Island’s characters were intended to be archetypes, representing a civilization in miniature. “The Professor is all Professors,” he noted in that same interview.
During the last day of shooting the pilot in Hawaii, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. CBS initially rejected the pilot, so Schwartz took back the footage, re-edited it, and hastily resubmitted it to the network’s executives the week before they put together their 1964-1965 schedule. Testing showed that audiences were excited about Gilligan’s Island, and by the next Monday, Schwartz’s show was on the network’s schedule.
Gilligan’s klutziness is the show’s eternal bad-luck charm; he is forever spoiling the others’ best-laid plans for rescue by the sheer excess of his enthusiasm, to the frustration of the island’s natural leaders, the Skipper (Alan Hale Jr.) and the Professor (Russell Johnson). Gilligan (Bob Denver) is the fuckup son to the Skipper’s angry father, and his cry of distress—“Skipper!”—sounds like a nervous toddler desperately in search of his mother. The Skipper’s “little buddy” is part son, part brother, part pet, and all indentured servant, the island’s unthreatening Caliban.
The show delegates different brands of humor to each of its characters, with the most consistently amusing being Ginger’s array of raised eyebrows and libidinous whispers, and Thurston Howell’s clenched-jawed WASP detachment. Tina Louise is a self-aware vamp, trotting out her entire bag of seductive tricks for our amusement. Jim Backus’ Thurston Howell is the oligarch as helpless babe, with only his money to protect him from his own inadequacy. He and his wife are convinced that social status will protect them when nothing else will. “A shark bite a Howell?” he roars. “He wouldn’t dare!”
Yet from the beginning, Gilligan’s Island was a series trapped in its own concept: Where does a show go with seven characters and a single small island to roam? The show never grows tired of introducing new, temporary castaways: drifting surfers, hapless socialites, Russian cosmonauts. It luxuriates in mock-tribal hoo-ha and high-colonialist nonsense about terrifying natives and drum-beating savages, with the bucktoothed, malaprop-spouting Japanese soldier introduced in “So Sorry, My Island Now” as perhaps the worst offender.
Starting with the show’s second season, Gilligan’s switched from black and white to color; the deserted island’s plant life, seen in black and white during the show’s first season, was just not as impressive in shades of gray. The characters were also color-coded for our benefit: the doltish assistant in the red pullover, the lumpish boss in his royal-blue polo shirt. Everything had been carefully coordinated for maximum comprehension with minimal effort.
Gilligan’s Island lasted only three seasons before being unceremoniously canceled by CBS in 1967. The network had moved it around on the schedule numerous times, and according to Schwartz, even its modest success was not enough to overcome the disapproval of network chairman William Paley, who preferred Bonanza.
Schwartz would regroup after the cancellation of Gilligan’s Island and the one-season run of his time-traveling-astronauts series It’s About Time, with The Brady Bunch (1969-1974)—another gang of mismatched types marooned together, with another painfully explanatory theme song. The show was inspired by Schwartz’s coming across a brief article in the Los Angeles Times that mentioned that 30 percent of marriages now included children from previous relationships.
Like Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch is a fantasy offering an effortless ideal of social harmony between strangers. Widower Mike Brady (Robert Reed) and his three sons join with Carol (Florence Henderson) and her three daughters and form a new, intertwined family. The Brady Bunch gestures at the post–Leave It to Beaver complexities of American domestic life, but its plot hook notwithstanding, the series prefers to recreate the cozy, unthreatening atmosphere of the 1950s sitcom, newly outfitted in shag carpeting and sideburns. This is family life in all its tow-headed blond all-American southern California glory, as created by a Jewish writer with memories of a Depression childhood in New Jersey. If The Brady Bunch has a single recurring visual image, it is the children’s open-mouthed sighs of gratitude when one of their niggling problems has been solved, as if to say, “Gee whiz, aren’t parents swell?”
Contrary to the show’s genial aura, the production of The Brady Bunch was marked by showdowns between Schwartz and Reed. The actor regularly checked scripts against the Encyclopedia Britannica, throwing a fit and refusing to perform when a Brady script called on him to enter the kitchen where his wife and stepdaughters were cooking strawberries and say the line, “This smells like strawberry heaven.” Strawberries, as his trusty encyclopedia informed him, released no odor when being cooked. “That’s what he read scripts for,” Schwartz said of Reed. “To find little things he could complain about, logically.” By the time the show was canceled after five seasons, Schwartz was planning to fire Reed from the show.
The strange spell cast by The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island lingered for decades. Reappearing in syndication, Gilligan’s Island found an unexpectedly vast new audience, appealing particularly to children. As one wag notes in a documentary on the show’s enduring appeal, “Everyone hated it except the audience.” The renewed interest in the castaways was potent enough to stimulate three follow-up movies: Rescue From Gilligan’s Island (1978), The Castaways on Gilligan’s Island (1979), and most hilariously of all, The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island (1981). And The Brady Bunch returned in the 1990s with a well-received feature film and a significantly less well-received sequel.
Whatever their reputation among the boob-tube-hating elite, Schwartz saw his series as societies in miniature, parables about tolerance and compromise. And over the decades, his writerly DNA had become spliced with that of the sitcom’s, rendering the one inseparable from the other. In a memorable Roseanne episode from 1995, the Conner family indulges in an impromptu fantasy Gilligan revival, with Laurie Metcalf’s Jackie Harris as Gilligan, John Goodman’s Dan Conner as the Skipper, and Roseanne as Ginger. (Johnny Galecki’s David Healy remains himself, trudging angrily through the sand and muttering to himself, “I don’t even like this show. I wanted to be on Friends.”)
Goodman, game as ever, does a spot-on imitation of the Skipper’s bluster before Roseanne-as-Ginger is kidnapped by those always-pesky cannibals. She curses them one last time before disappearing into their human-size stockpot: “I hope I give your whole village the trots!” Roseanne strands itself on the familiar island and then adds to the sense of mystical communication between the closed universes of the sitcom by depositing none other than Gilligan, Ginger, and the Professor in the Conners’ house—and giving Schwartz himself a cameo. The name of the episode? “Sherwood Schwartz: A Loving Tribute.”
Sherwood Schwartz died in 2011, but his TV theses would live on—and on. “The public gets what the public wants,” he once said: The eternally optimistic wizard of mass taste meant it as a compliment, not a curse.
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