He'd called because he was pleased with my thoughts about the deeper meaning of "Gilligan's Island."
I'd been reading a new book by Shakespeare scholar and literary critic Paul Cantor called "Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture In the Age of Globalization." Cantor wrote it before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. (The book will be published in November.)
But to me, Cantor's argument that "Gilligan's Island" was really, at its core, not just a silly '60s sitcom but a paean to American democracy is particularly noteworthy right now, in the wake of the disaster.
More about that in a minute, though. The first thing to know about "Gilligan's Island" is that few hit shows have been so reviled. It premiered in 1964 on CBS, to almost uniformly terrible reviews. The network itself, in fact, hated the show and rejected it three times. Only the ecstatic response from test audiences persuaded them to grudgingly change their minds.
No hard feelings at this point. On Oct. 14, CBS presents "Surviving Gilligan's Island: The Incredibly True Story of the Longest Running Three-Hour Tour In History." It's a weirdly delightful docudrama, co-executive produced by Dawn Wells (Mary Ann) and featuring Bob Denver (Gilligan) and Russell Johnson (The Professor.)
"You're just the writer," the network execs tell Schwartz in the TV movie reenactment. "We're the network. You have to trust what we're talking about, Sherwood."
CBS originally wanted Jerry Van Dyke to play Gilligan. But, as Van Dyke recalls in the movie, "I wasn't that crazy about it. Matter of fact, I thought it was the worst script I ever read in my life." Van Dyke's agent suggested "My Mother the Car" as a likelier hit. Instead, of course, that show became an enduring footnote in the lore of quickly cancelled, God-awful TV shows.
As Van Dyke puts it, "I've had longer showers."
"Gilligan's Island," on the other hand, premiered in 1964 and since then has never, not even once, been off the air. For 12 years, "Gilligan's Island: The Musical" (co-written by Sherwood Schwartz) has been touring theaters across the United States. The endlessly rerun sitcom is known and loved in strange and unlikely places throughout the globe.
Some years ago, Dawn Wells visited one of the remotest islands in the already remote Solomon Islands. She was, in fact, the first non-native woman to set foot there. When the island chief's wife came out of her hut, she stared at Wells.
"Mary Ann?" she said in amazement. Gilligan's typically clueless comment when a visiting banana-republic dictator proposes making him the puppet leader of the island ("I was the president of the eighth-grade camera club"), Thurston Howell III's lament about the possibility of an island election ("The whole thing sounds so darn democratic") ... all this and every other bit of the "Gilligan's Island" political philosophy has been dubbed into 30 languages.
Somewhere in the world, someone right now is watching the show's central idea that, as Paul Cantor puts it in "Gilligan Unbound," "a representative group of Americans could be dropped anywhere on the planet -- even in the middle of the Pacific Ocean -- and they would still feel at home -- indeed they would rule."
Unfriendly countries probably find this infuriating. But friendly ones don't seem to mind.
At the "Surviving Gilligan's Island" news conference, a British journalist plopped himself down next to me and began happily singing his version of the theme song: "Just sit right back and 'ear a tile, a tile of a fightful trip..."
If the "Gilligan" theme song is so embedded in viewers' minds, so, perhaps, is its subliminal message to an entire international generation.
As Wells remarked as she surveyed a room packed with reporters: "We raised you!"
In the long years since the original fateful trip, the actors have found devoted fans in the strangest places. Johnson recalled how once he and Wells went with a troupe of entertainers to put on a show at Folsom Prison.
"There in front of us were a thousand men sitting on the ground and the guards around with guns," Johnson said.
He and Wells walked out on stage, and the crowd went crazy at the sight of Mary Ann in her short-shorts. As they calmed down, a voice from the back yelled, "I'll take her!" The crowd erupted, but almost as soon as the guards got them calmed down, another voice yelled, "I'll take him!"
"And he was scared, I want you to know," Wells noted. "Russell, talk about your appearance at that biochemical this year."
"Oh, yes," said Johnson. "We were at a biotech conference in San Francisco ... it must have been four or five hundred PhDs, and every goddamned one of them was a fan of 'Gilligan's Island.'"
"And I bet 30 percent of them said, 'You are the reason I went into science,'" added Wells.
Around the world, however, the show is probably quite annoying to anyone with an anti-technology, anti-globalization, anti-American point of view.
For one thing, the castaways have little regard for whatever indigenous culture they find on the island. When they put on a show, it's a festival of Dead White Males: a musical version of "Hamlet," to the tune of "Carmen."
Academics are famous for reading all sorts of strange ideas into texts. But in the case of "Gilligan's Island," Cantor is not simply projecting images onto an inkblot.
Talk about "Gilligan's Island" to Schwartz and the first thing he brings up is his own favorite episode, the political allegory called "The Little Dictator." Character actor Nehemia Persoff played a deposed Latin American despot who happens upon the castaways and announces, "In my country, there is a saying: He who has gun is the leader."
Schwartz writes in his own book about the series, "Inside Gilligan Island," that "I know about the social content of my show, and the seven characters were carefully chosen after a great deal of thought."
Schwartz named the Castaways' ship, the S.S. Minnow, as a jab at then FCC chairman Newton Minow, who'd famously characterized television as "a vast wasteland." ("A vast wasteland?" notes Wells in "Surviving Gilligan's Island." "Ouch!") CBS chief William S. Paley was horrified -- "I thought it was supposed to be a comedy!" -- at Schwartz's description of "Gilligan's Island" as a social microcosm.
Schwartz's response is a classic of let's-save-the-pitch quick-thinking: "It's a funny microcosm!"
Anyway, back to my notion of Gilligan's Island vs. the Taliban. Viewed through the prism of America's enemies, it's easy to see how the "Gilligan's Island" gang represents everything fanatical and its sympathizers hate.
As Cantor describes it, "The Skipper embodies American military might, the Professor represents American science and technological know-how, and the Millionaire reflects the power of American business ... the presence of The Movie Star among the castaways even hints at the source of America's cultural domination of the world -- Hollywood."
Extending this trope, I would add that the Millionaire displays an unseemly Western uxoriousness toward his one wife; any self-respecting Middle Eastern millionaire has, like Osama Bin Laden, at least four.
Mary Ann, besides her fondness for those immodest short-shorts, is offensively spunky to anyone who thinks women belong in robes and head scarves.
She's the type of virgin who offends the fantasies of suicide bombers everywhere, as she obviously wouldn't even give them the time of day in paradise.
And then there's Gilligan, the essence of the naïve, childish American -- as Americans are so often described, ad nauseum, abroad. But bumbling, unsophisticated Gilligan has a way of ruining the plans of every Soviet cosmonaut or Third World dictator who drops by.
"Representing the average citizen at his most ordinary," Cantor writes, "Gilligan presides over a kind of democratic utopia on the island and is repeatedly called upon to act as its savior."
What's more, he always prevails.
Why do they hate us? the peace-in-our-time crowd always asks plaintively.
It just may be because of "Gilligan's Island."
Yes, this is sort of a silly answer. But it's still smarter than the question.
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