It was 50 years ago today (Friday, Sept. 26) that the world was introduced to what may have been the oddest idea around for a TV comedy until Hogan’s Heroes cracked jokes in a German prisoner of war camp a year later.
Yes, Hollywood wanted to make America laugh about seven people who got marooned on a tropical island. And that oddly endearing show celebrating its golden anniversary had an unlikely name: Gilligan’s Island.
Critics like me have an easy explanation for why Gilligan’s Island struck a nerve. When it debuted in 1965, America was deep into a decade that was marked with social unrest and uncertainty about the future — just a few years past the Cuban missile crisis and President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
The mission for TV comedy back then was escapism. So what better way to take people’s minds off civil rights marches and war overseas than a goofy comedy about an amiably knuckleheaded ship’s mate, his blowhard skipper pal and the five passengers stuck on an island during a three-hour tour?
(Check out a discussion with me about Gilligan’s Island‘s 50th anniversary on NPR’s Here and Now by clicking here.)
“Nowadays, people ask why Gilligan’s and The Skipper’s hammocks are so close together, but nobody thought of that back then,” Dawn Wells, the still-wholesome-looking actress who played castaway Mary Ann told me when I interviewed her for the St. Petersburg Times newspaper back in 2001.
Wells always maintained that the show’s innocent humor was what made it a classic (producers wouldn’t even let her show an exposed navel in the short shorts Mary Ann wore). She told me how an American fighter in Operation Desert Storm sent her a letter about teaching Iraqi soldiers the show’s signature theme song as a way to bond and learn about the U.S.
“Why did this bring them together … because [all the show’s characters] were misfits, or trying to work together?” she asked me then in the St. Petersburg Times story. “You can’t guess. But the show did mean something.”
It also meant something for children raised in the ’70s like me, who saw the series in endless repeats after school. There is a bond that viewers can form with shows that remind them of their youth — just ask the Gen Xers lost in nostalgia over Saved By the Bell — regardless of the show’s actual quality.
And make no mistake, Gilligan’s Island was definitely a goofy show. They had a seemingly endless stream of people who visited the island and a huge roster of devices built with bamboo and tree fronds. But they never built something that would get them off the island until the 1978 TV movie Rescue from Gilligan’s Island, which aired 11 years after the series was canceled.
Perhaps the show’s defining feature was its bouncy theme, which told the series’ premise through a jaunty tune. That wasn’t unusual for the time — sitcoms like The Patty Duke Show and Green Acres also explained the plot of the series in the theme song.
But Gilligan’s Island may have the most famous explanatory theme, beckoning viewers to “sit right back and you’ll hear a tale” of the castaways’ “fateful trip.” Co-written by show creator/executive producer Sherwood Schwartz, the theme was so successful Schwartz created a similar ditty for his other classic TV comedy, The Brady Bunch.
The show’s Gilligan, Bob Denver, died in 2005. Only Wells and Tina Louise, who played movie star Ginger, remain alive among the show’s core cast, which also included Alan Hale Jr. as The Skipper, Jim Backus as wealthy Thurston Howell III, Natalie Schafer as Howell’s wife, Eunice — “Lovey” — and Russell Johnson as The Professor.
There were reports last year that Book of Mormon star Josh Gad might be co-writing a Gilligan’s Island update for himself. And seeds of the show’s influence seem evident in work as disparate as the Tom Hanks film Cast Away and the CBS reality show Survivor (there was even an unscripted show called The Real Gilligan’s Island).
But it doesn’t seem likely that modern projects can recapture the innocence of the original, which even had male fans debating whether they were Ginger or Mary Ann guys.
“It’s become a real thing: the sex symbol vs. the girl next door,” Wells told me then. Fifty years later, Gilligan’s Island seems like the TV equivalent of Mary Ann in a media world where such guilelessness is a distant, nostalgic memory.