Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The Late Great Sherwood Schwartz

Sherwood Schwartz, best known as the creator of Gilligan's Island and a man who wrote for everything from The Bob Hope Show on radio to The Red Skelton Show on  television, passed today at the age of 94.

Sherwood Schwartz was born in Passaic, New Jersey on 14 November 1916. He had planned on becoming a medical doctor and received a bachelor's degree at New York University. He was working on his master's degree when he dropped all plans of becoming a physician. To make a living he looked to his older brother Al, who at the time was writing for The Bob Hope Show, then less than a year old. He asked his brother if he would show Mr Hope some jokes if he wrote them. His brother consented, Sherwood wrote some jokes, Al showed Bob the jokes, at which point Sherwood was hired as a gag writer on The Bob Hope Show.

Sherwood Schwartz wrote for The Bob Hope Show for four years, whereupon he joined the United States Army during World War II. He wrote for Armed Forces Radio, including work on such shows as Command Performance, Jubilee, and Mail Call.  Following the war Mr. Schwartz returned to writing for radio shows Stateside, with stints on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Alan Young Show, and Beulah.

It was in 1953 that Mr Schwartz entered television, writing episodes of I Married Joan. He then went to work on The Red Skelton Show. Despite staying with the show eight years, Sherwood Schwartz never got along with Mr. Skelton and, in fact, had it written in his contract that he would not have to meet with him. Mr. Schwartz would also work as the script consultant on My Favourite Martian during its first season.

 It was partially to escape from working on The Red Skelton Show that Sherwood Schwartz decided to create his own show. That show was Gilligan's Island. Gilligan's Island would not have a smooth trip to the small screen, with the network CBS interfering even before he show hit the air. It would have no smoother sailing once it debuted. While Gilligan's Island would receive high ratings, it also received some of the worst reviews of any show since The Beverly Hillbillies. Sadly, although it was a favourite with viewers from the beginning, the lambasting Gilligan's Island received from critics would affect its survival. It was cancelled after three seasons to make way for Gunsmoke, which had been cancelled, but then given a reprieve at the order of CBS CEO Wiliam S. Paley. The wretched reviews Gilligan's Island had received from critics had earned the ire of Mr. Paley, so CBS's programmer knew he would not care if they cancelled it. Gilligan's Island would go onto what may have been the most successful syndication run of all time.

Sherwood Schwartz would go onto create another fantastic comedy like Gilligan's Island. Entitled It's About Time, the series centred on two astronauts who are tossed back in time to the Stone Age and find themselves living with a family of cavemen. Numbering Imogene Coco among its cast, It's About Time would not be a success. It lasted only for the 1966-1967 television season.  Mr. Schwartz's next series would be somewhat more successful. The Brady Bunch debuted in 1969 and ran for five years before going onto a highly successful syndication run.

Sadly, Sherwood Schwartz would never repeat the success of Gilligan's Island or The Brady Bunch. Dusty's Trail, starring Bob Denver in the title role, was essentially a Western version of Gilligan's Island, with every character corresponding to one on the earlier show. It lasted only one year in syndication. The various revivals of The Brady Bunch in different forms, all lasted less than a season. Harper Valley lasted only a little over a season, at 30 episodes. The pilots Scamps (with Bob Denver running a daycare) and Invisible Woman were never picked up as series. Even shows on which Mr. Schwartz was credited only as a producer and not as a creator would not repeat his earlier successes. Big John, Little John and Together We Stand both lasted less than a season. The last regular series on Mr. Schwartz was involved was yet another Brady Bunch revival, The Bradys, in 1990.

Here it must be pointed that Sherwood Schwartz also wrote or co-wrote the themes for most of his shows, including Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch. Indeed, his theme to It's About Time is perhaps better remembered than the show itself. There are many who were alive when the show aired who remember the theme, but do not remember the show at all!

While Sherwood Schwartz would see little success after the Seventies, one cannot assume that his career was not extremely successful. The number of television writers and producers who have only one hit series are very few. Those who have two, as Mr. Schwartz had, are exceedingly rare. And then one must consider the number of years Sherwood Schwartz spent writing for such it shows as The Bob Hope Show on radio and The Red Skelton Show on television. What is more, it must be also be considered that Sherwood Schwartz not only had two hit shows, but two of the most successful shows of all time. If Gilligan's Island isn't the most successful show in syndication of all time, it must be in the top five (if not the top three). The Brady Bunch would not enjoy the phenomenal success in syndication which Gilligan's Island did, but it is still one of the most successful shows ever in syndication.

I must confess I was never a fan of The Brady Bunch, even as a child, but I love Gilligan's Island even to this day. Indeed, I can see in Gilligan's Island something which the vast majority of critics could not see in 1964. Gilligan's Island is a fantastic work of absurdist comedy. Of course, the show is preposterous. It was meant to be. Gilligan's Island is a show, not unlike The Beverly Hillbillies or The Monkees, in which the humour emerges not simply from slapstick or word play, but from the sheer outlandishness of its plots. What the critics of 1964 saw as a silly, even stupid sitcom was actually very sophisticated in its execution. Indeed, the critics missed one important fact of Gilligan's Island--it was funny. When it comes to comedy, it is better to be stupid and funny than intelligent and unfunny. Fortunately, Gilligan's Island was never as stupid as critics claimed and it was always funny.

Of course, it is easy to get fixated on Gilligan's Island when discussing Mr. Schwartz's career, but he did much more than writing about the Castaways. He wrote many of the classic sketches on The Red Skelton Show and, with his fellow writers, won an Emmy for the show in 1961. He wrote for years in radio on some of the best known shows of the time, including The Bob Hope show and The Alan Young Show. With regards to television, I can say that from the episodes I have seen on the net, It's About Time was a hilarious show. It was on par with Gilligan's Island, even if it was not as successful. And while I still don't like The Brady Bunch, I cannot deny that it has an appeal for a huge number of people.

Critics despised Sherwood Schwartz's two most successful shows. And even today there are those who, perhaps in an attempt to appear intellectually superior, will dismiss them as junk. What they fail to realise is the sheer brilliance of Mr. Schwartz. He wrote very funny material and created shows with lasting appeal. Indeed, he was a very intelligent man. In his book Inside Gilligan's Island, he not only related the history of the show, but showed keen insight into the history of television and how the industry works. I owe Mr. Schwartz a great deal of gratitude in that he coined a term I had been seeking for years, a term to describe those outlandish comedies, from the blantantly fantastic (Bewitched) to those that were simply a bit far out (The Beverly Hillbillies): imaginative comedies. The simple fact is that with that book Mr. Schwartz not only provided me with a useful term for so many sitcoms I love, but he inspired me as a pop culture buff. He made me realise that the history of shows often considered "silly" by critics is worth preserving. The simple fact is that A Shroud of Thoughts might not exist without him.

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