Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale,
A tale of a fateful trip
That started from this tropic port
Aboard this tiny ship.
The mate was a mighty sailing man,
The skipper brave and sure.
Five passengers set sail that day
For a three hour tour, a three hour tour.
The Ballad of Gilligan’s Island by George Wyle and Sherwood Schwartz
Sherwood Schwartz created two of the most iconic and influential TV series with Gilligan’s Island (1964 – 1967) and the Brady Bunch (1969 – 1974). Prior to his work as a show-runner, he worked on My Favorite Martian, the Bob Hope Radio Show, and the Red Skelton Show. Inside Gilligan’s Island: from creation to syndication chronicles the trials and tribulations of creating a TV series during the reign of the Big Three (NBC, ABC, and CBS). Schwartz recreates a radically different time, both in terms of production, broadcast, and sensibilities. It is hard even for this reviewer, raised on the variety of cable programming and the immediate accessibility of the VCR, to conjure a world where a viewer only had three choices.
To put things in perspective, CBS finally broadcasts Gilligan’s Island on page 161 of a 313-page book. (That’s counting the two appendices.) Prior to the network debut, Schwartz assembles a writing crew, the cast, and produces a pilot. Cue inevitable executive meddling. The altered pilot gets rejected by CBS. Schwartz then re-cuts, re-edits, and re-submits the pilot. In an unprecedented move, CBS accepts the pilot they initially rejected. At this time in network history, CBS stood at the top of the ratings battle with fourteen out of fifteen shows. A ratings record that has never been repeated.
William Paley plays a small but pivotal role in Gilligan’s conception and annihilation. During the first meeting, Schwartz explains the series as a “social microcosm.” The word confuses Paley, Chairman of the Board at CBS. Schwartz takes it all in stride, since the title of Chapter 1 is “The Importance of Being Illiterate.” Schwartz, a veteran writer for Bob Hope and Red Skelton, peppers the tale of Inside Gilligan’s Island with a fair share of groaners, puns, and jokes for the country club. Paley plays a part in the show’s demise because he didn’t want to see Gunsmoke cancelled. Despite Gilligan’s Island receiving the top ratings for three years in a row (after having its time slots switched year after year) and a study exhibiting the power of the urban consumer over the rural consumer, Paley persisted in keeping Gunsmoke on the air.
Gilligan’s Island made TV history with Rescue from Gilligan’s Island. Airing on October 14 and 21, 1978, it became one of the first “reunion shows” on network TV. It also received a 52 share in the ratings. It was one of the highest rated shows in TV history, made bittersweet since its abrupt cancellation denied Gilligan’s Island a proper season finale. By way of comparison, the finale of Seinfeld received a 58 share.
Gilligan’s Island remains in syndication and has been in repeats on various channels since its initial airdate. It is also a TV show that remains within the American consciousness, a stand-by pop cultural reference in everything from the Simpsons to Space Ghost Coast to Coast. Schwartz achieved the timeless with his melding of social commentary with broad humor. The Gilligan character, a hapless loveable dope, is the template viewers see in far-ranging characters like Matthew from Newsradio and Michael Scott from the Office.
Inside Gilligan’s Island is a fascinating piece of TV history. Schwartz came of age during a simpler time, at least in terms of business and sensibility. He wrote the book in 1988, prior to the conglomerates taking control of the three networks and the rise of cable TV. Out of the trials and tribulations, Schwartz created two iconic TV series. Gilligan’s Island is one of them.