“I don’t dislike him. I mean, it’s just that I’d like to kill him every now and then.”
If you’re of a certain age, you might remember one Saturday evening a half century ago when history was made on your flickering black and white TV. Millions of viewers were expecting nothing more than 30 minutes of entertainment—none had an inkling they were about to see the birth of an American icon. But that’s what happened fifty years ago when Gilligan’s Island premiered on CBS. Even if you missed the first season, you won’t need to rely on Mr. Peabody’s WABAC machine in order to celebrate the anniversary. You’d have been hard-pressed not to have encountered episodes as they endlessly repeated in syndication. Given its impact on our psyche, it’s hard to believe that Gilligan’s Island only lasted three seasons and was unmatched for absolute goofiness. It even made Mr. Ed seem plausible (right, Wilbur?).
The theme song laid out the premise: three hour cruise, big storm, desert island, seven castaways. (By season 2, “the Professor and Mary Ann,” were relieved of the indignity of being referred to as “and the rest,” and were added to the catchy tune.) The show detailed the castaway’s attempts to both to survive and escape. In three years they succeeded brilliantly at the former and failed miserably at the latter. Their comfortable survival was almost entirely due to the creative efforts of the Professor. With heavy reliance on coconuts and bamboo, he managed to fashion tables, chairs hurricane-proof accommodations, a washing machine, a hot water system, a stethoscope, a telescope and a pedi-car. Impressed? There’s more! With ingenuity that knew no bounds, he made a lie detector, a Geiger counter, a hot air balloon, super glue, nitroglycerine, jet pack fuel, and a battery charger. The battery charger was particularly helpful given that the castaways were constantly listening to the radio (a major plot device). For their entertainment pleasure he also crafted a roulette wheel and pool table. In fact, the only thing he was weak on was a means of escape. That shouldn’t have been hard given the number of people who came and went while the castaways did their laundry and played billiards. These included lost pilot Wrongway Feldman, the Mosquitoes (a musical group modelled on the Beatles—remember it was 1964), mad scientist Dr. Boris Balinkoff, Tongo—an actor studying for a Tarzan role, a Hollywood producer and a robot reprogrammed by the Professor to walk to Hawaii (go figure). Of course binding it all together was the loveable, inept and accident prone Gilligan. He gently exasperated the Skipper—A.K.A. Jonas Grumby—and inadvertently foiled almost every escape effort as well as just about every other kind of “effort.” And that’s how it went for 98 episodes. There was no deeper meaning—no social agenda. The show was just silly for the sake of being silly.
There’s not a lot of innocent silliness in the world today. Little kids are often silly but they aren’t very old before they’re told to stop. By the time we’re adults, silliness has a pejorative tone. If told we’re, “being silly,” it’s never meant as a compliment. But maybe it should be. Maybe we should balance the seriousness of daily living with humor that isn’t freighted with political or social innuendos. It might be beneficial to sidestep amusement that relies on zingers and put downs. Gillian’s Island was meant only to make us laugh and for 30 minutes to believe that seven improbable castaways could live more comfortably on an island than we did at home. So be a little silly. Take a coconut to work! —Ebert