It's OK to Like Gilligan's Island (and Other Gimmicky Sixties Sitcoms)

Here is the DVD cover for season one of Gilligan's Island.

Back when I attended Mount Vernon High School, there was a history teacher named Dick Peters who everyone loved. I really mean it! Whereas a teacher was really doing well if even a majority of students liked her/him, Mr. Peters was universally loved. As proof of that, he had the honor of receiving the 1987 Iowa Teacher of the Year Award. And, it wasn’t just students who were fond of him, as Mr. Peters was elected mayor of Mount Vernon during that same period. He was one of the most gregarious people I’ve ever known and he always did his best to win you over. For instance, as students filed into his classroom at the beginning of each period, he would individually welcome as many of them as he could.

Mr. Peters loved to tell stories and he also loved to collect them. He was particularly interested in the American West (in fact, one of the classes that he taught was The American West). I remember him telling us that every time he took a vacation out West, he saw it as an opportunity to gather more stories. He described himself as the sort of person who, if he saw an old timer sitting quietly on a bench at a two-pump gas station in some god-forsaken widening in the road, would see it as a prime opportunity to add to his collection. He always asked such strangers if they had a memorable story or two to share. Apparently, many of them did, because Dick Peters was brimming with uniquely engaging and frequently crazy stories from America’s pioneer past.

As a history teacher, Mr. Peters had an amazing ability to connect with his charges, no matter what their level of academic achievement. He often started class by recalling one of those wild stories to segue into the day’s curriculum, surreptitiously grabbing the attention of every student in a way that the assigned material, alone, often could not. He enjoyed telling his stories so much – and he was such a gifted and funny raconteur that the students equally enjoyed hearing them – that some class periods veered off the lesson plan and clearly into storyland. Certain students would purposely try to nudge Mr. Peters off subject. In some cases, I think it became a competition to see who could distract him to a storyland tangent first. Fortunately, most of Mr. Peter’s stories were filled with such splendid detail and worthwhile historical references that students received at least some degree of education whether they realized it or not.

And then there were other stories, ones he just liked to tell. Perhaps the funniest story he ever related was one in which he himself, Dick Peters, was the central protagonist. Dick grew up in a very small town in western Iowa (Orient, I think) with no paved roads at the time. The only sidewalks were the ones that skirted the school, so any kids who owned roller skates had to converge on that concrete to use them. One Saturday, when Dick was among the youngest children there, the older boys started coercing him to accept a dare. The dare was this: he had to climb to the top of the playground slide and, standing up, roll down the slide. He really wanted to fit in with them, so he took the dare. The climbing part was pretty tricky, but once he reached the top, he just took a deep breath and pushed off. Dick slid down in a flash! Instead of stopping at the bottom, however, his great rate of speed sent him soaring through the air. He landed on the ground with a tremendous thud. When the other kids gathered round to congratulate him, they found that Dick wasn’t moving. Scared that their dare may have killed him and fearful of shouldering the blame, the kids scattered and the schoolyard was empty in a scant few seconds. Several minutes later, a woman who lived across the street noticed that the usually busy playground was now curiously deserted, that is, except for one child lying motionless on the ground. She went to investigate and found Dick knocked cold. She revived him and found him to be in great pain. It turns out that he’d broken both wrists upon landing. As a result, Dick ended up with two plaster casts and the embarrassed admiration of all the boys in town for his effort. To hear Dick tell it is to laugh so hard that your belly hurts and tears streak your cheeks. I just hope that my print version does it half the justice as when it’s been delivered verbally – no doubt dozens, if not hundreds, of times – by Dick Peters.

After twenty-three years of teaching at Mount Vernon High School, Mr. Peters, now rechristened Richard E. Peters, became a professor at Cornell College, also in Mount Vernon. He retired a few years ago, was made a professor emeritus, and, last I heard, was still teaching one class a semester. Dick, er, Richard, if my memory has faltered in accurately retelling any of your stories, you have my apologies. I dredge them up at this late date with continued respect and admiration for you.

Mr. Peters sometimes drew upon popular culture to make a point or to augment class discussion. One surprising example is when he explained why sixties sitcom Gilligan’s Island was the best sitcom ever. Reviled in many quarters as a brainless example of network television at its lowest common denominator worst, and despite lasting only three seasons on CBS, it became one of the most repeated and widely watched shows in television history. Mr. Peters was a fan because, unlike so many other comedies of the time, it wasn’t sentimental, preachy, or self-consciously clever – it was just funny. Many of the laughs are derived from silly slapstick situations and simple wordplay, but it does so expertly. I catch my own boys watching it from time to time and, I have to admit, it holds up pretty well. OK, I realize that for some readers, saying that is enough for them to assert that I have now lost all credibility, but as an avid viewer of Gilligan’s Island in my youth, I’m not going to back off that claim. Despite our continuously maturing tastes and constant intellectual growth, certain things remain near and dear to our hearts. For me, one of those things is Gilligan’s Island, and I might add, I have no less than one Richard E. Peters, Professor of Education Emeritus, in my corner.

In thinking back on Gilligan’s Island and other sixties sitcoms, something pops out at me: the generous number of gimmick-based comedies that were hits during the decade. Every decade has its share of gimmicky shows, but can any other decade claim anywhere near the number that have remained as popular in reruns as those from the sixties? Although those sixties series no longer play as often as they once did, they’re still very much beloved (because they're just funny). Here are a few that still stand out:

Gilligan’s Island – A small sightseeing boat with two crewmen and five passengers gets stranded on an “uncharted desert isle.” Despite myriad opportunities for rescue, Gilligan always fouls them up.

Bewitched/I Dream of Jeannie – The former features a beautiful, well-meaning witch, while the latter features a beautiful, well-meaning genie, each of whom unintentionally (mostly, anyway) makes miserable the life of the man she loves.

Get Smart – In the golden age of spy movies, Mel Brooks and Buck Henry teamed to create this TV series spoof in which bungling spy Maxwell Smart keeps finding success, in spite of himself.

DVD cover for the second season of Hogan's Heroes.Hogan’s Heroes – In a WWII German POW camp, the German soldiers are fools and the Allied prisoners discreetly run the show, using the camp as a base for ongoing sabotage missions.

The Addams Family/The Munsters – These series are often mentioned together because they both featured ghoulish families, were introduced within a week of each other, and ended after their second season, but the former had a lot of subversive material and sexual innuendo, while the latter was very innocent and full of slapstick.

Green Acres – A successful New York lawyer and his glamorous, but ditzy Hungarian wife give up the high life for a stab at the good life by buying a farm in an area filled with eccentrics in this often surreal fish-out-of-water comedy.

Mister Ed – Here’s a high concept show if ever there was one: a man owns a talking horse who only talks to him. Zany situations and crazy hijinks ensue. Oh yeah, there’s also his incredibly sexy wife who doesn’t understand why her husband spends so much time in the barn, rather than with her.

The Beverly Hillbillies – The biggest hit of the decade was this series about a dirt-poor family of southern hillbillies who suddenly strike it rich when oil is discovered on their property. They take their newfound millions and move to Beverly Hills, California, where the fun begins.

These and other sixties TV favorites are available in the collection of the Des Moines Public Library. Take a trip down memory lane, introduce them to your kids/grandkids, or find out for yourself one of the reasons why the Sensational Sixties were so sensational.