Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Just Sit Right Back And You'll Hear Obit

I'm continuing to comb the files of the recently deceased, catching up on all the death which happened while I took a hiatus from my obits. If you are in the business, you certainly heard of this guy's passing last month. It even made the main stream news, as the legacy he left behind, in the form of two enduring sitcoms, continues to torture us today. I don't have much respect for those two shows, but I have a good deal of respect for the guy who was smart enough to ignore the critics and produce the programs he invisioned.

Sherwood Schwartz


What the heck is it about this guy's two major successes? In their original runs, neither Gilligan's Island nor The Brady Bunch set any records in the ratings. Both series were critically panned, and, at least during their network airings, nobody would ever admit to watching them. But once they were cancelled, and began life in syndicated reruns, they both became cultural phenomenons. They both spawned sequels, reunion films, even stage shows, but if you watch, with an open mind, one of their original episodes, you shrug. So what? (As a side note, one of the many Brady Bunch incarnations was a variety show, a clip of which appeared on this Friday Dance Party. It's a hoot.)

Schwartz did not set out to create two iconic TV shows, he was just a writer out to make a buck. After writing jokes for Bob Hope, he graduated to series television, writing for early sitcoms such as I Married Joan and Ozzie and Harriet. He won an Emmy in 1961 for The Red Skelton Show, though he hated the star so much, he included a clause in his contract that he would never have to be in the same room with him. He soon graduated to script supervisor for My Favorite Martian, after which he famously sent those seven castaways on a three hour tour.

Schwartz claimed to have had a little something bigger in mind when he created his two enduring hits. Gilligan's Island's premise, that 7 disparate people could come together to form a de facto family, foreshadows the support group mentality which was to soon take off in the 60s. As for those Bradys, they showed up at a time when millions of families were fracturing due to divorce (in typical sitcom style, both Brady households had a dead parent, which seemed more palatable to the network, and to Schwartz, than the more realistic scenario of two divorcees melding a new family).

Whatever his psychological or societal intentions, once Sherwood hit upon a winning formula, he had a hard time letting it go. In 1973, he placed Gilligan's Island star Bob Denver in a syndicated sitcom called Dusty's Trail. It's premise? Seven pioneers traveling across the West in a carriage are separated from the wagon train, and must learn to fend for themselves. Denver played the hapless assistant to the wagon master, played by Forrest Tucker. The lost party included a rich Eastern banker and his wife, a beautiful dance hall girl, a farmer's daughter, and a man with lots of book learnin'. Any similarity to the Skipper, the Howells, Ginger, Mary Ann, and the Professor was purely intentional. The series lasted only one year.

Schwartz didn't learn much of a lesson, as, in 1986, he created Together We Stand, a sitcom about a married couple with a family blended with adoptive and natural children. The hook here was that several of the adopted kids were of different races. Hilarity did not ensue, and CBS yanked the series after only six episodes. The show was retooled, and returned fatherless (Elliot Gould was fired), and with a new name, Nothing Is Easy. Dee Wallace remained as the now-widowed mother of a brood of kids with different backgrounds. The show did not last the season.

Sherwood created two other sitcoms of note. Harper Valley PTA started life as a country song which became an international smash in 1968. The song spawned a feature film a decade later, and in turn, that film was spun into a TV series by Sherwood Schwartz. Barbara Eden headed the cast of both the movie and sitcom, which premiered as a mid-season replacement series. The show lasted only 30 episodes.

As the show was based on a hit song, Sherwood did not pull his usual double duty as theme-song writer. He had a hand in the writing of the theme songs for both Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch, theme songs which are still among the most beloved (and most annoying) of all such tunes. Schwartz also wrote a lesser-known theme song, to accompany a lesser-known sitcom he created, It's About Time.

It's About Time was created while Gilligan's Island was still in production, and utilized many of the same sets and set pieces and background music. The plot concerned a couple of astronauts whose flight inadvertantly took them back in time, to the Stone Age. There they were taken in by a family of cave people, and hilarity ensued. (I confess that I watched this series during its run, solely due to the presence of Imogene Coca in the cast. In the pilot episode, she was billed as "Shag." Once the show went to series, it was discovered that shag is British slang for sexual intercourse, so she was renamed Shad). At the mid-season mark, the series was retooled, as Schwartz felt that the audience was tired of watching the heroes run from dinosaurs every episode. He had also taken note of the huge success a rival sitcom had, The Beverly Hillbillies. He saw the comic potential of the "fish out of water" scenario, so his astronauts returned to the present day, bringing with them the cave family. The remainder of the series concerned their attempts to adjust to modern life.

As with so many of Schwartz's sitcoms, It's About Time lasted only one season. But since everybody already knows the theme songs for his big hits, here is the third of the themes Sherwood wrote, from It's About Time:

When the show was retooled at midseason, the lyrics underwent a rewrite, too:

Our hero was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2008. Florence Henderson, from the Brady Bunch, and Dawn Wells, from Gilligan's Island, were there to commemorate the occasion.

Sherwood Schwartz died July 12, at the age of 94.