Showing posts with label sitcoms. Show all posts
Showing posts with label sitcoms. Show all posts

12 January 2022


Peter Bogdanovich died in the first week of the new year, and the gracious, ever-graceful, and utterly transformative Sidney Poitier.  And then yesterday, Dwayne Hickman.  I mean no disrespect, putting these three very different guys (with very different legacies) in the same paragraph, but Dobie Gillis stood in for a genuine cultural threshold, one worth remarking. 

Let’s start with Max Shulman.  He had a pretty lively run for a good thirty years, starting in the late 1940’s.  His first book hit the bestseller list, and he stayed on it.  He may have dated since, but people gobbled it up.  He was funny.  The novels included The Feather Merchants, Sleep Till Noon, and Rally Round the Flag, Boys!  The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis came out in 1951, a collection of previously published magazine stories.  The movie version – a musical with Debbie Reynolds – was released in ‘53.  Dobie didn’t hit TV until 1959, with Shulman on board as creator, show-runner, and uncredited exec producer.  It ran four seasons.

Dobie was slightly askew from the get-go.  The framing device: Dobie the character, with a sculpture of the Thinker behind him, talks through the action he’s about to encounter in a generally puzzled way, and steps through the Fourth Wall.  His dad, played by Frank Faylen, was a very far cry from Ozzie or Ward Cleaver.  And then there was Maynard.  A caricature, yes, but in the main unthreatening, not genuinely subversive. 


The series turned Frank Faylen and Bob Denver into household names.  It helped make Tuesday Weld a star.  It typecast Dwayne Hickman, who seemed good-natured enough about it, and moved away from acting, into production and programming.  He later commented that Dobie represented the end of innocence, as the Fifties gave way to the Sixties. 

This is, I think, telling.  Shulman, who grew up in a heavily Jewish neighborhood of St. Paul, never engaged with Jewish themes until his last novel, Potatoes Are Cheaper, in 1971.  He himself said that the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint freed him up to tackle Jewishness.  You have to wonder about that little gem, turning it over in your hands and holding it up to the light. 

Dobie is almost aggressively WASP-y.  Is the character a more innocent - or at least less full-frontal – version of Portnoy?  Dobie is girl-crazy, and most of his wounds are self-inflicted, awkwardness being an adolescent trope.  But depending on how deeply you care to dig, it’s fair to say Max doesn’t harbor the hostility toward women that Roth clearly did.  Nor does Max seem to identify as particularly Jewish.  Maybe, though, we’re talking Jewish in the sense Mel Brooks uses, that it’s New York, not so much Jewish per se.  Growing up St. Paul, a little less, nu?  I could be wrong, but Shulman appears to have come through unscathed.  He’s not carrying the burdens of Abraham and Lot.  He isn’t playing the fool to escape bullies, or repurpose injury.

I could be reading way too much into all this.  The cliché of the clown with tears behind his makeup.  I don’t know if Max was always sunny, but he seldom comes across as dour.

So, what is it about Dobie?  Not that he’s Hamlet, mind.  Still, he’s inviting us into his confidences.  This is different from George Burns, say, who used to step out of the action on his show and comment on it; Burns was a monologist, and his comedy was a routine.  Dobie Gillis was   situation comedy, and Dwayne Hickman didn’t step out of character.  His befuddlement was Dobie’s.  Part of it, too, was familiarity.  We’ve all been stuck on a girl like Thalia Menninger, or a guy like Milton Armitage.  (And a trivia question for you: what was Warren Beatty’s big break before Kazan cast him in Splendor in the Grass?)  Dobie is like the rest of us, more or less, wondering how it’s all gonna turn out, even if right at the moment, he’s a little too fixed on whether Thalia’s gonna give him the time of day, let alone some bare tit.  (I made that up.)  I mean he hasn’t realized yet that he’ll never grow out of it.

Dobie Gillis works because Shulman gets the most basic underpinning of comedy, that you establish the familiar, the convincing detail, and whatever the consequences, they arise out of character.  In other words, you’re in on the gag.  You can accept a reversal of expectation.  The punchline is not so much a surprise, as an inevitability.    It may not necessarily be cruel, but it’s always necessary.

Dobie is very much a transitional character, and the show a moment in time.  My mom, for example, thought the books were hysterically funny, the show not so much.  Maybe she saw me as Dobie, and Dwayne Hickman as an imitation.  For a lot of us, Dobie Gillis was an imitation.  Not quite the real thing, but an approximation.  Better than Lassie, or Leave It to Beaver, or the Nelsons, it began to approach the canvas from a less obvious perspective.  It was more generous.  It allowed breathing room for a world beyond the immediate conventions, and broadened its own horizons.

Shulman died in 1988.  Here’s the punchline from the Minnesota Historical Society page, courtesy of Paul Nelson. 

“Among writers born and raised in St. Paul, only F. Scott Fitzgerald has sold more books.  Fitzgerald sold more books; Shulman got more laughs.”