Following Shout Factory’s recent release of “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” in a complete-series DVD box set, Reveal Shot presents Part I of an interview with television historians Harry Castleman and Walter Podrazik, authors of “Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television” (expanded 2nd ed., 2011). Castleman is an attorney at Boston law firm Michienzie & Sawin LLC, while Podrazik is the curator of the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.
If you’ve followed this blog (or my work at MarketWatch), you know that Harry and Wally have had a profound influence on the way I view the history of TV. In addition to “Watching TV,” I also find their books “The TV Schedule Book” (1984) and “Harry and Wally’s Favorite TV Shows” (1989) to be invaluable reference resources.
“Dobie Gillis” sprang from the mind of humorist Max Shulman in a series of 1945 short stories. Despite two popular books and a movie based on the character, Shulman told Variety in 1960 that it took him six years to bring the show to television.
“So he fought the TV battle until “Dobie” was finally accepted for network display and became one of last season’s sleepers,” Variety columnist Jack Hellman wrote in the trade magazine’s Aug. 15, 1960 edition. “What made it catch on? Says Shulman, “the point of view, an anti-togetherness approach and the separation of the kids from the parents.” ”
“Dobie Gillis” premiered on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 1959 at 8:30 Eastern time on CBS, opposite the western saga “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp” on ABC and a video version of the long-running radio series “Fibber McGee and Molly” on NBC. By midseason, NBC had given up on “Fibber,” and moved its variety show “Ford Star Time” (which had been getting clobbered by CBS’s “Garry Moore Show at 10) into the 8:30 slot.1“Dobie Gillis” would battle “Wyatt Earp” for two seasons, never becoming a huge hit in the Nielsens, but was always a solid performer among teenagers and children. Toward the end of its second season, in May 1961, “Dobie’s” TvQ score among teens 12-17 years old was 60, tying it for fourth with NBC’s “Thriller.”2 The show’s TvQ was tied for No. 10, with “My Three Sons” (then on ABC) among children 6-11 years old.3 More on the show’s broadcast history in Part II.
I spoke to Harry Castleman and Wally Podrazik in a telephone interview earlier this month.
Reveal Shot: So, “Dobie Gillis.” What made it stand out in the sitcom universe of that period, aside from Dobie breaking the fourth wall all the time?
Castleman: … Even as we were growing up … we were just consumed with teen culture, and so we just assumed that was the way it always was — that the teenager was always the culture that was always focused upon and doted on.
But that was actually a relatively recent thing, when we were kids watching the reruns in the ’60s. For a convenient point on the timeline, you could choose the rise of Elvis Presley in the mid-’50s as the start of it. Elvis Presley, when he was coming along, admired Dean Martin. When you think of that, you kind of laugh, and say, “‘They were so different.” But that was someone he admired as a great singer, as someone who put a lot of emotion into his songs. Because the focus up to that time was on people who were already out of school, who were “grown-ups.”
… Dwayne Hickman came over from “Love That Bob.” As a kid, “Love That Bob” never made any sense to me. Why are they focusing on this old geezer, Bob Cummings, who’s running around after pretty girls. He’s much too old! The idea of an older swinger-playboy type seemed incompatible with the teen culture we were used to.
This is a long lead-in to the fact that “Dobie Gillis” is the beginning of that on American television. It’s the first American sitcom to really focus on the teenager. Granted, it comes three years after Elvis had become big, but it takes a while for television to respond to cultural trends. That’s really to be the importance of “Dobie Gillis.”
Podrazik: And just to follow up on that, there had obviously been shows that focused on kids — “Leave It To Beaver,” etc. — and frankly you had shows like “Our Miss Brooks,” in which she taught at a high school. But the title says it all — “Our Miss Brooks.” The kids were there, but that was not the main focus.
With “Dobie Gillis,” you had this wonderful [premise] in which Dobie did not yet know his place in the world, and he kept trying to figure it out. I don’t want to press the class issue too hard, but he was dreaming of connecting with the rich and powerful, or being one of the rich and powerful. Having the pretty girl, having the fancy car. And based on what we saw of the Herbert T. Gillis Grocery, that was not what he came from …
And what was fascinating, was that, while you could say, well — all he was doing was thinking about girls — but the show was about what he was doing to reach those marks that society had set up, but society — specifically the girls — kept moving the line. And so he might accomplish one thing, but then Milton Armitage (Warren Beatty) or Chatsworth Osborne Jr. (Stephen Franken) would just dance in and say, “Yeah, but I have the nice car, and I’ve got the money, and I’ve got the connections, and I’ve got the girl. Goodbye.”
So it was really a chance to consider, what does a teen in this 1950s-1960s world do to grow up, basically? That’s also a set-up for talking about Maynard, too.
Castleman: And of course Maynard, famously, is the first beatnik, or proto-hippie, in American television. You can go on about Maynard for a while, but at first he’s presented as kind of a comic foil. They’re making fun of him, in effect. But as the show progressed, it’s like Maynard becomes a voice of wisdom.
Podrazik: Yeah, in fact, he’s always the one that punctures Dobie’s self-delusion. That doesn’t mean he’s dismissive of his “good buddy” — just the opposite. “I’ve got to tell you — you’re about to do something really dumb.”
Castleman: You can really analogize that as the role Ed Norton serves for Ralph Kramden on “The Honeymooners.”
Podrazik: And when you think about the “Dobie Gillis” setting, which was Doby’s encounters with Chatsworth Osborne and his mom. Everyone likes to reference Warren Beatty as Milton Armitage, because it’s Warren Beatty —
Castleman: But he wasn’t there that long.
Podrazik: But he wasn’t there that long. But, the thing is that because they were in high school together, they had proximity to each other that would never happen again once they left the school environment.
If you will, it’s the template that we see decades later on [“Beverly Hills] 90210.” The poor kids, or the less well-off kids, are in that school environment side by side with the well-heeled side of town …
I want to say one more thing about how working-class [the Gillises] are. We’ve been talking about how the emphasis is on teens. But I loved the authenticity of Mr. G. and Mrs. G.
You walk into that grocery store — and we’re accustomed to the supermarkets, the Safeways of today — but that was a neighborhood grocery store. It felt like a neighborhood grocery store. You just looked at the cans of fruit and vegetables and all, just stacked up there, and said “I know that.” It looked authentic.
Castleman: I can remember, as a kid right around the time that show was airing, going to a similar type of local grocery store, that was still the rule at that time, as supermarkets were beginning to pick up in some places.
Podrazik: I wanted to transition into story arcs. One thing about the show was that — my goodness — Dobie graduated from high school! He didn’t spend six years stuck in high school.
And again, going to the theme of, where does a young man fit in? One of the weirdest [storylines] of the series was when they [Dobie and Maynard, and, later, Chatsworth] joined the military, very briefly. 4 And it feels strange, and you think, what’s he doing? But as someone of that era trying to figure out what to do next, it might occur to someone. And then their thought was, no — that’s not going to work. Let’s go to junior college instead. So there was some believability in that story arc.
Castleman: The Army part always struck me as very weird. Looking back, of course, to that era, that’s a normal thing for a guy that age to be doing. But in terms of constructing a successful TV series, pulling Dobie — and Maynard, of all people [Podrazik laughs] out of the setting where the show originated — high school, teens, romances, parents — and sticking them in the Army, it’s like, hello? It’s completely changing the entire series. It didn’t work, and they, wisely I think, moved on.
Podrazik: And then, in talking about the strength of the high school setting, but also, in general, the character-driven storytelling, you have to make a reference to Max Shulman. Because he comes to this series as the chief writer, having created the character in short stories. Before the series started, he had published two collections of Dobie short stories.5
Castleman: There had been a movie, too, back in ’53.6
Podrazik: Right. And Dwayne Hickman and Tuesday Weld had been in another movie based on another Max Shulman property, “Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys” (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1958). So the people on the writing side and the people on the performing side came into it kind of primed to do their best work.
Coming up in Part II of Reveal Shot’s look at “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” with “Watching TV” authors Harry Castleman and Walter Podrazik, the television historians consider the show’s main cast members, and where “Dobie” fit among the situation comedies CBS developed during the late ’50s and early ’60s.
— David B. Wilkerson