I looked at the origins of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, one of the best TV sitcoms, last month. Here are some further thoughts on the series as it evolved during its second through fourth seasons.
One of the most often remarked-upon aspects of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis – something I omitted from the first half of this piece just because I’m tired of reading about it – is the starry supporting cast. First there was Tuesday Weld, who at sixteen-going-on-thirty was already three years into her unique career as the American cinema’s greatest nymphet; according to Dwayne Hickman, Weld really was Thalia Menninger, prone to cutting her leading man dead with lines like “For heaven’s sake, don’t be such a simpleton” and “You act like a farmer.” (Hickman and Weld had both been in the film version of Max Shulman’s novel Rally Round the Flag, Boys! – surely a factor in their casting on Dobie Gillis, even though Shulman’s screenplay for Rally was rewritten and he disliked the film.) The third point of the first-season love triangle was an unknown Warren Beatty, minutes away from stardom; although histories of the show and Nick at Nite ads have given Beatty an outsized prominence, he appeared in only five episodes as conceited rich boy Milton Armitage before leaving to make Splendor in the Grass. The first season also unearthed, for one full episode and a few moments of another, the likes of a twenty-one year-old Michael J. Pollard, filling in for Bob Denver, who was drafted but then kicked back, Maynard-like, by the army as a 4F. (On-screen justification: Maynard’s allergy to khaki, and a hardship discharge – hardship for the army, that is.)
Pollard is very funny in “The Sweet Singer of Central High,” but his kooky rhythms threw Shulman and the rest of the cast for such a loop that they were relieved to get Denver back. For movie buffs, of course, the tantalizing aspect of this brief confluence of before-their-time casting is the Bonnie and Clyde connection: Had only Weld, the first choice to play Bonnie (a role that then went to Faye Dunaway), not turned down Beatty’s and director Arthur Penn’s offer, Dobie Gillis would have assembled the three principals of that breakthrough New Hollywood film, and in a not-wholly-dissimilar configuration, eight years avant la lettre.
Dobie Gillis lost the brightest stars in its constellation early on – Pollard after two episodes, Beatty after five, Weld largely after the first season – in a process of attrition that can be seen as symbolic. Dobie Gillis was an endeavor that achieved near-perfection at the outset and struggled, with mixed results, to hold onto it over the course of four zig-zagging, hit-and-miss seasons. Rarely has a show proven so malleable and restless over the course of a medium-sized run. It’s symptomatic rather than coincidental that Shulman’s creation went through three different titles in four years, contracting to just Dobie Gillis in the second season and then expanding again to the deserved possessory Max Shulman’s Dobie Gillis in the fourth.
In its sophomore-slump second year, Dobie fell victim to a remarkably encompassing array of traps that beset popular series as they age; it probably invented some of them. Overreliance on catchphrases? Check: In season two, the writers tried consciously to coin them, coming up with more clunkers (“It’s only you, Maynard”) than keepers (although I’m fond of “It’s Dobie with a B,” the exasperated response to anyone who addresses our hero as “Dopey”). Greedy, synergistic attempt to turn the star into a recording artist and a teen heartthrob? Check: Hickman’s cringeworthy yowling in “Jangle Bells” and “The Day the Teachers Disappeared” were, to put it in Krebsian terms, Sellout City. Hijacking of the show by an obnoxious secondary character, a la The Fonz or Steve Urkel? Gradual sanding off of prickly characters’ rough edges, in conjunction with a broadening and sentimentalizing of the show’s tone? Check and check. In retrospect, it’s amazing that Dobie waited until the final year to succumb to “Cousin Oliver Syndrome,” with the introduction of Bobby Diamond as a cousin, Duncan “Dunky” Gillis, who was just young enough to rehash some of the high-school misadventures that Dobie had stumbled into in the first season.
Always one of the cheapest-looking shows of its day, Dobie reduced its visual imagination even further in season two by striking the malt shop set where the teens congregated. Its replacement was a dinky assemblage of picnic tables on the lawn of Dobie’s school – a substitution of quotidian reality for fifities-iconic fantasy. (The very Middle-American Central City’s malt shop was called Charlie Wong’s and staffed entirely by Chinese: a funny, off-kilter sight gag, rescued by the fact that the non-caricatured countermen were played by actual Asian Americans and not Vito Scotti.) Other seemingly cosmetic changes – like the elimination of the bold opening animation in favor of a non-title sequence superimposed over the action, and the change of Dobie’s hairstyle from platinum-blond crewcut to average-length brown – had a similar effect of subtly scaling the show down from Tashlin-sized exaggeration to television-normal. Even the holes in Maynard’s filthy sweaters disappeared; no one wanted to see Bob Denver’s navel, least of all Bob Denver (who agitated for this advance in decorum).
The most damaging of the changes in Dobie Gillis was probably the expansion of Maynard G. Krebs from sidekick to co-star. By the middle of the second season, it was basically The Maynard-and-Dobie Show. As much as on Gilligan’s Island, Denver was a one-note actor and an acquired taste. As Dan Castellaneta would do with Homer Simpson, Denver literally eliminated an edge to his character, raising the pitch of his voice early in the first season to make Maynard sound more goofy and childlike. (The same vocal inflection carried over into Gilligan; it’s startling to hear Denver speaking like a relatively normal person in the first few Dobie Gillis episodes.) The broadening of Denver’s performance reflected a gradual shift in the series’ depiction of Maynard, from an underachieving non-conformist to an oaf whose disability-scaled imbecility was the butt of hyperbolic and sometimes cruel jokes. The dimwitted Maynard who got himself shot into outer space with a chimpanzee (in “Spaceville”) was probably easier to write than the existential Maynard who swapped jazz references and kooky jokes with beatnik chicks and Riff Ryan (Tommy Farrell), the goateed record shop owner. But he was harder to take, and less of a piece with the rest of Dobie’s world.
Maynard’s increased prominence maneuvered Dwayne Hickman into the function of straight man, for which he was well-suited. (Hickman had studied Jack Benny’s and his own mentor Robert Cummings’s reactions, and imitated them as Dobie.) The Andy Griffith Show evolved in the same direction, but whereas turning Griffith into a foil for an array of eccentrics eliminated a cornpone schtick that no one would miss, shifting Dobie into second position muted a far more valuable aspect of his series: Dobie’s fickle but insatiable pursuit of the opposite sex. After the irreplaceable Tuesday Weld left the show, Thalia was, in effect, replaced by Maynard. Dobie’s horndog instincts were never completely suppressed, but cutting back on them to emphasize Maynard’s adolescent antics made the show subtly less adult-oriented. Supposedly, the elimination of Herbert’s filicidal invective (“I gotta kill that boy”) after the first season was network-dictated, and one wonders if CBS also compelled Shulman to render Dobie as less of a perv.
The Maynardization of Dobie Gillis also left less room than before for the Sturgesian array of wacky minor characters, like Richard Reeves’s angry Officer Parmalee and Marjorie Bennett’s Mrs. Kenney, the world’s most miserly grocery shopper. The parade of Central City eccentrics gradually faded away during the second season (perhaps moving to Mayberry, to torment Sheriff Taylor), and the Dobie scripts contracted to focus on a core group: Dobie, his parents, Maynard, Zelda Gilroy, and Chatsworth Osborne, Jr., as well as his impossibly snobbish battle-axe mother (Doris Packer, better than anyone at projecting through clenched teeth) and long-suffering butler Trembley (David Bond).
Chatsworth was the spoiled-rich-kid replacement for the departed Beatty’s character, Milton Armitage, and as played by young character actor Steve Franken, he was the series’ best invention: an over-the-top spoof of clueless inherited privilege, but drawn with great specificity and wit. Chatsworth was insufferable but perversely sympathetic; deep down he knew that people only liked him for his money, and that he was something of a prisoner in a gilded cage. Franken’s beaky face and wonderfully cartoonish mannerisms (the drawn-out vowels, “DOH-bie-DOO,” the clock! of his tongue as he mimed swinging an invisible polo mallet) made him a young, live-action version of The Simpsons’ C. Montgomery Burns, who must have been at least partly inspired by Chatsworth. Shulman claimed he didn’t know any beatniks, but he had to have run across his share of cloddish prep school man-boys – which may be why I, for one, think that Chatsworth would have been a better choice for co-equal status with Dobie, and Maynard far more tolerable in smaller doses. The rich are always with us, and more inviting of satire now than ever. Beatniks, not so much.
As it turned out, though, the show became increasingly stingy in doling out the Osbornes’ appearances: Franken appeared only four times in the final season. Also during the fourth year, Florida Friebus’s role shrank somewhat, long-suffering Professor Pomfritt (William Schallert) was gone entirely, and, in the most lamentable development of all, Sheila James sat out a full six months while CBS filmed an ill-starred spinoff pilot, Zelda. Contractual shenanigans kept her off Dobie Gillis while the network decided its fate, and when James did return as a freelancer in the final season, it was (like Franken) for a meager four episodes. (James recalls that CBS rejected Zelda because her character was “too butch” – an executive’s verdict relayed to her by director Rod Amateau, and a devastating one, as James was a closeted lesbian. However, Shulman believed that both Zelda and a pilot he and Amateau made the preceding season, the very Tashlinesque Daddy-O, were set up to fail; he was later told that network president James Aubrey intended to buy neither series, but green-lit the pilots as a means of keeping Shulman and Amateau off the market and under contract to CBS.) By the end, the show’s formidable stock of talent had been depleted to the point that viewers had a weekly guarantee of just Hickman, Denver, and Frank Faylen – not enough notes for a rich symphony.
But Dobie Gillis didn’t progress along a straight downward line. One of Shulman’s innovations was to envision his series as a bildungsroman – perhaps television’s first? – and to liberate Dobie from the medium’s customary temporal stasis. In four years Dobie went through all the stages of young adulthood that were typical for his generation: high school, military service, the prospect (but not the certainty) of college, and the looming twentysomething urge to settle down (presented, for Dobie, as more of an obligation or a default than a source of enthusiasm). One suspects that young men who were Dobie’s age related to his uncertainty in navigating these changes, much as I did as a first-run Wonder Years viewer who happened to be in the same grade as Kevin Arnold. The idea of Dobie maturing as in the real world was unusual enough for TV Guide to press his creator on the reasons why. “I hate television,” was Shulman’s typically surly reply, meaning, in essence, its repetitiveness and predictability. Rod Amateau clarified for the reporter: “If we didn’t keep the show interesting, we’d lose Max.”
Shulman’s early stabs at serialization did not always go smoothly. Mid-second season episodes traversed an arc toward Dobie’s high school graduation, and then radically upended the show’s basic format by enlisting Dobie and Maynard in the army. (That drab high school courtyard set was half-heartedly redressed as a nearly identical outdoor PX, complete with the same picnic tables; who did they think they were fooling?) Although the first few scripts were funny – especially “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier, Sailor, or Marine,” in which Chatsworth poses as an AWOL Maynard, and both prove utterly confounding to the regimental mentality of the army – the service comedy version of Dobie Gillis was a poor man’s The Phil Silvers Show (or even, looking ahead, a poor man’s Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.). Did Shulman abruptly reverse course after the army episodes were poorly received? I’ve found no evidence either way, but my guess is that Camp Grace was always meant as a temporary way station (a place to use up a storehouse of boot camp jokes) and Shulman’s destination was always college – the place where, for Shulman, the character started in the first place.
“College” is perhaps a generous term for Dobie’s institute of higher learning, the humble S. Peter Pryor Junior College (named after Shulman’s accountant). Implausibly, Shulman also contrived for not only Maynard but Mr. Pomfritt, the high school English teacher who bore the brunt of the pair’s goofing off, to matriculate as well. Jean Byron, who with Schallert would go on to play Patty Lane’s parents on The Patty Duke Show, became a semi-regular as another of Dobie’s teachers, Dr. Imogene Burkhart (an in-joke; that was Byron’s real name). Typically for Shulman, Dr. Burkhart vacillated between a positive representation of a smart, slightly sarcastic intellectual, and a shrill anti-feminist caricature. “Beauty Is Only Kin Deep,” Burkhart’s final appearance, rather viciously retrofits her as a frump with a dweeby boyfriend.
The fourth season is often described as the worst, but it’s more like the weirdest – an enthusiastic, out-of-nowhere embrace of the Tashlinesque hyperbole that had been on the fringes of the show, coming only occasionally to the fore in early episodes like the monster-movie parody “The Chicken From Outer Space” and the brilliant, bizarre “The Mystic Powers of Maynard G. Krebs,” in which Maynard develops ESP and goes on television to predict whether Nixon or Kennedy would win the following week’s election. (Shulman turned the handicap of not knowing the actual outcome into a hilarious final punchline.) Although specific pop-culture parodies had never been a primary ingredient in Dobie Gillis, during the fourth season Shulman spoofed his way through a checklist of movie and television genres: doctor shows (“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to a Funny Thing”), cop shows (“What’s a Little Murder Between Friends” was a riff on Car 54, Where Are You?), jungle adventures (“The General Cried at Dawn”), boxing movies (“Requiem For an Underweight Heavyweight”), spy movies (“I Was a Spy For the F.O.B.”), monster movies again (“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Gillis”), musical biopics (“There’s a Broken Light For Every Heart on Broadway”), A Face in the Crowd (“Northern Comfort”), Rain (“The Ugliest American”). Shulman must have found the great hunky-doctor face-off of 1961 hilarious: Not only did “Funny Thing” mock Ben Casey’s man-woman-birth-death-infinity opening and paste gigantic tufts of hair all over Hickman’s chest and arms (a pretty cruel dig at Vince Edwards’s hirsute appearance), but TV doctor gags also found their way into “Strictly For the Birds” and “And Now a Word From Our Sponsor.”
Inside jokes abounded in the fourth season. “Lassie, Get Lost” mentions a Tuesday Weld Fan Club, and “Peter Lawford” became a running, all-purpose zinger – why, I have no idea, although the show’s commitment to the bit was funny on its own. Overt surrealism ran rampant: “The Iceman Goeth” encloses an oil gusher in an envelope (a sight gag that ups the ante from Frank Tashlin to Jerry Lewis). “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” in which Maynard mutates into a busty female whom Dobie is perfectly willing to fuck, was totally bonkers. Other episodes lampooned consumer-society excess (“Too Many Kooks” has the Gillises peddling the Quickie Cooker™) or chased the tail of about-nothing minutiae in the way that The Dick Van Dyke Show had started to do. The excellent “The Beast With Twenty Fingers,” in which Herbert and Maynard each get a digit stuck in a Chinese finger trap, was an excursion into absurdism reminiscent of the time Laura Petrie got her toe stuck in the bathtub faucet. Even the introductory monologues grew strange and a little scary: the Thinker statue moved out of its cozy park and into a blackened limbo, so that Dobie appeared to be narrating the show from inside his own deranged id. Dobie Gillis’s senior year probably didn’t leave anyone wanting more, but it had an insouciant disregard for sitcom conventions that more shows could stand to go out on.
It’s difficult to trace the reasons behind the steep fluctuations in the series’ quality. Shulman said that he “had a staff of five good writers: four regulars and one occasional.” The four men Shulman found who could write successfully for the series were: Joel Kane, an Australian who wrote for dramas as often as comedies; Bud Nye, like Shulman a prose humorist, who had written for the first live sitcom, Mary Kay and Johnny; Arnold Horwitt, a Broadway lyricist (Plain and Fancy); and Ray Allen, a playwright (The Loving Couch) who was stabbed to death with a letter opener by his wife, sitcom actress Fay DeWitt (who successfully claimed self-defense), in 1965. (Allen’s first wife – who only divorced him – was the daughter of a vaudeville comic named “Blue Bert” Kenney; Allen likely named Central City’s resident battle axe, Mrs. Blossom Kenney, who first appears in an episode written by Allen, after his ex-wife. The Internet Movie Database erroneously attributes many of Allen’s credits, including Dobie Gillis, to a younger comedy writer, Ray Saffian Allen, who wrote for The Andy Griffith Show and Hogan’s Heroes during the sixties.)
Shulman’s generosity in sharing credit aside, my hunch is that all of the scripts lived or died based largely on the extent to which Shulman was available to punch them up in his own voice. Bob Denver thought that Shulman “went Hollywood” during the third season, then rededicated himself to the show during the fourth, while Darryl Hickman believed the final season was the most Shulman-deprived. Shulman lived in Westport, Connecticut – a veritable colony of early television writers, including Rod Serling and Reginald Rose – and commuted to Los Angeles to make Dobie Gillis during the entirety of its run. Hickman recalled that Shulman’s trips to Westport increased during the fourth season. I can’t determine whether it’s related to the distraction that Hickman observed, but Shulman suffered a personal tragedy just weeks after production on the series wrapped: his forty-one year-old wife, Carol, died of pneumonia on May 17, 1963.
The irregular application of the “Shulman touch” meant that, increasingly, Dobie Gillis segregated itself into two different shows with the same cast and characters: one a zany farce that plied the standard sitcom tropes, albeit with more wit and variety than most; the other a thoughtful, often melancholy character-driven dramedy that took it upon itself to contemplate the essential nature of life itself. That second Dobie Gillis manifested itself less often – in perhaps as few as a dozen episodes – but it is the one that is responsible for fans’ enduring loyalty to the series.
The blueprint for Dobie Gillis’s “mythology” episodes is the second season’s “The Big Question.” One of the show’s very few excursions outdoors (into what appears to be the loading dock of Fox Western, but no matter), it is a loose-jointed half-hour in which Dobie and Maynard simply wander around town, mulling over what they want from an uncertain post-high school future. The catalyst for this interlude of self-discovery is an essay topic – “Whither are we drifting?” – proposed by Mr. Pomfritt. If Dobie’s narration was a way for Shulman to smuggle his own logorrheic wit into the mouth of an otherwise amorphous teenager, Mr. Pomfritt (whose first name, “Leander,” was an anagram for “learned”) became a surrogate within the narrative for the adult Shulman, explicitly articulating values (some of them well outside the Eisenhower-era mainstream) that the series appeared to endorse as elements of a life worth living. In “Blue-Tail Fly,” Pomfritt advocates for substance over image in student elections. In “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Me and Robert Browning,” effectively a sequel to “The Big Question,” Pomfritt introduces the theme that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” and by way of example confesses to being a failed novelist. Mr. Pomfritt was the ethical and intellectual center of Dobie Gillis, and the kindly, non-threatening, easy-to-take-for-granted Schallert was an inspired choice to play him. Imagine how pompous much of Mr. Pomfritt’s gentle wisdom would sound coming from a more traditional authority figure type (Raymond Burr, say, or George C. Scott).
In practice, Dobie’s reach exceeding his grasp meant short-changing Zelda to pursue a prettier girl. There’s a sweet scene at the end of “Browning” in which Dobie recommits to Zelda, acknowledging his poor treatment of her; naturally, she accepts this dubious apology without protest. That detente established a kind of holding pattern for the Dobie-Zelda relationship, further explored but not advanced in the equally commitment-phobic “For Whom the Wedding Bell Tolls” and “The Marriage Counselor.” Just as Dobie all but openly conceded that Zelda was a girl to settle for as much as settle down with, so Shulman needed to keep the door open for as many pretty guest stars as possible. It was left for the TV-movie reunion, twenty-five years hence, to confirm for good that Dobie and Zelda finally ended up together.
Hanging over any possible Dobie-Zelda union, not to mention over the series itself, was the specter of Thalia Menninger. Shulman got Tuesday Weld back for two episodes in the third and fourth seasons, and probably wanted more. (“Flow Gently, Sweet Money” features the series’ favorite runner-up femme fatale, Yvonne Craig, as an identical character, even dropping Thalia’s old catchphrase “Love doesn’t butter any parsnips” into her dialogue; and there are other late episodes that could have been written with Weld in mind as well.) The second of Thalia’s encores, “What’s a Little Murder Between Friends,” treads water (although Shulman tried to rewrite it as the basis of the 1988 reunion, a script that CBS rejected wholly), but the first, “Birth of a Salesman,” is one of the shrewdest scripts.
Credited to Arnold Horwitt, “Birth of a Salesman” grasps the significance of Thalia’s return after nearly two years, both for Dobie and for the viewer. In the prologue, Dobie and Maynard speak dismissively of that gold digging girl Dobie knew back in high school. The implication is that he knows better now than to fall for such a shallow creature. In a lovely scene in the soda shop (the series had a new, smaller one by season three), Thalia’s return plays out as a reunion between lovers who never quite got over each other; it feels as if more than a year or two have passed. Now a would-be corporate go-getter, Thalia is back in Central City to tempt both Dobie and Mr. Pomfritt with lucrative jobs in sales. We see that Pomfritt’s office just a desk in a room crowded with other college administrators; he complains of spending more time with unions and contractors than students. With sympathetic characters articulating both sides, “Birth of a Salesman” is structured as a debate between pragmatism and idealism. Thalia and Herbert argue that money and security are the key to happiness; Maynard and Mr. Pomfritt make a case for the less tangible benefits of contemplative, scholarly pursuits. Dobie stays in school – for the time being – but who’s to say who is right? Shulman doesn’t stack the deck.
The undistinguished final episode, “The Devil and Dobie Gillis,” brought the series full circle, by reviving a plot from the pilot about a rigged raffle. (Several other late episodes also recycled first season storylines.) A more fitting finale would have been Bud Nye’s “The Moon and No Pence,” which reprises, and settles, the question of Dobie joining the family business as a career. Zelda has a different future in mind for him, one in which she nags Dobie into a gray-flannel-suit corporate world. In the brief glimpse we get of Dobie as a Mad Man, he’s a stressed-out philanderer, unfulfilled in his work and prone to Don Draperish dalliances with free-spirited women. Broadcast four months and sixteen episodes before the series went off the air, “The Moon and No Pence” was our last look at Dobie’s inner life.
According to Hickman, cast and crew disbanded in 1963 before word from the network arrived as to the series’ future – no goodbyes, no finales. “The Moon and Six Pence” contains enough dots to connect into an ending, in which the path Dobie finally chooses – Gillis and Son – is conventional but also, perhaps, a middle course between the opposing futures materialistic Thalia and head-in-the-clouds Maynard staked out in “The Big Question.” Not bad, although I prefer the one in the back of my own mind, in which Glenn Corbett tools through Central City in a half-empty ’Vette, drops into a nondescript corner grocery, and asks the bored-looking young man behind the counter if he’d like to go for a ride.
April 11, 2014
Rescued from obscurity last year with an essential complete-series DVD release, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis remains one of the most distinctive and intelligent American situation comedies. Conceived and successfully marketed as a youth-oriented enterprise – the everyday life of the ordinary teenager – Dobie expanded its vision, as all great television does, to articulate an overarching point of view on existence itself – a wry, wise one, with a strong undercurrent of melancholy. Verbally witty and tonally unpredictable, it was probably the most sophisticated sitcom to debut before The Dick Van Dyke Show – although its sharp edges and complicated relationship with realism (and reality) make Dobie Gillis more relevant as a precursor to the spirited insanity of Green Acres.
Dobie Gillis was one of the earliest television comedies to embody the unmistakable voice of a single, brilliant writer – from the fifties, only Nat Hiken’s The Phil Silvers Show and arguably David Swift’s Mister Peepers come to mind as fellow members of that fraternity. Though he had successes on Broadway (The Tender Trap) and in films (adaptations of The Affairs of Dobie Gillis in 1953, with Bobby Van in the title role, and his novel Rally Round the Flag, Boys! in 1958), Max Shulman began as a prose writer who took on college life in his first book (Barefoot Boy With Cheek, 1943) and introduced the character of Dobie in a series of short stories. Although the unity of tone in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis is self-evident, Shulman asserted his control over the television series in no uncertain terms: “In Dobie Gillis, every script in the end went through my typewriter, sometimes for minor changes, sometimes for major ones. Out of 39 or so episodes, I’d write maybe 10 – anywhere from 6 to 12 – but I would polish or tinker with every one of them, because I wanted to keep the same tone.”
A TV pilot script for Dobie had been around for a couple of years before it coalesced at Twentieth Century-Fox in 1958, when Martin Manulis (the legendary Playhouse 90 producer) became the studio’s new head of television production and revived it from the dead. Although Manulis quit after less than a year in the job, before the series debuted, his production company’s logo appeared at the end of Dobie Gillis for all of its one hundred and forty-seven episodes. The Dobie series was also an early agency package, from General Artists Corporation (GAC), the forerunner of ICM. A “package” was a situation where the key talents, usually all clients of the agency in question, were assembled by the agency and presented as a bundle to the buyer. It was probably GAC that put Shulman together with his key collaborator, producer-director Rod Amateau.
Shulman and Amateau would be the brains behind Dobie Gillis for its entire four-year run. “We were just two little schnooks trying to put a comedy show together,” said Shulman (and it was literally true, in part; neither man stood taller than 5’5”). After clashes with studio executives over the pilot, Shulman contrived to move production to a smaller annex lot, Fox Western (which was actually east of the main Fox studios, but named after its location at Sunset and Western), where they would be left alone. Shot quickly, with two cameras and no audience, on a cluster of sets that were cramped and threadbare but got the idea across, Dobie Gillis was a quasi-independent production nestled under a big studio banner.
In print, Dobie Gillis was a college kid; university life seemed to be Shulman’s creative starting point in the same way that service in the war formed the points of view of many other writers of his generation. Television lowered his age and transplanted Dobie (played by Dwayne Hickman, previously a supporting player on The Bob Cummings Show and the Shulman-scripted Rally Round the Flag, Boys!) to high school, because Manulis felt that his escapades were too silly to seem plausible otherwise. In a way that anticipates, oddly, the workplace comedy formula of Dick Van Dyke and many of its successors, Shulman divided his attention evenly between Dobie’s “professional” life at school and his family life at home. Dobie’s parents (Frank Faylen and Florida Friebus) were the proprietors of a rather shabby little grocery store; his older brother, Davey (played, in a gimmick of casting, by the actor’s older brother Darryl Hickman), was already away at college, leaving Dobie for narrative purposes an only child.
The rest of the ensemble comprised friends and teachers from Dobie’s “work” sphere, Central High School (and later S. Peter Pryor College). Dobie’s best friend, for instance, was a beatnik, allegedly the first to figure prominently in a television series. Maynard G. Krebs – played by Bob Denver, a casting director’s secretary’s brother, whose inexperience lent him a innocent quality that Shulman and Amateau found lacking in the other applicants – was a bedraggled loafer with a hint of a goatee and a wardrobe consisting entirely of torn sweatshirts. Maynard was such a topical notion that he could not have existed in the days when Shulman first started writing about Dobie. More than any other character, as both Shulman and Denver would later recall, Maynard was an ongoing invention of the actor who played him.
If everyone on The Twilight Zone sounded like Rod Serling, then all of Shulman’s characters tended to share the same loquacious, declamatory speech pattern – almost a proto-Sorkinese. Collectively, the citizens of Central City had a more prodigious vocabulary than anyone else on television in the early sixties. Some critics, as well as Hickman and others who worked on the show, have claimed that Shulman’s use of Dobie as a simultaneous participant and narrator in the series was ground-breaking. Perhaps, but Dobie’s funny monologues – at first delivered, in a self-mocking gesture, next to the local park’s copy of Rodin’s The Thinker – don’t play as a jarring, fourth-wall breaking device, in the manner of Kevin Spacey turning away from a scene and towards the viewer in House of Cards. Rather, they strike me as a natural (if unusually fluid) extension of the importance of speech and wordplay in Shulman’s writing, and of a piece with the sort of on-screen hosting that Serling and Alfred Hitchcock provided for their own shows – more about establishing a particular tone than delivering exposition. A closer modern analogue for Dobie’s monologues might be the interpolation of the stars’ stand-up routines into episodes of Seinfeld or Louie.
Although catchphrase humor isn’t usually thought of as a sophisticated sitcom device, Shulman infused Dobie Gillis with a roster of intricate litanies, the best of which became calling cards for the characters who delivered them, as well as pleasurable running gags. Dobie and Maynard sit on a park bench, volleying back and forth “What do you want to do tonight,” in tribute to Marty. Thalia Menninger (Tuesday Weld), Dobie’s earliest, just-out-of-reach inamorata, calmly explains the rationale behind her monomaniacal gold-digging: “My father’s sixty years old and has a kidney condition, and my mother isn’t getting any younger either. I have a sister who’s married to a loafer, and a brother who shows every sign of turning into a public charge.” Herbert T. Gillis recites his World War II service record, “with the good conduct medal,” the added emphasis underlining Dobie’s dad’s puffed-up view of himself.
Those catechisms are a key to understanding Shulman’s worldview, which is simultaneously cynical and warm. Shulman protects his characters in very specific ways: Herbert may be a windbag, living too much in the past; but as he reminds us with every recitation, his exasperation with his son’s aimlessness is rooted in legitimate Greatest Generation accomplishment. Herbert’s other major refrain was, in response to any infraction by Dobie, “I gotta kill that boy” – a line that, like Ralph Kramden’s “To the moon, Alice,” contains an undercurrent of abusiveness that couldn’t have gone unnoticed even among fifties audiences, especially as delivered by the raspy and irascible Faylen (essentially playing himself, according to Hickman). Shulman liked to point out that “we didn’t even pretend that there was any communication between parents and children,” but the relationship was more complicated: Whenever someone else insulted Dobie, Herbert was quick to take offense. He was far from warm and fuzzy, but Dobie was his burden to heap insult upon.
By the same token, Thalia’s lust for money has a rational grounding: Shulman gives her a sympathetic justification for craving coin even as he makes full use of it as a nightmarish, all-consuming spectre in Dobie’s life. “Girls who tell the truth are funny,” Shulman said – a statement that can be taken in more than one way. Like many of the television writers of his era, Shulman had a bit of a woman problem; and just as Stirling Silliphant used Route 66, in his own prescient/retrograde way, as a vehicle to work out a horror of and fascination for women’s lib, Dobie Gillis became a canvas for Shulman to sketch out contradictory female archetypes. Thalia’s opposite number was Zelda Gilroy (Sheila James), initially a one-off character (alphabetical seating fated her to be Dobie’s chemistry partner, and one-sided soulmate, in the third episode, “Love Is a Science”), but one who evolved into the show’s female lead. Shulman used Zelda to balance the equation of Dobie’s unsatisfying love life: As Thalia was unattainable for Dobie, so Dobie was unattainable for the lovestruck Zelda, to the endless exasperation of all concerned.
Although physical appearance is implicitly the reason that Dobie pursues every girl in sight except Zelda, the show steers clear of overtly cruel jokes at her expense (especially compared to the way that, say, Miss Hathaway is treated in The Beverly Hillbillies). Personality – specifically, the obnoxiousness with which she pursues Dobie, itself a refraction and a tacit critique of Dobie’s girl-craziness – can also be understood as Dobie’s main objection to Zelda. And of course, Zelda’s desire to remake Dobie into a suitable mate – “I’m going to nag you into being rich and successful and happy, even if it makes you miserable!” – isn’t all that different from the get-rich quick schemes into which Thalia enlists a somewhat more willing Dobie. If anything, Zelda’s plans for his future are even more explicitly fifties-conformist. (There’s a hint of the outlaw in Thalia: if Zelda was grooming Dobie to provide for them, Thalia saw him as a tool to provide for her.) For Shulman, womanhood was a continuum of emasculation.
Another of the show’s major touchstones was Dobie’s obsessive evocation of girls as “soft and round and pink and creamy.” Even when attributed to a gormless adolescent with only a theoretical conception of sex, that’s a slightly creepy and weirdly biological way of thinking about women. Like Silliphant, Shulman ended up trying to have it both ways: The women in Dobie Gillis were smarter and more assertive than Dobie and Maynard, but their objectification went largely unquestioned (something that was even more true of the lust-objects-of-the-week who appeared in many episodes than for the more fleshed-out Zelda and Thalia). But it would be misguided to offer an ahistorical scolding to Dobie Gillis for its ambivalent sexism, since on the whole (and relative to many more actively misogynistic series of the same period) Shulman’s show comes across as affectionate towards and admiring of women. One of the reasons that Dobie Gillis delights today is its honesty about Dobie’s lust. The teens in Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, and even the down-to-earth Leave It to Beaver were asexual, but Dobie was a horny kid, persistent and even compulsive in his pursuit of sex. Shulman and Hickman always made it clear that this kid would tag as many bases as he could get away with.
The realism, at least by TV standards, of Dobie Gillis extended into areas beyond sex. Shulman was also obsessed with money, and not just by way of his gold-digging goddess Thalia. As a counterpoint to Dobie’s incessant mooching off his parents and Maynard’s infamous phobia for “work!” Shulman crafted an explicit accounting of the middle-class struggle to make ends meet that’s as rare on television now as it was then. The first season’s wonderfully dyspeptic Christmas episode, “Deck the Halls,” was a grumble about the travails of the merchant class, in which Herbert’s stingy customers contrive a dozen different ways to nickle-and-dime him into the poor house.
The even more specific “The Magnificent Failure” finds Herbert overvaluing his grocery store by a figure of $29,000; after his bad negotiating torpedoes a buyout deal, he goes in search of a job as a middle manager in a supermarket chain, only to learn the hard way that he’s not considered qualified to work for a big corporation. The dire economy of Leander Pomfritt (William Schallert), Dobie’s kindly English teacher (and later professor), also came in for scrutiny in a pair of morose episodes that examine, without any comedic exaggeration, the kinds of sacrifices that an educator must make in order to remain in a profession that Shulman clearly thinks of as noble. Pomfritt has to moonlight in order to make ends meet, a situation that he finds humiliating; and even at the junior college, in theory an advance over teaching at high school, he’s distracted from teaching by a heavy load of crushing administrative duties.
During the first season, Dobie Gillis gradually built up a roster of some of the funniest character actors in the business, most of them recurring in small roles as the Gillises’ neighbors, customers, and civic overlords: Doris Packer, Marjorie Bennett, Jack Albertson, Alan Carney, Joey Faye, Richard Reeves, James Millhollin, Burt Mustin, Milton Frome. Coupled with Shulman’s penchant for giving his characters long, silly names (Merrilee Maribou! Monty W. Millfloss! Truckhorse Bronkowski!), the populating of Central City with such a rich ensemble of oddballs felt like a conscious imitation of Preston Sturges, especially his small-town send-ups (The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek; Hail the Conquering Hero).
At the same time, Shulman depicted fifties materialism, pop culture, and sex in a heightened tone – no other sitcom of its day did vulgarity as exuberantly as Dobie Gillis. Dobie’s lust, Thalia’s greed, and Maynard’s beat affectations – not to mention the screeching theme song and the first season’s lecherous animated opening titles – are painted in broad strokes that emulate the wild satires of Frank Tashlin, who was at his peak (with The Girl Can’t Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?) in the years when Shulman was putting Dobie Gillis together. Perhaps the best way to characterize the distinctive delights of Dobie Gillis is to suggest that it represented a synthesis of Sturges’s weirdness and Tashlin’s spikiness – or even that Shulman was consciously imitating both writer-directors. It’s hard to think of any other important sitcoms that followed in the tradition of either; Green Acres, maybe, had some of Sturges, and The Dick Van Dyke Show a bit of Tashlin, but these seem like incidental similarities compared to the extent that Shulman channelled both.
In the second half of this essay, I consider some of the changes that the very protean Dobie Gillis underwent in its second, third, and fourth seasons.