Gilligan’s Island Is Not What You Think It Is

Gilligan's IslandThere are periods of time when a particular joke will be considered so funny or so true that you just hear it everywhere. I remember back a few decades that the following joke was considered very funny, “I just watched that episode of Gilligan’s Island where they almost get off the island but then Gilligan screws it up.” It sounds like the kind of joke that came from a stand-up comedian. And it is supposed to be funny because it’s so true: that was the plot of every episode of the show.

The problem is that that was not the plot of every episode. You see, I just happened to have been given the complete series. And I’ve been really depressed. So I’ve watched a handful of episodes from each season. And I have yet to come upon a single episode where they would get off the island if not for Gilligan’s incompetence. Certainly most of the comedy revolves around Gilligan being an idiot. But destroying their rescue opportunities? Not so much.

What’s been most interesting watching Gilligan’s Island is how few of the plots are about them trying to get off the island at all. It is mostly a show of the adventures of a group of unlikely people trying to “make the best of things” — which, as the song tells us, is an uphill climb. This is a case where I hate the way Frankly Curious is run these days. When I first started the blog, I could have spent a week researching this article. But I only have an hour or so to write this article and go through the whole show. But here are the first six episodes of the second season:

  1. Gilligan’s Mother-in-Law: in this episode, Gilligan has the opportunity to be the best man at a wedding of a local tribesman. It holds the potential to get the word about the group’s predicament. But when Gilligan finds out that to be the best man he must survive “poison darts at six paces” he refuses. His decision is quite rational, and one that all the other men would have made.
  2. Beauty Is as Beauty Does: this episode is about the crew holding a beauty pageant to crown Miss Castaway. There is nothing whatsoever about getting off the island. It’s a silly episode even by the standards of Gilligan’s Island.
  3. The Little Dictator: an exiled South American dictator comes to the Island. He returns to take his country over, promising to rescue the castaways. He succeeds at regaining control, but then is institutionalized when he tells his countrymen about Gilligan’s Island. Yes, they don’t get off the island, but it has nothing to do with Gilligan.
  4. Smile, You’re on Mars Camera: okay, this one might be counted as an episode where Gillian screws up a rescue. I’ll grant it. But it isn’t technically his fault. He allows a pot of glue to explode, coating everyone in it. But that would have been fine. What destroys the rescue is the overreaction of everyone else, causing them all to be covered with feathers, making it look like the Mars probe was seeing chicken people on Mars
  5. The Sweepstakes: in this episode, Gilligan finds that a sweepstakes ticket he bought before the “three hour tour” has won and he is a millionaire. Nothing in the episode is about getting off Gillian’s Island.
  6. Quick Before It Sinks: this episode is all about the Professor thinking that the island is sinking. This is Gilligan’s fault, of course, but it doesn’t have anything to do with getting off the island.

So that’s 50% of the episodes having anything to do with getting off the island, and only 17% that might be considered Gillian’s fault. I don’t suppose it matters all that much. But remembering the show in such a formulaic manner is a great insult to it. That’s not to say that it is a great show. I don’t think I’ve laughed once in the 10 episodes I’ve watched. But that might say more about my depression than the show.

11 thoughts on “Gilligan’s Island Is Not What You Think It Is

  1. I watched a few of the episodes as a kid and I don’t remember much about it other then the fact I was puzzled at how the Howells always had so much money.

    I was more into The Monkees and no, not because I had a crush on any of them, I just thought they were funny.

    • The Howells, to me, signify what’s right — and what’s wrong — with the show. Because the writers were professional TV comedy writers, they created a potentially golden opportunity for comedy. And because they were experienced, professional TV writers, they didn’t realize it.

      In the show, the Howells are a running gag because they’re arrogant snobs. Everyone knows how snobs behave, and enjoys mockery of that behavior.

      But the Howells being annoying jerks isn’t what’s funny about them!

      They’re funny because, like most rich people, they expect the next windfall to benefit them. We’re stranded on a desert island. We have no access to our money. But we can keep treating our fellow castaways like crap, because, well, we enjoy treating people like that, and they’ll take it because everyone knows the rich are superior life forms, and — eventually — we’ll be rescued, and we won’t need to work with these peasants for our survival.

      This is insane! You don’t know when — or if — you’ll be rescued. If you treat everyone like crap, at best they’ll stop putting up with it and you’ll be on your own. More likely, they’re going to kill and eat you.

      Well, that’s kind of a left-wing way of regarding the show’s plot. And few, if any, TV producers were going to hire writers with a history of sneaking left-wing themes into their scripts. Instead they hired safe, reliable writers with a track record of writing for safe, successful shows. And the writers were skilled pros, so they created a typically amusing archetype. Like the angry big guy with a good heart, the vain starlet, the brainiac who’s tendency to overthink things is his own worst enemy, and so on.

      Now imagine what an “edgier,” less “established” writer would have done with the Howells. Maybe the running gag could be how the Howells keep being awful, and the castaways keep saving their butts, because the castaways won’t let people starve even if they’re horrible — and every time the castaways save the Howells again, the Howells assume it because they’re so great and the peasants are serving them.

      Or maybe the gag is that the Howells keep being jerks and the castaways accept it because they have internalized social values about who should rule and who should serve. In either gag you’re talking satire, and satire is funny! But satire is “edgy.” And the show makes nobody laugh except five-year olds, and it made tons of money, so the producers were completely right.

      If they’d hired “Arrested Development”-type writers, they might have created a classic millions of people cherished for decades, but — not as much money in that.

      • I don’t want to imagine it. Edgy is for our time. Then they wanted something that was like eating at McDonald’s when you have an upset-comfort food.

        Also I don’t like Arrested Development that much. I get the premise. I get it is edgy, smart and funny. I still don’t like it as much as say Robot Chicken.

        • AD isn’t for everybody. It’s a very specific comedy form, about setups and payoffs. I love that stuff, but I like “RC”‘s fast-pace, brainstorming style as well. It’s like the difference between a comic who zaps out unpredictable takes on existence, like Steven Wright, and one who specializes in long stories with a hilarious ending, like Julia Sweeney. They both crack me up!

    • In the 1st or 2nd season they up against each other. Gilligan’s Island won.

      As for the Howells: rich people always carry suitcases of cash with them. I’m surprised you didn’t know that.

      • I am sure it did. The Monkees was about teenage girls, not middle aged parents worried about their teens.

        Of course I didn’t know that-they use cards these days!

        • I still think they’d use cash today. It still has a certain power that no gold, platinum, black, or whatever card will ever have.

  2. The joke I always heard was “if the professor can make [bizarre super-advanced technology] out of coconuts, why can’t he patch the hole in the boat?”

    • Yes, the one episode with the glue is a good example. But that joke really isn’t that good because it takes Gilligan’s Island too literally. It is a metaphysical show. Sherwood Schwartz answered the question of why the Howells had different clothes in every episode by noting that in his experience, really rich people could get whatever they wanted regardless of where they are.

  3. Seems like you missed the episodes that had the hatch, the smoke monster, references to the Dharma Initiative, all that fun stuff.

    • When I was a kid I loved the show and watched it every day — so I’m sure I’ve seen all ~100 episodes. But I don’t remember all the episodes. However, I am certain that I have never seen an episode of Lost.

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