Gilligan's Island creator Sherwood Schwartz laughed off his critics
The show flopped with critics, but fans knew it was great.
The most popular things aren't always the most critically acclaimed. Especially in television, praise and awards don't always translate to viewership. Shows that are well-regarded by cultural commentators might go completely unseen by the masses. Conversely, a show might prove incredibly popular with the viewing public and be completely dismissed by those who write about TV.
In the '60s, Gilligan's Island was a massively polarizing show. On one hand, it was a moderate hit with audiences. The series' first two seasons finished in the top 30 in the Nielsen ratings rankings of 1965 and '66. But, like The Beverly Hillbillies three years prior, Gilligan's Island failed to impress the press.
According to The Los Angeles Times, program analyst James Cornell, of the N. W. Ayer ad agency, predicted Gilligan's Island would be the 74th most popular television show of the season. Every year, Cornell did a pre-season ranking of the rating's race to estimate which shows could advertise to viewers most effectively. Of the 96 television shows airing in 1965, Cornell predicted that Gilligan's Island would bet toward the bottom twenty in popularity.
Despite such negative expectations, by May 1965, Gilligan's Island was the seventh most popular show on television. Series creator Sherwood Schwartz was entitled to a sense of pride.
"I've never claimed Gilligan was the greatest thing since the wheel," said Schwartz. "But when someone asked me recently if I thought it was, I said to him 'Which wheel?'"
The break was a long time coming for Schwartz, who'd been writing comedy for 25 thankless years. Gilligan's Island was his first of several "creator" credits throughout the coming years, and the show's ratings doubtlessly helped push his career forward. Before his successes as a series creator, Schwartz was credited as a writer for radio programs like The Bob Hope Show, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. After switching to TV, Schwartz wrote for I Married Joan and The Red Skelton Hour before he sent the S.S. Minnow on that fateful three-hour tour.
The fact that Gilligan's characters connected with audiences should be no great surprise, as the series was the culmination of decades in comedy. Schwartz learned how to reach out to viewers using archetypes that presented a very palatable form of social satire.
"My characters are broad, but I have six types whose patterns of social behavior make them react to type regardless of where they are," said Schwartz.
"The Skipper is the physical brute. Then there's the rich man and his wife, the glamour girl, the intellectual and the country girl. Gilligan, of course, is the innocent," he explained. Beneath its slapstick surface, Gilligan secretly operated as a clever class commentary.