At the height of his TV-writing career, Sherwood Schwartz probably did not particularly anticipate being eulogized by TV critics. Schwartz, who died today at age 94, was the creator of Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch, two sitcoms that were practically critical shorthand for ridiculous and/or lightweight comedy. Therefore, naturally, those were also two of the ’60s and ’70s sitcoms most fondly remembered today by the adults who watched them decades ago.
In particular, Gilligan—which stranded seven castaways, and occasionally the Harlem Globetrotters, on an island for three seasons and numerous reunions—was one of the most notorious high-concept sitcoms of a TV decade dominated by genies, witches and Martians. (Among Schwartz’s pre-Gilligan credits, he was a script consultant for My Favorite Martian.) It also contained one of TV’s best inside jokes, aimed at one of TV sitcoms’ most famous critics, former FCC chair Newton Minow, who decried TV’s “vast wasteland”—and for whom Schwartz named the doomed S. S. Minnow. (Minow, reportedly, took the dig in good humor.)
Schwartz, we all know, had the last laughs. It’s not that his shows were secretly more sophisticated than they claimed to be: they were broad comedies with wacky misunderstandings, coconut phones and theme songs (which he wrote himself) that told you exactly who all the characters were and how they got together. But Schwartz had a knack for the kind of premise, simple but flexible, that would provide endless setups and hit a sweet spot of audience identification.
Gilligan, for instance, was not The Tempest, but it worked with a classic setup later emulated by Survivor and Lost and TV shows that did not take place on desert islands: take a group of very different people, from all classes of society, strand them together and see what happens. The Brady Bunch, likewise—a squeaky-clean story of a lovely lady and the widower she formed a blended family with—was not exactly groundbreaking social commentary. But amid the social and domestic disturbances of the late ’60s and early ’70s, people connected with two families moving on from losses in their past (Schwartz intended Carol Brady to be divorced, but the network objected) to learn lessons about not playing ball in the house.
Schwartz’s shows—unlike, say, Norman Lear’s—did not harbor big messages or grand ambitions. But they knew how to make room for the audience to invest them with their own meaning and make their own attachments. “The critics say it’s a bad show,” Schwartz once told TV Guide about Gilligan. “But there ain’t no critic who can climb into people’s windows and turn off their sets.” RIP.