About Me

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Montreal, Quebec, Canada
I am a Montreal-based actor, writer and comedian. When U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot, I was three days old. I cried all day. My favourite books of all time are Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis and The Ewoks Fun Time Activity Book by Chirpa and Pamploo. I am a member of The Vestibules, On The Spot Improv and The Best Buy Battery Club. Except for the Battery Club, I've been at all this stuff for over 20 years. Enjoy my blog.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Sherwood Schwartz and the Lost Classics of an Ironic Generation

The zeitgeist of a given generation can be defined by any number of different social, political and historical contexts. Some generations have been defined by wars, economic upheavals and social revolution. Canadian author Douglas Coupland defined my generation, in his seminal 1991 book of the same name, as Generation X.  According to Coupland, the generation "born after 1960" is (among other things)  defined by The Brady Bunch and Gilligan's Island.  So perhaps we are not The Greatest Generation but we certainly are The Greatest Generation Ironically.

Yes, another defining factor of Gen X, as far as I'm concerned, is an almost obsessive fascination with the concept of  irony.
The sad news of the recent passing of Sherwood Schwartz, the legendary TV producer who gave us both Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch, got me to thinking about how we don't hear so much about Generation X these days. I thought about it ironically, of course. In the same way that someone of my generation might watch the Brady Bunch or Gilligan's Island ironically.

See, that's the beauty of the Gen. X brand of irony. When you look at TV shows like The Brady Bunch and Gilligan's Island objectively it's pretty easy to see that they are dated, unfunny, predictable and, really, just plain bad TV shows. But if you watch them ironically, then you are acknowledging that they are bad and that their badness is exactly the reason why you're watching them in first place.  You can both dismiss and embrace The Brady Bunch and Gilligan's Island at the same time. Back in the 90's, irony was a wonderful tool for maintaining hipster credibility.

In fact, that kinda stuff was all the rage back then. Stage shows like The Real Live Brady Bunch, that presented theatrical adaptations of actual Brady Bunch episodes, were playing to capacity houses all across North America. I myself appeared in three hugely successful productions of stage adaptations of 1960's Star Trek episodes. The producers of those stage shows went on to do the same thing with Gilligan's Island episodes.

The walls of The Vestibules' Breakfast Studios, where we recorded many classic sketches, were adorned with pictures of Tina Louise and Maureen McCormick

Quentin Tarantino cast John Travolta in his 1995 cult classic Pulp Fiction not because of Saturday Night Fever, Grease or even Look Who's Talking Now! but because of the 70's TV series Welcome Back Kotter. The 1994 film Reality Bites contained dialogue rife with references to Cocoa Puffs commercials and Planet of the Apes and a soundtrack that featured cheesy 70's hits like My Sharona and Disco Inferno.

Now you might think that all these pop culture references are just mere generational nostalgia; a bit of fun retro from our teens and childhood. Not exactly. For Gen X, these shows, songs, movies, comics, etc, were our Shakespeare, our Mozart, and our Michelangelo. That is what Gen X brought to the table: the cultural aggrandizement of pop culture previously dismissed as lame, inconsequential and utterly forgettable byproducts of a superficial and empty society.

Sherwood Schwartz, whether he realized it or not, produced two of the greatest ironic Gen X signifiers of all time: The Brady Bunch and Gilligan's Island.  In the course of Mr.Schwartz's career, he also produced some lesser known  but just as ironic shows as well. 

I present to you Sherwood Schwartz's Lost Classics of an Ironic Generation...

It's About Time

Gilligan's Island was a huge hit in the early 60's so Sherwood Schwartz got to make a second TV series. This time with an even more convoluted premise that of seven social archetypes surviving on a deserted island on nothing but coconuts.

This time around, Schwartz employed the "fish out of water" formula that was popular with current hit shows like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie and combined it with the popular prime time animated series of the day, The Flintstones.

Two astronauts (larger than life heroes in the early 60's) go way off course and end up traveling  backwards in time. They arrive in the rich with comedic possibilities setting of The Stone Age.

NASA's two wackiest employees must the learn to adapt to fit in with the monosyllabic-but-oddly-still-English-speaking cave dwellers and adapt to life with stone knives, bearskins and extremely primitive physical comedy.

That's just a tad of an inaccurate interpretation of Einstein but then the show does have cave dwellers living next to dinosaurs. You'd think that with the budgetary limit of a weekly TV sitcom, Schwartz would have opted for a non-creationist setting.

I mean, he'd probably blown a great of his budget luring legendary Your Show of Shows comedian Imogene Coca into a furskin toga.

It's about time premiered in September of 1966. Despite its initial success, the ratings soon dropped. Then Schwartz did something unheard of in 60's TV: mid-season retooling. In today's highly competitive TV market, mid-season retooling is something that commonly happens about 20 minutes into a show's first episode.

In the second half of the first season, the series got into much more familiar 1960's sitcom territory as the astronauts finally repair their space capsule and bring the cave people back to 20th century America.

The show writes itself from there. It must have. It's About Time was cancelled after 26 episodes. A veritable flop by 1967 standards.

Dusty's Trails

 I remember being really sick and lying on the couch watching TV.  I was on a cold medication high, drifting in and out of sleep.

Then this came on the TV screen....

Huh? What? A Western version of Gilligan's Island?

I wrote it off to some kind Robitussin-induced feverish nightmare.  I mean, c'mon, there's an absolute literal counterpart of every Gilligan's Island character. There's a rich couple, a sexy woman, an intellectual and a wholesome girl. Then, to top it off, there are two bumbling bickering poor man's Abbott and Costello meets even poorer man's Laurel and Hardy wagon masters, one of whom it's actually played by Bob Denver!

And then there's that opening song with lyrics that are nothing but back story exposition..

Maybe I should try different brand of cough medicine?

The next week, sufficiently recovered, I was watching TV around the same time.  Suddenly, the opening titles of Dusty's Trails hit the screen again.  Stunned, I saw the credit "Created by Sherwood Schwartz" appear on the screen.  Huh? The guy is ripping off his own show?

I ran to medicine chest and took a nice big swig of Benadril.

The Brady Bunch Variety Hour

The Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal, circa 1994. On a night off from my shows with The Vestibules that year, I go to see one that year's festival hottest tickets; Brady Bunch episode screenings followed bye a Q&A with Mr.Schwartz and Barry "Greg Brady" Williams.  Like I said, it was the 90's. That kinda shit was hot.

In all of the great Brady Bunch lore of the years, there was one thing I could never get my head around: The Brady Bunch Variety Hour

In the late 70's, a few years after The Brady Bunch was cancelled, the Bradys returned to TV.  In one of the great mysteries of the universe, The Brady Bunch was resurrected not as a half hour comedy show but as an hour long variety show. 

Sure, variety shows were very popular in the 70's. Sonny and Cher (and their post divorce spin off shows) , Donny and Marie and The Captain and Tenille were all big hits. Besides having  the word "and" in the name of their act, these people were all singers and pop stars to begin with. It kinda made sense that they had their own variety shows. The Brady Bunch had neither an "and" in their name nor any song and dance credibility. Florence Henderson aside, the Brady cast were not exactly legends of Broadway.

Now at the Just For Laughs Festival, I finally had the chance to have this great mystery of ironic pop culture solved. I got in line behind the mike for the Q&A.

I remember I stood behind this American stand-up comic who asked a question about Peter Brady's  "pork chops and apple sauce" line. Later in the fest, I caught one of that comic's shows. I thought he was hilarious. His name was David Cross and he would go on to star in great comedy shows like Mr.Show and Arrested Development. For those keeping track the odd delivery of Peter Brady's "famous" line, "porks chops and apple sauce" was actor Christopher Knight trying, badly, to imitate silver screen legend Humphrey Bogart.

My turn finally came up. "I wanted to ask you about the Brady Bunch variety show.", I said. Just then, a fan in line behind me uttered a very audible "Damn! There goes my question." as he returned to his seat. I then said "Well, at least I'm not the only guy here with no life.". Cue one of the top five biggest applause breaks of my entire career. 

When the crowd finally died down, I went on to ask "I just wanted to know what the thinking was behind reviving a family oriented comedy series as a song and dance variety show."

Barry Williams scowled (as he always does I'm told) at the mere mention of the variety show. Mr.Schwartz paused a moment and then said "I tell you what the thinking was behind that. The thinking was very bad.".

I could not agree with you more, sir.

So there you have it, other generations: Generation X in all its ironic glory both famous, infamous and obscure.

You can have your economic depressions, your world wars and your counter culture revolutions. Forget all that. We're the generation that made Anne B. Davis cool.

And I mean that ironically...

Next week's post will be ready in just five minutes...


  1. "It's About Time" also had kids running around at recess singing "it's about time, it's about space, it's about time I slap your face" or something like that. All of those Sherwood Schwartz shoes had great introductory songs.

    I never saw the variety show, but it never seemed that much of a stretch. The Partridge Family were off performing, The Brady Bunch wanted to have a band, Archie did, so did Josey and the Pussycats, and I thought the gang in Scooby Doo had a band. So all these fictional characters on TV were playing performers or would-be performers, so why not have a fictional family do a variety show? It's something real musical acts did, even before they were put out to pasture.


  2. Thanks for your comment Michael. My apologies for the lag in response time.
    I think I was just a tad too young for It's About Time.
    Sure, the Bradys did numbers on their original series a few times, especially when The Partridge Family started cutting into their Nielsen numbers. I guess my point is that it seemed odd that they had their own show that was only songs, dancing and the occasional comedy sketch. In their show as in the other shows you mentioned the song and dance segments were part of an episode and a larger story. Here The Bradys were exclusively variety performers.
    I know that the Scooby gang ran around to music a great deal on the show. I'm not sure if they ever had their own band or not. But there's like a 40 year Scooby history there that I am not completely familiar with.
    Keep those comments coming. I will try and respond sooner in the future. Honest.