From the beginning of comedy in movies and television, the “guy friends” relationship has been a go-to structure.
In “The Honeymooners,” Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton illustrated the masculine status quo: Friends and co-workers who show affection through insults; the dynamic was repeated in cartoon form in “The Flintstones.”
In “The Andy Griffith Show,” Andy wasn’t as rude to Barney Fife as Ralph was to Ed, but there was still the typical emotional distance. When it came to a display of positive fathering, Andy Griffith was a greatly progressive character; when it came to “guy friend,” though, not so much.
Over and over, from Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello, through “I Spy” and “Get Smart,” to “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men,” the formula for male relationships in comedy has been consistent: Affection is shown through mutual insults, and truly sensitive males are rare.
There are occasional displays of honest affection. In the original “The Odd Couple” TV show, for instance, Oscar Madison did work to fix Felix Unger’s relationship with his ex-wife for reasons other than just to get him out of the apartment. And then, the comedy slid back to the safe zone of Felix being fastidious and Oscar being gruff.
Usually, displays of sensitivity for males on comedies are done privately or mocked, with the mockery being supported by audience laughter. This is a recurrent technique on “The Big Bang Theory,” for instance: All the male principals (even Sheldon) have shown sensitivity at some point, only to slam their emotions back down as soon as they’re questioned.
And then, there’s Gilligan.
“Gilligan’s Island” was built on a strained premise: Five tourists and the two-man crew of a Hawaiian day cruise get ship-wrecked on an island with no way of communicating with the outside world. Episodes often revolved around getting off the island (with the Professor coming up with an invention and Gilligan ruining it somehow), but sometimes there were other plots.
Despite its silly premise, the show was seen as something deeper by creator Sherwood Schwartz: It was a “social microcosm” representing how people in different walks of life would have to find ways of living together.
As such, it was a gentler, kinder version of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit” or John Hughes’s “The Breakfast Club.” In Schwartz’s microcosm, there was a greedy person, his faithful wife, an intellectual, a naïve girl, a diva, a handyman, and Gilligan. Characters had been picked to be a cross-section of society.
Superficially, Gilligan is a standard comedy character: The hapless, bumbling fool who consistently messes things up. Lou Costello, Stan Laurel, Ed Norton, Barney Fife, Gomer Pyle: This character has a long tradition. Gilligan’s actor, Bob Denver, had already played that role once before, as slacker beatnik Maynard G. Krebs, upstaging Dwayne Hickman’s clean cut American high schooler Dobie Gillis.
But the format of “Gilligan’s Island,” with the limited palette of places the characters could go and the constraints on who the characters could interact with, encouraged scenes involving Gilligan and the younger ladies (Ginger and Mary Ann).
This allowed for more exploration of Gilligan’s sensitive side. The other men on the show usually maintained a typical emotional distance with each other, but Gilligan often hung out with Ginger and Mary Ann, and talked about his feelings of frustration with them.
At the same time, while the Skipper is often outwardly abusive to Gilligan (hitting him with his cap), he does sometimes show genuine compassion. He expresses these concerns to the Professor and the Millionaire, seeking their advice for how to fix mistakes.
I recently saw the episode “It’s Magic,” where this dynamic really stood out to me. In the episode, Gilligan finds a magic chest on the beach. The castaways try out the various tricks, with Gilligan repeatedly messing them up. He overhears the rest of the castaways complaining about him and his repeated foul-ups, and he decides to run away. When the Skipper discovers this, he expresses his feelings of guilt to the other two men. Together, they devise a plan to get Gilligan to return to the main camp.
In the episode, Gilligan feels most betrayed by Mary Ann (who also complains about him). He specifically says goodbye to Ginger before he leaves. It is obvious that he feels as much, if not more, of a connection to the ladies as he does to the men.
The bromance relationship between the Skipper and Gilligan wasn’t an accident. Schwartz said that the casting for the Skipper was the hardest. He wanted someone macho enough to be convincing in the role, “but able to show a genuine affection for Gilligan.”
As Maynard G. Krebs on “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” Bob Denver had shown an ability to play a vapid goofball. It would have been easy for TV viewers at the time to let him transition into a similar role as Gilligan. And, superficially, that’s what happened.
He usually was a bumbling fool, and that was the repeated source of comedy. In another episode, for instance, he accidentally eats phosphorescent paste that the Professor was planning to paint a raft with, and has to stand on top of a platform all night to try to attract a passing plane.
At the same time, though, Schwartz found a deeper relationship between the Skipper and Gilligan. Gilligan was truly sensitive, and showed it multiple times on screen. And the Skipper had genuine affection for Gilligan, calling him “Little Buddy” and working to restrain his temper or at least make amends for it.
Given how rare it is for honest acknowledgement of affection between men is addressed on screen, particularly in TV comedy, the “bromance” between the Skipper and Gilligan provides one model for how we can change that conversation for the better. We need more positive, powerful, and caring relationships between men.
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