‘Gilligan’s Island’: How the Show Stemmed from an NYU Professor’s Question

by Josh Lanier

Gilligan’s Island started with a question in a New York University Public Speaking class. Sherwood Schwartz, the show’s creator, was in that class. The professor asked the students to come up with a one-minute, ad-hoc speech on what they’d take with them if they were stuck on a deserted island.

The question stuck with the longtime television writer and producer. And once he had the clout to pitch his own shows, he used that question as a starting point, Mental Floss said. The idea of sticking a motley crew of different people from all walks of life on a deserted island would make for an interesting dynamic.

In his book Inside Gilligan’s Island: From Creation to Syndication, Schwartz said the island would be “a social microcosm and a metaphorical shaming of world politics in the sense that when necessary for survival, yes we can all get along.” Unfortunately, television executives don’t like very long words, so he had to remove the “social microcosm” and “metaphorical shaming of work politics” from his pitch.

It worked. The show ran for three seasons and 98 episodes. And it’s still a beloved classic six decades later.

‘Gilligan’s Island’ Wasn’t Loved By Critics

In a radio interview in 1994, Bob Denver, who played Gilligan, estimated 99 out of 100 critics panned Gilligan’s Island. But that never really bothered him. The show was a silly, slap-stick world not made for them. It was just good fun.

“Yeah, it’s interesting. The critics just killed our show. I think out of 100 reviews there were 99 bad and one good one. But it didn’t bother us because we knew we were doing something really silly and something very, very broad. You know, a lot of physical comedy. But the premise, I felt was just really hilarious. And then, I had a cast that was excellent,” Bob Denver said.

“You know, each person was perfect as the character. What’s happened is it picks up kids every year. I get letters. Just last week I got one from a mother who said, “the one-year-old is watching it in the highchair. Please send an autographed picture.” (laughter). Here it is 1994 and it just rolls on. I understand why a lot of the intellectuals or the elite don’t really get behind it because it’s that kind of comedy that you can put down really easy.”

The characters were so beloved that people wrote to the U.S. Coast Guard demanding they rescue these poor trapped souls, somehow not realizing it was a television show. There were so many letters that it almost worked. The Coast Guard began sending communications to Washington about what they should do to find this island. Thankfully, one sailor saved them the embarrassment.