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The Light from the TV Shows: The Many Influencees of Dobie Gillis

Next week, the ever-awesome Shout Factory is going to be releasing The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis: The Complete Series. While this is an announcement which will be greeted by shrugs and blank stares from just about anyone under the age of 30—oh, hell, we could practically make it 40 or 50 and still not be too far off base—I’ve been revisiting the adventures of Dobie (Dwayne Hickman) and his beatnik buddy Maynard G. Krebs (a pre-”Gilligan’s Island” Bob Denver), and the more I delve into the series, the more I realize just how well it holds up. Heck, many of its elements continue to be staples of teen-themed comedies to this day!

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First of all, look at these two gentlemen here. Have you ever seen a picture that so desperately screamed to be captioned “Freak and Geek”?

Okay, so maybe Dobie was less of a geek than a relatively average straight-laced teenager of the late ‘50s—if you’re a child of the ‘70s who grew up on “Happy Days,” you’ll see that Richie Cunningham’s DNA owes a heck of a lot to Dobie—but it’s established almost immediately that, as the son of a grocery store owner (Frank Faylen) and a homemaker (Florida Friebus), he doesn’t come from money, and he’s certainly not in what you’d call the upper echelon of popularity at his high school, so he spends a lot of time on the outside looking in. But that’s probably the way it’s always going to be for Dobie: for better or worse, he’s a guy of good character who stands by his friends, even though doing so hinders his chances at increasing his social standing.

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Maynard G. Krebs may have started out as an exaggerated version of the beatnik stereotype, but given his popularity—Dobie’s name might’ve been in the title, but Maynard’s definitely most people’s first point of reference when you mention the show—I’m gonna go out on a limb and suggest that more kids in the late ’50s and early ’60s were inspired by him than Kerouac, Ginsberg, and their lot. The latter group might’ve been hipper, but they didn’t infiltrate the mainstream nearly as successful as Maynard G. Krebs. Granted, he might’ve been intended more a parody of than a legitimate tribute to the so-called “Beat Generation,” but if the end result was that some of the kids who enjoyed his antics decided to start thinking outside the box and dare to be different in their look and their lingo, then it’s still a win, right?

Watching Dobie try to win the heart of Thalia Menninger (Tuesday Weld), who rarely misses an opportunity to remind him that he doesn’t come from the sort of income bracket that she’d need to live the lifestyle to which she’s become accustomed, is reminiscent of characters in John Hughes’ “Some Kind of Wonderful,” which I guess would make Zelda (Sheila James Kuell) an approximation of Watts and Milton Armitage (Warren Beatty) a proto-Hardy, if you want to try and maintain the analogy. I don’t know if Hughes was a fan of the show or not, but I do know that Dobie and his gang actually were the inspiration for another gang of teens: Fred, Daphne, Velma, and Shaggy. According to Mark Evanier, “the four kids (on ‘Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!’) were based — in the same way ‘The Flintstones’ was inspired by ‘The Honeymooners’ — on the old TV show, ‘The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.’  Fred was based on Dobie, Velma on Zelda, Daphne on Thalia and Shaggy on Maynard.”

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I’m not the only one who’s willing to go out on a limb and praise “Dobie Gillis,” by the way. When I mentioned this on Twitter and Facebook, several other folks got excited about the suggestion that the series was ahead of its time. Take, for instance, Stewart Mason of Critical Mob, who offered these comments:

‘Dobie Gillis’ wasn’t just hip for its time. It was just plain hip. Look at Maynard’s casual references to Brubeck and Kenton (which was in fact exactly the kind of jazz a teenage boho like him would have dug at the time) and authentically grubby attire. He was particularly fond of a sweatshirt that had so many holes in it that Bob Denver’s left nipple deserved special guest star billing! And in its first season, Tuesday Weld’s Thalia Menninger was a genuinely groundbreaking character: a gorgeous teen girl with a black, mercenary soul. And speaking of groundbreaking, was Chatsworth Osborne Jr. the first closeted gay character on network TV? While it was never even hinted at in the series, the actor Steve Franken in retrospect clearly was foreshadowing some of the comic tropes that Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly would go on to perfect. Finally, the show took place in a somewhat sanitized but still decidedly urban environment, much different from the suburban enclaves of ‘Leave it To Beaver,’ and filled with unexplained oddities like the fact that the ice cream shop everyone hung out in during the first season had a Chinese proprietor who offered specialties like subgum sundaes and lychee milkshakes. So Dobie and Maynard and Thalia and Zelda were TV’s first downtown hipsters!

Another hip thing about ‘Dobie’: Dean Riesner, the screenwriter responsible for “Play Misty for Me,” “Dirty Harry,” and “Charlie Varrick,” was a writer for the series. Also, I don’t know this for sure, but it certainly seems likely that “Dobie” was where future “Bonnie & Clyde” co-stars Warren Beatty and Michael J. Pollard first worked together, when Pollard played Maynard’s cousin, Jerome. And while I can’t decide if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, I find it fascinating that Rod Amateu, who wrote and directed numerous episodes of “Dobie,” later went on to write, direct, and produce “The Garbage Pail Kids Movie.” (I can just imagine him shaking his head at Mackenzie Astin and saying, “You know, kid, you’re no Dwayne Hickman.”)

As “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” gradually moved through its four seasons, it might not have maintained the same level of hipness it had at the very beginning, with Weld and Beatty departing, the characters moving from high school to college (and, somewhere in Season 2, even joining the U.S. Army for a bit), and the plots leaving reality behind more and more often (in Season 4, it’s discovered that Maynard looks identical to a general in the country of Boca Dolce known as El Tigre), but when it first began, the series came closer to offering realistic teenage characters than just about any series on television…and even when they weren’t realistic, they were still stepping outside the typical comedy tropes of the era.

  

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