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The Return of Dobie Gillis


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
March 12, 2012

I have Dobie Gillis to thank for teaching me the meaning of the word "propinquity" at the tender age of nine. In an early episode of the "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis," Zelda Gilroy explains to Dobie that their adjacency in the seating chart dooms them to eventual attraction (and marriage in a TV movie sequel to the series) through propinquity. I am one of many boomers to have expanded my vocabulary courtesy of Zelda, played by Sheila James, who would leave acting to go on to bigger and better things in the world.

The original driving force behind "Dobie" was simple: Dobie of modest means chases after beautiful girls who mostly want rich guys, while the not-so-beautiful Zelda Gilroy chases after Dobie. Although I cannot recall having seen any of the shows in their initial primetime airings between 1959 and 1963 (it was on at 8:30pm while I recall being my bedtime until it was extended to 9:30pm at some later date), "Dobie" was a staple of afterschool television syndication throughout the 1960s.

Squabbling over the payment for various rights has left "Dobie" in DVD and streaming limbo, but the show now airs at 5:30am over the questionable terrestrial broadcast network MeTV that is also picked up by many cable systems. (MeTV claims its name stands for "Memorable Entertainment Television, but then wouldn't the "e" be in caps as well; clearly, the network is pandering to the "Me Generation.") For the past several weeks I have been DVRing these episodes, beginning roughly halfway into the first season and currently near the end of the second season when Dobie and the crowd graduate from high school and move on to junior college.

Like many things, my memories of "Dobie" are superior to how it strikes me half a century later. Burdened with producing nearly twice the number of episodes that are standard for a TV series now, the few memorable episodes of the show are greatly outnumbered by the formulaic clunkers. Many of the early shows, including the famous propinquity episode, were penned by the show's creator and master of "college humor," Max Shulman, and they have best stood the test of time.

The earliest "Dobie" episodes were obviously produced on the cheap. The horrific animated title sequence, whose women were obviously drawn by a serial killer, is a dead giveaway to the shoestring production budget. Sets are minimal and several stunningly bad takes of scenes, particularly ones where Dwayne Hickman does a less-than-convincing jobs of reading Dobie's lines, were put in the can rather than being reshot. As time went on and the show become reasonably popular, the show's budget and production values obviously grew, CBS, then known as the "Tiffany network," sent more money in their direction. More money did not, however, improve the show. Instead, the show inched toward becoming another of the many mindless early 1960s sitcoms that prompted FCC chair Newton Minow to famously refer to television as a "vast wasteland." (Apropos of name-dropping, my former neighbor from across the hall, Martha Minow, made it even bigger in the legal education profession than Zelda did.) One gets the impression that scripts that failed to make the cut at CBS's numero uno sitcom, "The Beverly Hillbillies," got repurposed for "Dobie."

Each early "Dobie" episode begins with Dobie breaking the "fourth wall" and talking straight to the audience while sitting or standing in front of a statute of Rodin's Thinker. (This "trick" was brought to Dobie by a director who employed the same gimmick in a sitcom starring George Burns.) Dobie plays the straight man to the insanity that revolves around him. Like former skateboard king and Scientologist, Jason Lee, Dwayne Hickman came from the school that taught that yelling can substitute for acting. Bob Denver, later of Gilligan fame, played Maynard G. Krebs, the first and most famous prime-time television beatnik. Maynard was a favorite of the grade-school crowd because his arrested development made him one of us. (He would even check payphone coin return slots for change, just like a ten-year-old of the times.)

Early "Dobies" had some real heavy-hitters on the cast. Dobie's primary love interest in the first season, Thalia Menninger, was played by Barbiesque Tuesday Weld while she was still a high-school student. Thalia "loved" Dobie, who understandable was smitten with her, but she loved money much more than she did Dobie. Tuesday Weld steals every scene that she is in and would go on to bigger and better things even if she never reached megastardom. Matthew Sweet would make her an iconic image of the 1990s by featuring her on two of his album covers, including his monster breakthrough disc, "Girlfriend." ("Girlfriend" was supposed to have been called "Nothing Lasts," but Weld objected.) Warren Beatty would make an occasional appearance as the rich and athletic Milton Armitage, but his acting on the show was rather flat and he now denies even having appeared on television. Ron Howard, Ryan O'Neal, Marlo Thomas and others flitted their way through Dobie in minor roles. After Tuesday Weld left, Bob Denver would steal the show, just as Henry Winkler stole "Happy Days" from Ron Howard. (Currently, Henry Winkler appears in a Quicken reverse mortgage ad aired during every "Dobie" episode on MeTV.)

Dobie pioneered "very special" episodes long before they were called that by "Blossom" and others. One such episode teaches us that beautiful women can stop actors who vaguely look like James Dean from dropping out of school. Like its sister show on the Tiffany network, "The Twilight Zone," which it would occasionally plug, "Dobie" was not above doling out a heavy dose of social commentary.

"Dobie" also provides interesting lessons in history and economics. Courtesy of Maynard, we get to see inside a coffeehouse from 50 years ago. Other than selling coffee and providing seating, it is not a lot like Starbucks. The sixties may not have had WiFi, but they did have table service, busty cigarette girls, and bongo-heavy live music. (By the time I finally visited a real coffeehouse in 1975 (the Caltech coffeehouse does not count), the cigarette girls were gone and the music was limited to Friday and Saturday nights.) Of course, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not adjust the inflation rate upwards to reflect the lower "hedonics" of the present-day coffeehouse experience.

The Gillis grocery provides the economics lesson, with food prices plastered all over its walls. Frozen vegetables cost 6 packages to the dollar back then. These days, the cheapest generic frozen vegetables cost 99 cents a package and the name-brand organic vegetables come in at nearly four dollars, or 24 times as much as they were back then. Agribusiness was still in its infancy, neither Conagra nor Archer Daniels Midland existed in their current form until 1971, so most the food in the Gillis Grocery could be considered "artisanal" and was purer, except possibly for the use of pesticides (and the random chunk of fallout from nuclear testing), than anything you can buy in stores today. DNA had just been discovered, so any genetic modification had to be done the old-fashioned way. Hence, a package of frozen vegetables circa 1962 would be literally "priceless" in today's market, something else the BLS undoubtedly fails to take into account. But inflation, that thing that Ben Bernanke fails to acknowledge, was very real back then. In one episode, pater Gillis is lambasted by an elderly women customer ("old lady" in 1960s un-PC lingo) for constantly raising his prices. Even Maynard, a self-proclaimed "protest cat," knows about inflation.

Next month's commentary gets closer to the topic of economics but looking at how people (and not just economists) extrapolate the past into the future.

Copyright 2012 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to