Sep 7, 2009

Dobie Gillis et al

The Feather Merchants, by Max Shulman, circa 1943 (read approx. 1963)

Taking a page from the book of my friend Dave (aka Also Ted), the subject line is meant to attract the reader or robot with the most likely reference for this wonderful writer, who created the TV series named after the bumbling young guy played by Dwayne Hickman.

The trail, though, leads back not to TV but to the bookshelves of my father, Vic Knight. He professed to read only non-fiction but clearly in his earlier years he cast a wider net. Feather Merchants was written by Shulman during World War II and published some years later. The title was a derogatory phrase apparently used by WWII-era military men to characterize civilians.

I must have been about 12 years old when I found it on Dad's shelf and wondered what the hey? And so I read it and now remember hardly anything about it except that it was wildly funny. It was a wonderful breadcrumb, though, as it led me to each of Shulman's books in turn. Rally Round the Flag Boys satirized postwar suburban life a la the man in the grey flannel suit, but funny. Although when I re-read it some years later the political incorrectitude put it more in the mode of "the history of humor," if that's not an oxymoron, than of the comedy canon.

I liked Anyone Got a Match, which simultaneously spoofed the tobacco industry and big-time college sports. Somehow I missed one of his biggest successes, Sleep Till Noon, so that's a breadcrumb I must follow one day.

I just learned that Shulman was also head writer for the TV version of House Calls from 1979 to 1981, and he co-wrote the Broadway smash The Tender Trap, which starred Robert Preston. He also wrote Barefoot Boy With Cheek and The Zebra Derby.

But one day I must re-read The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1951), if only to see if Maynard G. Krebs really said the things his TV character did. Youngsters should consider themselves ill-informed if they did not know that Bob Denver played the beatnik Krebs long before he played Gilligan, although upon reading this they can now consider themselves in the know.

The trail back touches on Robert Benchley, the Marx Brothers, and even Mark Twain. Shulman may not be as famous as any of those, but he probably should be. Shulman died in 1988 at the age of 69.

No comments:

Post a Comment