"Right now I have a torn rotator cuff," he said during an interview at his home in Beverly Hills. "So I guess I could complain about my arm all day. But what the hell?" The three old ladies at center stage in Schwartz's play "Off Their Rockers," which will premiere at Theatre West on Nov. 10, are not purveyors of equanimity. Each character, in her own way, makes an art form of complaint.
"I was inspired by a Sholom Aleichem story about how God hears our complaints," Schwartz said. "God gets pretty tired of it. I can appreciate that."
Schwartz, who turns 90 this month, has arrived at his career as a playwright comparatively late in life. In earlier decades he made a name for himself by creating "Gilligan's Island" and "The Brady Bunch." And in decades even earlier than that, there were gigs as a comedy writer for Red Skelton and Bob Hope.
"I actually started off in pre-med," he said about his youthful ambitions. "In the 1930s the AMA decided there were too many Jewish doctors, so medical school admissions became tougher for applicants with Jewish-sounding last names. I decided to get a master's degree in biology from USC to make myself more competitive."
When he started graduate school, Schwartz moved in with his brother, Al, who was writing for Bob Hope's radio show.
"It didn't seem that hard to write a joke," Schwartz said. "So Al would tell me the topic of the show, and I'd write a couple of pages of jokes."
The money was good, and Bob Hope wasn't imposing quotas to keep out talented writers. So in 1939, Schwartz dropped out of USC to start penning comedy.
Schwartz said he has just solved a staging problem that had stymied his idea for a new play based in his experience on "The Red Skelton Show." The play will tell the story of the three writers -- Schwartz, Jesse Goldstein and Dave O'Brien -- who wrote most of the material for the show. More specifically, it will deal with the human drama that unfolded around the writers during the six months preceding Goldstein's death from inoperable cancer in 1959.
"Jesse's doctor didn't want to tell Jesse he was going to die, so he told Jesse's wife instead," Schwartz said. "Everyone played along, including Jesse. When his pain became acute, his doctor told him he had arthritis in his breastbone, or that one of his lungs had dissociated from his diaphragm." Near the end, Goldstein had become so frail that O'Brien had to drive him to work at CBS each day. The three men would talk through the script as a secretary typed, then Goldstein would collapse on a couch in exhaustion. At the end of the day, Dave would take him back home.
"Red Skelton's show was this hokey-pokey broad comedy," Schwartz said. "But the drama of life and death was going on in the background. Tragedy occupied the same room as the three of us who were cranking out jokes for one of the most popular programs on TV."
Schwartz said he realized that he was the solution to his staging problem. As in "Our Town," a narrator playing Schwartz will occupy a small spotlighted area of the stage, then get off a chair or stool and step into the action.
"It should take me two years to write," Schwartz said. "Assuming I've got two years to write it." In the meantime, reading mail from fans watching syndicated reruns of "The Brady Bunch" and "Gilligan's Island" keeps Schwartz busy. He said that on one recent day he received letters from Chile, Sweden and three other countries where the primary language is something other than English. Like many of the fans he hears from, several of the letter writers remarked that the shows were key features of the cultural landscape of their teen years.
"CBS loved the script for ' Gilligan's Island,'" Schwartz said. "Then they tried to unravel it. I had to make a deal with the devil -- specifically Jim Aubrey [then the network president of CBS] -- to keep my original idea. After they tested the pilot, Aubrey said, 'I still hate your [expletive] show, but the audiences love it.'"
What does Schwartz make of the enduring popularity of his "tale of a fateful trip"?
"There's something timeless about a show that follows the story of people who are basically strangers to one another learning how to get along on a desert island," he said. "The Muslims and the Jews should be so lucky as to figure that out."
"Gilligan's Island" as the solution to conflict in the Middle East? Scoff if you will. Richard Taflinger, who teaches mass media criticism and script-writing at Washington State University, is the author of "Sitcom: What It Is, How It Works," which he describes as a "neo-Artistotelian analysis of television comedy since 1947."
"'Gilligan's Island' may seem inane or shallow, but the comedy is very human," he said. "Most sitcoms rely on pop-culture references or send-ups of social norms to get laughs. ' Gilligan's Island' is different -- its humor isn't dependent on any particular era or culture. Aristophanes would've laughed at ' Gilligan's Island.'"
Even if he were so inclined, Schwartz would have a hard time complaining about that.
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