Skip to main content

Gilligan’s Island is one of the greatest comedic TV shows of the 1960s — so it’s surprising to think it was inspired by a university assignment. After that assignment, the show’s creator Sherwood Schwartz, decided he wanted to adapt it into a show with political themes. However, a CBS chairman almost pulled the plug on Gilligan’s Island before it got off the ground.

Gilligan, the Skipper, and the Professor near palm trees
Gilligan, the Skipper, and the Professor | CBS via Getty Images

How a college assignment inspired ‘Gilligan’s Island’

According to Mental Floss, it all started with a simple assignment Schwartz had when he attended New York University: he had to deliver a minute-long speech about what he’d bring to a desert island. The idea intrigued him. From there. He decided he wanted to create a political show based on it.

Schwartz said his original idea for the show was about very different people having to live together. He described it as “a social microcosm and a metaphorical shaming of world politics in the sense that when necessary for survival, yes we can all get along.” His idea for the show was certainly interesting and displayed a hopeful outlook on human nature. However, a CBS chairman took some issue with the idea when Schwartz pitched it to him and the show was nearly never produced.

Ginger Grant at a mirror
Ginger Grant | CBS via Getty Images

Why the chairman of CBS almost killed ‘Gilligan’s Island’

“It was in an early meeting at CBS with William Paley himself, the chairman of the board,” Schwartz told the Los Angeles Times. “When he asked me to describe the show, I said it was a social microcosm.” Paley took issue with Schwartz’s choice of words.

“The man visibly blanched,” Schwartz recalled. “He said, ‘I thought it was a comedy show.’ I said, ‘Mr. Paley, it’s a very funny microcosm.’ Very quickly. And I never used that phrase again.” Although Schwartz had some lofty ideas when he created the show, the Washington Examiner reports Gilligan’s Island was not well-received critically. 

Thurston Howell III in front of trees
Thurston Howell III | CBS via Getty Images

‘The Andy Griffith Show’: This Don Knotts Movie Comments on the Show

How Sherwood Schwartz felt when critics didn’t get the show

Many saw the show as silly, Schwartz said “Not a single critic got it, with the basic concept of democracy staring them right in the face.” Eventually an academic named Paul A. Cantor wrote a book titled Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization. The book was about Cantor’s feelings on the political themes of the show. Schwartz was surprised someone wrote a book discussing the show’s social elements, but he felt vindicated. In addition, The Guardian reports Schwartz made peace with the negative reception towards his work

“I know what the critics love,’ Schwartz said. “We write and produce for people, not critics.” Schwartz was right. Gilligan’s Island has become a pop culture touchstone, referenced in everything from The Fairly Odd Parents to The Blair Witch Project to the music of “Weird Al” Yankovic. It remains beloved by generations of audiences — whether they see it as political or not.