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What we dug about Maynard

MEGHAN DAUM is an essayist and novelist in Los Angeles.

IT’S ONLY FITTING that much of the would-be hubbub about the passing of actor Bob Denver, who died Sept. 2, was swept away by the news of Hurricane Katrina. Denver was, after all, famous for playing a storm survivor himself. As Gilligan, the maladroit first mate on the ‘60s-era kitsch-classic series “Gilligan’s Island,” Denver spent four seasons shipwrecked on a deserted tropical island. No series (other than perhaps “The Brady Bunch”) is as reliable a point of conversational departure as “Gilligan’s Island.”

But although it’s a classic, “Gilligan’s Island,” let’s face it, was about as sophisticated as a paramecium, which is why it’s too bad that Denver isn’t better remembered for his first (and longer-running) television role on “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.” That show, a comedy about a wholesome yet fretful teenager, aired on CBS from 1959 to 1963, turning out 142 episodes versus Gilligan’s 98. Denver played Dobie’s lackadaisical, free-spirited, bohemian pal, Maynard G. Krebs. The primordial hip nonconformist, (the “G,” he insisted, stood for Walter), Maynard was thought by many at the time to be the nation’s most famous beatnik, better known and perhaps more lovable than the likes of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs.

In what even today would be an unlikely set of traits in a sitcom character, Maynard was a jazz fan who talked frequently about Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, played the bongos and ocarina and even sang scat. He wore a goatee, baggy clothes and invoked a kind of hipster parlance that was so ahead of its time that it was actually outmoded before other television shows had a chance to catch up. Whereas “The Brady Bunch” and “The Partridge Family” were enmeshed in the flowered pants and painted school buses of the hippie era, “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” rode the subtler currents of be-bop and Salinger-esque angst. If Bob Denver could have copyrighted Maynard’s signature use of “like” to preface his sentences, generations of teenagers would owe him a fortune.

But as time went on, they kept his cheaper lines and discarded the very esoterica that, at the time, was associated with adolescence and, by extension, “outsiderness.” In other words, things got dumber. As the ‘60s hummed along, Maynard became Gilligan, leaving his jazz records and tattered copies of “Howl” on the shore before setting off on that doomed three-hour tour.

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Like a lot of people who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I have a hard time imagining beatniks as teenagers. With all the jazz and poetry and clove cigarettes, the whole genre seems intoxicatingly adult. That made Maynard’s bohemian literacy all the more remarkable. In the sanitized arena of 1950s television, he managed not only to be hipper than the other characters, he was hipper than much of his audience.

Being into jazz is fairly radical stuff for a television teenager, and we pretty much never saw it again after “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” went off the air. Adolescence became as commodified as the rock ‘n’ roll that defined it, and the interests and hobbies associated with teenagers became increasingly about shopping. With all that purchasing power on the line, networks couldn’t take risks on characters with underground tastes.

Imagine if the Bradford kids on “Eight Is Enough” had holed up in their rooms listening to the Ramones. What if someone from “The O.C.” became hellbent on publishing a story in the alternative literary magazine McSweeney’s? It wouldn’t happen. Such interests require visits to used record stores or independent bookstores or even (gasp) the library, not the mall.

But as Dobie’s sidekick, Maynard G. Krebs was exempt from the role-model duties that have always made lead characters less interesting than their quirky cohorts. Whereas Dobie had to learn a lesson in every episode, Maynard generally took himself out of the moral equation all together, eschewing work and good deeds for a more aesthetic form of righteousness.

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But the difference between Maynard’s brand of slacker -- and with his famous aversion to work, he was certainly among the first of the slackers -- and today’s acne-ridden layabout is that Maynard, for all his silliness, was inherently wise. His sense of justice arose directly out of his cultural interests, not in spite of them. His character was the result of what he dug rather than what he didn’t dig. His love of Thelonious Monk didn’t preclude his friendship with the straight-laced Dobie. A hippie, with all of his circumscribed cultural baggage, would probably have dismissed Dobie as an incorrigible square. Maynard was nuanced enough to have friends on both sides of the radio dial.

For that, we have Denver to thank. Even though his face will forever be associated with Gilligan, whom the skipper blamed for every mishap on the island, I suspect he was more of a beatnik than a shipwrecked buffoon. If only today’s television teenagers were less like Gilligan and more like Maynard. May Bob Denver, like, rest in peace.


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