The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis, “Dobie Goes Beatnik” (season two, episode four; originally aired October 25, 1960)
Everybody wants to belong. That’s one of the concepts driving The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis, the sitcom that put Max Shulman’s heartsick short-story protagonist on the small screen for four seasons on CBS. More than “a girl to call his own,” Dobie (Dwayne Hickman) longed for status—money, popularity, fame—a desire that stands in stark contrast to his best friend, Maynard G. Krebs (Bob Denver). In the grand tradition of true cool, Maynard doesn’t care about any of the things that stir Dobie into a wild-eyed frenzy, and that only improves his reputation in the coffee houses and jazz clubs that Dobie Gillis so frequently references but doesn’t really depict. (So maybe Maynard’s true talent, outside of bongo playing and catchphrase coining, is self-promotion.) Although he’d never admit it, Dobie’s more like his old man, grocer Herbert T. Gillis (Frank Faylen), who, in “Dobie Goes Beatnik,” goes to extreme lengths to seize a seat of power with the local chapter of the Benevolent Order Of The Bison. In Dobie Gillis’ world, wanting to belong isn’t a phase anyone grows out of.
The focus of “Dobie Goes Beatnik” digs at one of the great ironies of Dobie Gillis: Even on his own show, everybody’s trying to give Dobie the boot. Bringing a caricatured version of beat culture to the masses, Denver was the show’s breakout star, the guy with the catchphrases and the signature facial hair. “Dobie Goes Beatnik” crystalizes this role reversal: After his latest romantic overture falls flat (on account of Maynard being offered up as a blind-date suitor), Dobie unwittingly injures and embarrasses Grand Exalted Bull Bison Edward J. McClusky (Dick Wessel). McClusky is in town to consider Herbert’s qualifications for the position of Local Grand Exalted Bison, and in order to keep him in the dark about the identity of his assailant, Mr. Gillis orders Dobie and Maynard to trade places for a day (this in spite of his misgivings about treating such a moony character to any amount of respect—let alone treat him like a son). In doing so, the episode combines two classics from the Big Book Of Stock Sitcom Stories: an identity swap, plus a big promotion that hinges on impressing the boss. Give that promotion the slightest of haircuts—moving the promotion from the workplace to the local lodge of the Benevolent Order Of The Bison—and “Dobie Goes Beatnik” nimbly juggles a trio of trusty TV chestnuts.
While Hickman lays the hepcat act on too thick, Denver demonstrates how he became a fan favorite. Asked if he can mimic his friend’s attitude in addition to his clean-cut appearance, Maynard and Mr. Gillis launch into a spastic fit of slapstick and shouting that presages Denver’s time on Gilligan’s Island. At dinner with the Gillises and McClusky, a freshly shaven, three-piece-suit-wearing Maynard pours on the charm and the coffee, with Denver underplaying Maynard’s overplaying, referring to Mr. Gillis as “pater” and “helping” his faux-mother to her seat by engaging Florida Friebus in a brief waltz of physical comedy. It’s not enough to argue that Denver and Hickman should’ve stayed in these roles—particularly with Hickman’s grating approximation of Maynard—but it’s fun for a half hour.
And all the way through, there’s a thread of Maynard and Mr. Gillis inching toward their own benevolent brotherhood of two. When the worldly and gentlemanly McClusky (a big change from the heavies that Wessel played on the era’s many primetime Westerns) lectures his brother Bison on the proper displays of affection between father and son, he initiates a series of uneasy embraces and insincere smooches between the business owner and the beatnik. By the next episode, Herbert T. Gillis and Maynard G. Krebs will be in opposition once more, but for one shining moment, together they enjoy the activity that makes everyone feel like they belong on Dobie Gillis: overshadowing Dobie.
Availability: “Dobie Goes Beatnik” can be streamed at Shout! Factory TV and is available on DVD as part of The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis: The Complete Series.