August 5, 2010


by Max Shulman

Review by Maria Bustillos

Max Shulman (1919-1988) is one of America’s greatest satirists. He is chiefly known for having invented the amorous teen sitcom hero, Dobie Gillis, of whom we will be speaking today. However, I urge all comers to read his more serious works as well (though they don’t seem all that serious at first blush, they really are the most blistering social commentary of the postwar period, cleverly disguised as loopy B-movie type satire.) The best of these is The Feather Merchants, though I have a soft spot for the magisterial Sleep Til Noon, which begins with possibly the greatest opening sentence in American letters:

“Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Four shots ripped into my groin and I was off on the biggest adventure of my life.”

The TV show based on Shulman’s Dobie Gillis stories was a marvel, featuring all sorts of memorable characters, notably the beatnik Maynard G. Krebs, played by the magnificent Bob Denver (later Gilligan of “Gilligan’s Island.”) Warren Beatty played Dobie’s rich, handsome nemesis, Milton Armitage, and Tuesday Weld played the luscious and unattainable Thalia Menninger. The many other loves of Dobie were played by a bevy of young beauties who would go on to become celebrated actresses, including Barbara Bain, Marlo Thomas, Michele Lee, Ellen Burstyn and Sally Kellerman.

The subject book, though, which is why we’re here, turns out to be even better than the TV show, because it too bears a deep message along with the hilarious jokes. It is, as one of Dobie’s flames would say, “Crazy, dad!” Anyone who loves that special flavor of postwar American humor will be completely smitten. I Was a Teen-Age Dwarf follows Dobie’s progress as a junior Casanova beginning at the age of 13 (“Girls: Their Cause and Cure”) and follows him into adulthood (“The Costly Child.”)

Just one little quote from this remarkable book will illustrate the great-hearted, wise and undeceived character of its author. Here, Dobie expounds on the many virtues of his inamorata, Beans Ellsworth, who is far taller than Dobie.

Anyhow, Beans and me are almost exactly the same age—only two days apart—but she has always been the leader of us. I don’t mind admitting it It’s no disgrace to follow a leader when the leader happens to be a genius, which is what Beans happens to be. Why, would you believe she was only fourteen years old when she built her first hot rod?

Which goes to show you that in 1959, enlightened minds like Shulman’s had already utterly transcended all the thorny little problems of gender politics that would preoccupy so many for so many decades to come. And not only transcended them, but turned them into the frothiest, loveliest comic tableaux. Plus, rock and roll lyrics!

Well I got a gal, her name is Esme;
I will kiss her if she le’s me.
Well, I love her in history, I love her in science;
If she was a lawyer, I’d bring her some clients.

Ooblee ooblee wa da

In short, the gentle, delicate genius at work behind these goofy tales has much to teach our relatively puritanical and humorless age, and is sidesplittingly delightful to read besides. Highly recommended.

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