Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Bob Denver and the Cultural Caricature of the Counter-Culture

Last week was the anniversary of Bob Denver's death. Best known for his role as Gilligan, perhaps the more influential role was the one that really put him on the cultural map, Maynard G. Krebs in "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis." Maynard G. Krebs, a beatnik, was one of the first counter-culture characters to appear in mainstream entertainment. He was lazy, sloppy, and daft, but gentle and harmless. The character filled the slot of the dizzy blonde and created template for the way that the counter-culture would be henceforth portrayed. From Maynard G. Krebs you get a straight line through George Carlin's Al Sleet the hippy-dippy weatherman (with all the hippy-dippy weather, man), to Cheech and Chong, to Reverend Jim, to Dharma Finklestein. Steven Wright and Mitch Hedberg were able to play off the archetype and add a hint of the Shakespearean wise jester, but not far beneath was Maynard G. Krebs. On the one hand, the picture is kind in that these characters always have a good heart and the best of intentions. At the same time, while the character wants the world to be a better place, s/he is too idealistic and naive to be taken seriously. They present no real reason to question the status quo, but in their ignorance, show that it is essential that things be as they are. The counter-culture is caricatured as being made up of folks who are harmless as long as they remain marginalized, which because of their lack of sense, need to be.

This is precisely how we saw the millions of anti-war protesters treated by CNN and the networks ten years ago. If ten tea-partiers get together, that's big news of a growing social movement; but if the streets of every major metropolitan area across the globe are filled with those who are advocating for peace, then they need to just be patted on the head and ignored. Anyone who questions the structure becomes seen as Maynard G. Krebs. Just as news has become entertainment, the narratives that the news creates to make sense of events derive from entertainment. Bob Denver may be gone, but we are all Maynard G. Krebs now.