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The Way We All Became The Brady Bunch
How the Canceled Sitcom Became the Beloved Pop Culture Icon We Are Still Talking About Today
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There isn’t a person in this country who hasn’t heard of The Brady Bunch. Whether it’s the show they watched growing up, or the one their parents did–whether adored, or great to poke fun at–The Brady Bunch is unarguably one of the most enduring and inspiring TV shows of our time. It’s lived a dozen lives, from its original comedy debut and big-screen movies, to the Emmy-winning TV auteurs it has inspired–everyone from Vince Gilligan to Jill Soloway–and promises to live many more.
In The Way We All Became the Brady Bunch, TV and pop culture writer Kimberly Potts will draw upon her deep knowledge of and appreciation for The Brady Bunch and television and pop culture history, as well as her contacts, connections, and experience, to provide an industry insider narrative of The Brady Bunch. With fresh interviews, The Way We All Became the Brady Bunch will examine the show’s lasting effects on its audience and take readers behind-the-scenes and into the lives of our most beloved characters, all to document why The Brady Bunch was one of the most groundbreaking shows of its time–and why it remains to this day, unforgettable.
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The House of Brady
When Vince Gilligan decided to set the penultimate episode of The X-Files inside the Brady Bunch house, his show’s cast, crew, writers, and producers were excited. Given the storyteller’s attention to detail, his cohorts knew the setting needed to look exactly like the real thing. When the real thing wasn’t available—the owner of the Los Angeles split-level that was used for the exterior of the Brady home in the 1969–74 ABC comedy didn’t want the hassle of accommodating the production—Gilligan did the next-best thing. The future Emmy-winning creator of New Golden Age of Television classics Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul reworked the episode, titled “Sunshine Days,” to focus on the equally iconic interior of the Brady family homestead, and tasked the X-Files production team with re-creating it meticulously.
That weird horse statue that sat on a credenza near the living room staircase? Check. The vase Peter broke when he ignored Carol Brady’s rule to not play ball in the house? Check, even though the props department had to grab some clay and fashion a knockoff guided by photo stills they captured while watching videotapes of the episode when an exact replica could not be found. The staircase itself, the living room doorway that led into Mike Brady’s home office, the attic bedroom where Greg hung his groovy beaded curtain after sister Marcia magnanimously let him claim the space and be the only Brady kid to enjoy the privacy of a solo bedroom? Check, check, and check. Gilligan and company had pulled off this spectacular rebuild of the TV home, and they’d done it with an assist directly from the Brady universe.
“Sunshine Days” wouldn’t have been possible without getting the permission of Brady Bunch creator and copyright owner Sherwood Schwartz, who also created Gilligan’s Island. The coincidence of a man named Gilligan now readying to pay homage to his other classic sitcom both surprised and tickled Schwartz.
“I think Sherwood wanted to get on the phone with me and see if I sounded like a complete yahoo or if I sounded like I was going to be making fun of his show,” Gilligan remembered. “I got on the phone with him, and I told him how much I enjoyed [The Brady Bunch] growing up.
“The really interesting thing about the conversation was the minute I got on the phone with him, his first words to me were, ‘Is that seriously your last name?’ I said to him, ‘Mr. Schwartz…actually, yes, my real name is Gilligan, and I think you owe me some residual money for using my family’s name.’ He said, ‘Haha, no, I don’t think so.’ We had a very nice conversation. He had a good sense of humor, and it was really cool that I got to talk to him. I wish I had met him in person.”
Schwartz not only gave his thumbs-up to the Brady-themed story, but he lent the X-Files team the blueprints his production had used to create the original interior set for the Brady home. He, his son (and Brady producer) Lloyd, and his daughter (and Brady guest star) Hope also visited the X-Files set and posed for photos on Brady living room staircase 2.0.
Gilligan soon found out the Schwartzes were not the only ones excited about the retro TV home’s reconstruction. News of the new set had traveled throughout Los Angeles’s television community, and Gilligan and series star Gillian Anderson were among the X-Files staff who received calls from executives at Warner Bros., Fox, and Sony, as well as friends and family, all calling in favors to wrangle invitations to visit the set.
“They showed up from all over town. They came out of the woodwork, because they wanted the photo,” Gilligan said. “It’s not that they were big X-Files fans…they wanted their photo taken on the staircase of the Brady Bunch set, and this was, of course, before smartphones with cameras built in. People were showing up with their film cameras and snapping pictures of their loved ones on the Brady Bunch staircase, and that was, for a couple of weeks there, a really big deal. That was a hot ticket in Los Angeles.”
What was it about getting the chance to see that living room, that weird horse statue, that bright orange kitchen, live and in person, that had everyone from actors and camera operators to executives who make daily multimillion-dollar decisions about their own TV shows—and even the Brady Bunch creator himself—giddy about a series that was, at that point, more than thirty years old?
Why, now fifty years later, do thousands of Brady devotees still travel to 11222 Dilling Street in Los Angeles each year just to get a look at that Studio City split-level, which, because it provided the exterior shots for the Brady hacienda for all five seasons of the show, is now the second most-photographed house in America (after the White House)?
To deconstruct the appeal of the Brady Bunch home, and every other iconic symbol of Sherwood Schwartz’s seminal family comedy, is to deconstruct the enduring status of The Brady Bunch as a cultural touchstone.
In July 2018, newspapers and websites around the world rushed to report a big event in Bradyworld. If you happened to have a spare $1.9 million lying around and wanted to own the house on Dilling Street, you might be in luck. Boy band alum Lance Bass from 'N Sync, Disney star turned pop diva Miley Cyrus, and Property Brothers star Jonathan Scott were among the most famous names bidding for the privilege of owning the two-bedroom, three-bathroom, shag-carpeted domicile. “I’m obviously obsessed with The Brady Bunch. I mean, I grew up watching that show. Reruns!” Bass said. “I want to buy this house.”
In August 2018, a surprise bidder emerged as the new owner of the Brady home: HGTV. The cable network paid more than $3 million for the property, and immediately began construction to expand the house, revamp the interior to match the look of the television-show interior set, and document the whole process for a TV series.
What happened inside the house of Brady happened elsewhere—on Paramount Studios Stage 5, eight miles away—but those Dilling digs remain the real-estate representation of TV’s all-time happiest blended brood, which itself is the familial representation of the exact kind of childhood many TV watchers wished—still wish—they’d had.
* * *
To The Brady Bunch uninitiated, all this fuss about a house, both the real thing and the soundstage creation (and the Vince Gilligan–ordered re-creation), might sound like just more clickbait headlines for fans of a TV series that’s long past its glory days. But, as even some Brady fans will be surprised to learn, the family comedy’s best years all came after ABC canceled it in 1974.
The Brady Bunch has been spun off as a Saturday morning cartoon, a variety show, and an earnest dramedy called The Bradys.
It’s been developed as a stage musical, two big-screen movies, and a 1990s theatrical production in which episodes of the original series were reenacted verbatim by future stars like Jane Lynch and Andy Richter.
It has been reverently spoofed by The Simpsons, Family Guy, and Sesame Street. Its iconic theme song and tic-tac-toe-board opening sequence have been copied by Game of Thrones and The Avengers. “Weird Al” Yankovic has sung about it. A casino company adapted it as a themed slot machine, complete with video clips and theme song. The porn industry has turned it into a XXX adult film (with four sequels).
Brady parents Carol (Florence Henderson) and Mike (Robert Reed) top lists of TV’s all-time greatest moms and dads every year. The Brady Bunch was named the all-time favorite television series of Generation X, according to an MTV survey. Since the show launched in syndication in 1975, it has aired somewhere in the world every year.
For decades after its premiere—five decades, in fact, as The Brady Bunch marked its fiftieth anniversary on September 26, 2019—the show has only grown in popularity and in influence on popular culture. But its beginnings, and its entire original run on ABC, were modest. Critics ignored (in the best cases) and disparaged (in the worst cases) the series, dismissing it as nothing but a fluffy, unrealistic portrayal of blended-family life. Only kids were watching the Bradys, critics said, and they deserved better. The Brady Bunch’s Friday night ratings seemed to support those theories. In five seasons, The Brady Bunch was never a top 10 hit. Nor a top 20 hit. Nor did it ever crack the top 30. The best the Bradys could manage was in season three, when it finished as the 31st most-watched show on TV.
Which raises the questions: How did the Bradys become more popular than ever after being canceled? Why have fans demanded their return again and again, on TV, at the movies, in books, on stage, at casinos…in whatever venue viewers of those XXX films are getting their naughty Brady on? What about this show and its simple premise—a premise so simple that it’s been the subject of derision almost as often as it’s been the subject of fan love—has sparked tributes on today’s most popular TV programs and influenced works by today’s most respected TV auteurs? Why do we still love The Brady Bunch so much?
As a journalist covering television and pop culture for more than twenty-five years, I view The Brady Bunch now with a fresh perspective. Even with the hundreds of current TV series available to watch—so many that new, fantastic shows often get lost in the shuffle—The Brady Bunch is a classic I come back to again and again.
Any show that can not only stake out a place in TV history, but maintain and expand it into a permanent presence as a pop culture icon, is worthy of respect. And it’s worthy of examination, of a chronicle on how and why it endures, of answers to that question: Why do we still love The Brady Bunch so much?
The answers, as we’ll explore in the pages ahead, are legion, but they all tie back to one fact: Simplicity can be powerful. If you didn’t have a family like the Bradys, you wanted one. If you did have a family like the Bradys, you identified with the show. If you were a big brother, the forgotten youngest one, a middle child who always felt the need to do something outlandish to draw more attention, a little sister who loved to tattle on her siblings, or the older sister who seemed impossibly perfect to her junior brethren, there was a Brady kid and dozens of their comedies and dramas with which to relate.
Not to mention a mom and dad (and don’t forget Alice!) whose every waking moment was devoted to nothing so much as the happiness of all six children.
A Hunch About The Bunch
As he perused the Los Angeles Times during a routine weekday breakfast in 1966, a surprising statistic caught Sherwood Schwartz’s eye: More than 29 percent of all marriages now included at least one child from a previous marriage.
Schwartz was in the middle of producing the third season of his high-concept CBS sitcom Gilligan’s Island, but his next big series seemed to be leaping off the newspaper page at him. If this was suddenly such a prevalent family configuration, wouldn’t TV viewers be drawn to a weekly depiction of one of these new, modern families?
He felt so confident in the concept and all the new storyline possibilities it opened up that he left his eggs and coffee behind and immediately started to draft a general outline of the show, along with a handful of episode ideas. Time was of the utmost essence, he felt. He needed to put down his marker on the idea before any of his fellow TV scribes got there first. So with just those few pages in his hands, Schwartz set off to the Writers Guild of America West offices on Sunset Boulevard, where his plan for a series about a blended family, titled Yours and Mine, was officially registered as a Sherwood Schwartz joint.
Now he was free to develop this new family comedy further. And then he was free to wait…and wait, and wait some more, through three years, with interest from all three major broadcast networks, for his future classic to finally make its small-screen debut.
* * *
Sherwood Charles Schwartz had stumbled into the television-making business by way of medical school. Born in Passaic, New Jersey, in 1916 and raised in Brooklyn, the middle son of Herman and Rose Schwartz graduated from the famous DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx (where his fellow alumni included Neil Simon, Paddy Chayefsky, James Baldwin, Stan Lee, and Garry Marshall) before entering New York University as a premed student. “I grew up loving a book called Microbe Hunters,” Schwartz said. “That’s really what influenced my life. It was about the great humanitarian doctors who were guys like Dr. [Frederick] Banting, who discovered [insulin]. He was the one who discovered [its] relationship to diabetes and the effect it has on your body. I wanted to become an endocrinologist.”
But despite top grades at NYU, Schwartz was told he’d never get into a med school program because of an unofficial medical school quota system meant to limit how many Jewish students would be admitted. His NYU counselors even advised him to change his last name to “Black” and lie about his religion on his application. He refused to do either.
Schwartz had also been advised that additional credentials, like a graduate degree, might help him break past the anti-Semitic barrier of the quota and into med school. So he followed his older brother Al, a comedy writer for Bob Hope’s radio show, to Los Angeles, and in 1938 earned a master’s in biological sciences from the University of Southern California. While living with Al and waiting for news about his med school application, Sherwood asked his sibling if he might make a few bucks writing some jokes for Hope. “It never seemed that difficult to me to write jokes,” he said. So he typed up four pages of monologue bits for the comedian and submitted them.
Sherwood’s jokes landed, earning big laughs for Hope. And the comedian offered him a surprise in return: Instead of throwing some cash his way for the material Sherwood had already written, Hope had his agent, Jimmy Saphier, propose that the younger Schwartz sign a seven-year contract to become a writer for The Pepsodent Show, Hope’s radio classic.
Sherwood was flattered. He hadn’t considered a career as a writer. That was Al’s thing. Al had completed a law degree and passed the bar exam solely because their parents had insisted. He then gifted his diploma to his mother and told her, “Here, now I can write.”
Not that Sherwood’s writing talents hadn’t earned him praise before.
One of his NYU professors had returned a test essay to him with the message, “Get out of premed and become a writer” scrawled at the top in red…but what about medical school? He’d moved across the country and put forth the effort to earn a second degree, on just the chance that he’d get a shot at his dream of becoming a doctor.
So while he appreciated Hope’s generous offer, he told Saphier, and certainly didn’t want to offend him by turning down the job, he had to see this med school journey through.
When Saphier relayed the news to Hope, he countered. Schwartz would find out shortly whether or not he had landed a spot in a medical school program, right? Hope was about to leave Hollywood to spend his show’s summer hiatus in England. Before he went, Hope signed that seven-year contract. If Sherwood was admitted to medical school, Hope would wish the future Dr. Schwartz good luck. But if he wasn’t, all he had to do was countersign, and he would have a job as the newest writer for The Pepsodent Show.
With the contract in his pocket, Sherwood returned to New York City, where he’d scheduled a meeting with an assistant dean at the medical school of Flower Hospital. Knowing what a long shot his admittance was, the future legend of TV comedy had a dramatic gesture planned for the interview. He knew the dean would ask how badly he wanted to be a doctor. And when the question came, Sherwood pulled out his seven-year contract, signed by Hope, and explained what it was. The dean was impressed. Sherwood explained he was so committed to a career in medicine that he’d be willing to rip up that contract then and there.
The dean, impressed even further, decided he had to be honest with Schwartz. He confirmed what Sherwood had already been told about the quota for Jewish doctors, a quota the AMA would never acknowledge, Schwartz later said, and one that would no longer be enforced after World War II. But in 1938, the quota would work against him, he was told.
The Flower Hospital dean offered to allow the very academically qualified Schwartz to fill out his own evaluation form—which the dean would then sign—assuring him the quota would prevent him from getting into the med school no matter what he wrote. Sherwood refused. The dean wrote a glowing recommendation himself, which he showed to Schwartz. Upon Sherwood’s return to Los Angeles, he received a telegram.
He didn’t get into the Flower Hospital program. He was the number one alternate, and the telegram advised him to stand by for a second telegram, should anyone drop out.
* * *
That second telegram never arrived. It was a good thing the dean hadn’t insisted Schwartz follow through with tearing Bob Hope’s contract to shreds.
It broke his heart to leave his plans to be a doctor behind, and for the rest of his life he would think about the good works he might have done, the patients he could have helped, the diseases he might have cured. Brady Bunch star Ann B. Davis said she was once brought to tears by Schwartz’s wistful tale about how much he had wanted to be a doctor. His daughter, Hope Juber, said he kept a black medical bag beside his desk throughout his life. He even made one of his most-loved TV characters, eldest Brady Bunch son Greg, a physician.
He saved a copy of the wait-and-see telegram for decades, Juber said, and finally demanded a decision as only a comedy writer would. “When Dad was in his late eighties, he sent a letter to that particular medical school [now renamed New York Medical College], saying, ‘I’m a patient man, but I have to get on with my life.’”
Sherwood signed his name on Hope’s contract and officially joined brother Al in what would become the Schwartz brothers’ family business (youngest brother Elroy would soon follow his siblings to Los Angeles and work as a Hollywood writer).
Sherwood spent more than four years penning jokes for Hope on The Pepsodent Show, then was assigned to write for the Armed Forces Radio Service (serving his time at an Army desk in Hollywood) when he was drafted during World War II. He jumped right back into the comedy world after the war, declining the chance to return to his job at The Pepsodent Show so he could try his hand at situation comedy.
A stint as a writer for The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, the radio version of the future TV show, led Schwartz to a writing gig on I Married Joan. The 1952–55 I Love Lucy-ish NBC comedy starred Joan Davis as Joan Stevens, a Lucy Ricardo–like character with similar gifts for physical comedy and turning misunderstandings into screwball gems. The series was not only Schwartz’s first foray into TV, but Joan’s husband, Judge Bradley Stevens, was played by Jim Backus, an actor who would later play a key role in Sherwood creating his own series for the first time.
But before that, he shared an Emmy with his brother Al and two other writers in 1961 for their work on The Red Skelton Show. The volatile Skelton had been unhappy with the output of a previous head writer, Schwartz’s former I Married Joan colleague Artie Stander, so he shot a loaded gun at the man’s feet to encourage him to turn out more creative scripts. Sherwood had helped steer the program out of the bottom of the ratings heap to success as the series’ head writer, a job he took only after CBS guaranteed he wouldn’t lose any appendages.
“I have ten toes, and I want to keep them all,” Sherwood told CBS executives, who desired Schwartz’s services so badly that they promised he’d never have to meet with the star of the show. He would write the scripts, and they’d be delivered to Skelton. For seven years, star and head writer never had an in-person meeting.
Schwartz also spent a year as the script supervisor for My Favorite Martian, one of the many ’60s series—like Screen Gems’ I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, and The Flying Nun—that tried to freshen up the stagnating situation comedy with fantastical elements.
By this point, though, he’d had enough of writing other people’s stories. He had important ideas he wanted to tackle, points he wanted to make with his writing. And, as he was about to illustrate, he certainly wasn’t above using a grand, outside-the-box concept himself to share his philosophies with sitcom viewers. Like stranding seven people on a deserted island, as a social microcosm showing what can result when disparate people are forced to live together and find a way to coexist peacefully, and maybe even happily.
That was the lofty premise of Schwartz’s pitch for Gilligan’s Island, in which SS Minnow charter-boat captain Jonas “The Skipper” Grumby, his first mate Gilligan, wealthy marrieds Thurston and Lovey Howell, movie star Ginger Grant, Roy “Professor” Hinkley, and farm girl Mary Ann Summers are shipwrecked on a deserted island in the Pacific Ocean after their three-hour tour meets a tropical storm head-on.
But before he could get the idea in front of TV executives, he first had to convince his longtime agent, George Rosenberg, that this Robinsonade vehicle wouldn’t get him laughed out of the pitch meeting.
“Are you outta your fuckin’ mind?” Rosenberg asked Schwartz. “Who the hell is gonna tune in week after week to watch those same goddamn people on that same goddamn island?”
Sherwood was undeterred. When “Rosey,” who was not only his agent but also a personal friend and godfather to Sherwood’s son Ross, couldn’t be sold on the pitch, Schwartz, with his friend’s blessing, took the idea to another agent, Perry Leff. Leff, too, thought the series was pretty out there, but agreed to make a call. CBS, Schwartz’s network employer for The Red Skelton Show and My Favorite Martian, was interested.
Knowing the skepticism he would face about how he could turn this idea into a new episode week in and week out, Sherwood started jotting down episode ideas. He took a long sheet of white butcher paper and tacked it to the walls of his office, wrapping it all the way around the room. In just a week, he’d filled the paper with dozens of plots, and he removed the sheet—all thirty-one feet of paper—rolled it up, and secured it with a rubber band. He was ready to hand it over to anyone who questioned if he could sustain this “social microcosm” for thirty-some episodes a year.
None of the CBS executives ever unspooled that tube of paper. CBS programming president Jim Aubrey had only one major concern about the Gilligan premise: Valuable time would have to be spent at the beginning of every episode to explain how the Skipper, Gilligan, Mr. and Mrs. Howell, the Professor, Ginger, and Mary Ann ended up marooned on the island. It would grow tiresome, Aubrey insisted, and viewers wouldn’t tune in. He was so insistent this was a hurdle that couldn’t be overcome that he spent one entire meeting between Schwartz and CBS honchos showing his obvious lack of confidence in the series by fashioning memo sheets into paper airplanes and launching them around the room while Schwartz pitched.
Schwartz remained resolute: Gilligan’s Island was a solid idea, and he knew a snappy opening theme song could double as weekly exposition. The night before a pivotal meeting with the network, he spent a few hours hastily writing a tune about “the tale of a fateful trip”…a three-hour tour (a three-hour tour!) “aboard this tiny ship” that ended with a crash landing on an “uncharted desert isle” after some rough weather. Schwartz went to the next morning’s meeting with lyric sheets he passed around the room. Aubrey didn’t want to read the theme song, though; he wanted to hear it.
Sherwood obliged. Aubrey’s only response was to suggest the middle part of the song needed a little work, which served as his confirmation that Schwartz had ensured Gilligan’s Island’s place in the network’s lineup, and eventually, in TV history.
Schwartz was just relieved Aubrey hadn’t turned the theme song lyric sheets into paper airplanes.
* * *
Gilligan’s Island was a ratings winner for CBS and Schwartz, finishing its first season as a top 20 hit. Season three, however, would end with a surprise cancellation, not because of poor ratings but as collateral damage from CBS president William Paley’s insistence that Gunsmoke
- "Pott's book both entertains and educates, dropping numerous pearls of wisdom about why the Brady's mattered then. . . and now."—Yahoo! Entertainment
- "There is still more to know about [The Brady Bunch] -- as revealed by author Kimberly Potts."—Closer Weekly
- "An all-purpose guide to all things Brady."—Flavorwire
- "Kimberly Potts brings a sophisticated, streaming-era perspective to one of the great mysteries of our time: How did a simplistic, sweet, widely disrespected TV show like The Brady Bunch become a formative influence on some of our greatest Gen X pop culture figures, including Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, First Lady Michelle Obama, and parody genius Weird Al? Through behind-the-scenes stories and analysis, Potts takes the Brady phenomenon seriously and shows that no matter who we are, we're all looking for a happy TV family to call our own."—Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, New York Times bestselling author of Seinfeldia and Sex and the City and Us
- "Growing up in a family with six children, I can think of no other show that embodies my childhood and my relationship with television more than The Brady Bunch. Kimberly Potts captures some of that Brady Bunch magic in this great book."—Jim Gaffigan, Emmy-winning comedian and New York Times bestselling author of Dad is Fat and Food: A Love Story
- "Mom always said, 'Don't play ball in the house.' I say, 'If you remember that line, you need to read this book.'"—Gavin Edwards, New York Times bestselling author of The Tao of Bill Murray
- On Sale
- Dec 3, 2019
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Grand Central Publishing