Thursday, April 13, 2023

The Unshakeables: John Monroe Welcomes You Into His World


A television show succeeds if it holds your attention for the time it’s on. But some episodes stay with you long after the credits roll. The emotions they generate do not dissipate for several minutes – sometimes several hours. And when you think about them months or even years later, you find the imprint they left on your mind remains as formidable as ever.

These are the “Unshakeables.”


“I hate women – oh, I know I married one of them, but there was never anything else around.”


“I hate children – especially ours.”


Those are quotes from the first episode of a situation comedy. If you were to guess, you’d probably consider Married With Children, or one of the multitudes of 21st century series in which self-important families freely express their hostility toward each other and the dreadful hand life dealt them. But you would be incorrect.


The episode in question debuted in 1969, when families on TV still had more in common with the Bradys than the Bundys. Maybe that’s one reason why this particular show didn’t last. It was called My World…and Welcome To It, and it was billed as a series “based on stories, inspirational pieces, cartoons, and things that go bump in the night by James Thurber.”  



At 7:30 pm on September 15, viewers first met John Monroe (William Windom), as he strolled onto their screens in front of a crudely drawn black-and-white illustration of his Connecticut home. He introduces himself as a cartoonist and writer for The Manhattanite, a magazine modeled after the sophisticated urban snobbery of The New Yorker, where many of Thurber’s stories and illustrations appeared.


John is in no hurry to arrive home. “I don’t get along with any of them,” he says of his wife Ellen (Joan Hotchkis) and young daughter, Lydia (Lisa Gerritsen). Pausing at the front door he resigns himself to his fate: “I suppose I might as well go in – I don’t have enough money for a motel.”


The episode is appropriately titled “Man Against the World.”


Heady stuff for the time, and not just in its freewheeling mix of animation and live action that still seems innovative 50 years later. But apparently viewers were not yet ready for such a unique presentation. Maybe they turned it off after that opening scene, wondering why anyone would want to spend the next 30 minutes listening to a gloomy curmudgeon. Or maybe they just preferred to stick with Gunsmoke on CBS. Even now, after many lesser one-season-and-out shows have found a new audience on DVD, My World and Welcome To It remains out of circulation.


The first audience to embrace the series consisted of those who worked in the television industry, and understood how rare it was for something truly different to break into a prime time schedule. They recognized a kindred spirit in John Monroe, and the series built around him by writer-director Melville Shavelson. It was a celebration of the artist’s creativity, and an acknowledgement of the sacrifices creators make to bring something special into the world.


John is happiest when he is at his drawing board; family obligations take him away from that, out of the limitless realm of his thoughts and into a mundane world of teacher conferences and dull dinner conversation. Whatever invades the sanctity of his attic workspace is an annoyance. 



Even when John is away from his sketchpad, his mind wanders into fantasies that serve as a coping mechanism in situations he’d rather avoid. Forced to meet Lydia’s teacher, he imagines her as a beautiful young woman who tries to seduce him. When Ellen says “Yes, indeedy,” a phrase that makes him cringe (we all have them), he pictures her hanging from the living room chandelier – and smiles.


We know he is good at his job. His work appears in prestigious publications, and affords his family a comfortable existence. Does he need to be the way he is to keep that going? That seems to be the reality, and it is one to which his family has adjusted.  When Ellen speaks to Lydia about her father, she says that allowances must be made for the eccentricities and social awkwardness of creative people.


Anyone who has worked 16 hours a day trying to come up with a new idea for a story or a song or a script, as the clock ticks down toward a deadline, would appreciate how those allowances are considered. Those in television understood that reality all too well, which is one reason why My World and Welcome To It won the Emmy for Best Comedy, and William Windom was also honored as Best Actor.


And if more viewers stuck around for that first episode they’d have discovered that, thankfully, we do see that there’s hope for John, particularly in salvaging his relationship with his daughter, which until now was based on an understanding that neither gets the other, and they’re fine with that.


At first it seems an impossible situation. Usually in a parent-child dynamic where one is clinical and one is fanciful, it’s the parent that’s all business and the kid that can’t focus on serious subjects. But it’s the opposite here, and here the series also benefits from casting Lisa Gerritsen as Lydia, as she was always one of those kid actors that projected a maturity beyond her years. 



When Ellen tells John to help Lydia with her history homework, the awkwardness in her bedroom is palpable. At first they fall back into their standard positions – Lydia suggests he just sit there for a while and then leave, and she’ll tell mother he was helpful. “Excellent idea,” he responds.


But then Lydia complains about how dull it is to study General Ulysses S. Grant and the close of the Civil War. “There was nothing dull about Ulysses S. Grant,” John responds, and he whips out his sketchpad and draws the scene of General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. That becomes a fantasy sequence in which a drunk Grant doesn’t know he won the war and offers his sword to Lee. 



Lydia laughs at the story, and will soon write a composition based on that scenario that will get both her and John in trouble – but at least this time they are on the same side. “Imagination,” he tells her after finishing his yarn, “is what makes life tolerable.” 


And that’s the key line to the whole piece. 


As he leaves they smile at each other – perhaps for the first time. It was a moment well earned by a smart script and a talented cast.


William Windom would continue to make Monroe’s difficult traits more palatable than they would play from a less likeable actor. 


Some of his misogyny was toned down in subsequent episodes as well, but apparently not enough to allow one of television’s most original shows to survive beyond 26 episodes. Our loss, and one that will be felt most deeply by those oddball creative types that see a universe of possibilities in a blank sheet of paper. 


I'm no Thurber, but I like to think I'm one of them. 


  1. As it happens, I've got a c2c DVD set (OK, bootleg) of My World - And Welcome To It, which holds treasured space in my Olde DVD Wall.
    Of course, if someone decides to issue an Official Restored DVD set somewhere down the line, I'll definitely spend the inflated bucks to get it ...

    What I can recall (vaguely) from MW-AWTI's original run in '69-'70 (I was just out of high school at the time) was that NBC had some faith in it to perhaps share some audience with Laugh-In, thereby giving it at least loss-leader status (and possible renewal) against Gunsmoke (ABC was always well out of the running during this period).
    I was trying to read up on TV ratings back then; our local TV "critics" were no help at all, and even trade papers like Variety weren't much better.
    What I was able to suss out was that My World was what would nowadays be called a "bubble show", on the borderline between staying or going.
    Apparently, the deciding factor was CBS's cancellation of Red Skelton, making him available to NBC as a possible running mate to Laugh-In; somebody thought that this was a good idea ...
    Well, anyway, My World did get a complete season, for which my father forswore Gunsmoke (that year, at least).
    And there was that great electronic theme music, which I never tire of hearing (I think you can find it on YouTube).

    1. I have an 'unofficial' set as well. The hardly traditional Christmas episode is must-see holiday season viewing.