R.I.P. Dr. Joyce Brothers

Dr. Joyce Brothers, who parlayed a psychology degree and a penchant for dispensing advice to troubled strangers into a TV career when Dr. Phil was still in short pants (and Dr. Drew was barely a twinkle in his father’s eye), has died at the age of 85. A favorite guest of Johnny Carson’s, Dr. Brothers was talk-show royalty in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, making frequent appearances on The Tonight Show, as well as The Mike Douglas Show, The Merv Griffin Show, The David Frost Show, and Dinah! and, later, The Daily Show and Late Night With Conan O’Brien. She also served as a panelist on such game shows as Hollywood Squares, Tattletales, Match Game, What’s My Line?, and The $1.98 Beauty Contest, and made guest appearances, usually performing a light self-parody of her public persona, on scores of sitcoms, variety shows, and even movies.

Dr. Brothers was a stay-at-home mom with a Ph.D in psychology from Columbia University when she first became a TV celebrity, as a contestant on the popular prime time quiz show The $64,000 Question. Looking for a way to supplement the income from her husband’s medical residency, Dr. Brothers auditioned for the show as an expert on psychology and home economics, her twin majors in college. The show’s producers recognized her star potential but rejected her, because they didn’t find anything especially arresting about a poised, attractive young woman who knew some things about those subjects. They suggested that it would be more intriguing if she were an expert on, say, boxing, hint hint. So Dr. Brothers, getting the idea, hit the books gave herself a crash course in a subject about which she previously had no knowledge or interest. 

On December 1955, Dr. Brothers became the second contestant in the show’s history to win the its top prize. The spectacle of a woman correctly answering questions about the sweet science so dazzled male TV programmers of the day that CBS hired Dr. Brothers to serve as one of the commentators during a match between Sugar Ray Robinson and Carmen Basilio. The $64,000 Question was one of the show implicated in the quiz show scandals of the 1950s, and Dr. Brothers was later called before a grand jury to answer questions about her appearance on the show, but was cleared of any wrongdoing. In fact, many game-show historians believe that the producers were dismayed when, having brought Dr. Brothers on for her novelty value and fed her a series of softball questions, she just kept crushing it even as they began to throw her harder questions intended to take her out.

The quiz-show scandal blew up in 1959, but by that time, Dr. Brothers had already been given her own show on a local New York station, giving advice to audience members about their problems and relationship issues. Her syndicated program ran for decades, under various titles such as The Joyce Brothers Show, Ask Dr. Brothers, and Living Easy With Dr. Joyce Brothers. She also ministered to the readers of Good Housekeeping with a monthly column that she wrote for almost 40 years.

Dr. Brothers appeared, as herself, on The Jack Benny Program, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Sonny And Cher Comedy Hour, Happy Days, Taxi (where she cured Andy Kaufman’s Latka Gravas of multiple-personality disorder), Police Squad!, Chips, America 2-Night, Mama’s Family, Moonlighting, My Two Dads, Night Court, Alf, The New Mike Hammer, the daytime soap opera Santa Barbara, Frasier, The Simpsons, Dream On, Space Ghost Coast To Coast, Grace Under Fire, Melrose Place, The Nanny, The Larry Sanders Show, Ally McBeal, Pinky And The Brain, and Entourage, and also played characters with names different than her own on episodes of Love, American Style, Ellery Queen, Police Woman, Project U.F.O., The Love Boat, WKRP In Cincinnati, Charlie’s Angels, Simon & Simon, Married With Children, Picket Fences, Baywatch, Diagnosis Murder, Felicity, and JAG. 

She appeared on the big screen in The War Between Men And Women (1972); Embryo (1976); Hero At Large (1980); Oh God! Book II (1980); The Lonely Guy (1983), where she hooked up with Charles Grodin; The Naked Gun (1988), in which, in a nod to her lost career as a sport commentator, she was one of the announcers at a baseball game; Troop Beverly Hills (1989); Loaded Weapon 1 (1993); Exit To Eden (1994); Spy Hard (1996); Dear God (1996); Van Wilder (2002); and Analyze That (2002).

Dr. Brothers also authored numerous books, including Ten Days To A Successful Memory, The Brothers System For Liberated Love And Marriage, How To Get Whatever You Want Our Of Life, and Positive Plus: The Practical Plan For Liking Yourself Better. In 1990, she published Widowed, in which she described her own feelings of despair after her husband’s death the previous year.

One of the more memorable things written about her is Seymour Krim’s brief essay “My Sister, Joyce Brothers” (collected in Missing A Beat: The Rants And Regrets Of Seymour Krim), in which he described gleefully accepting an assignment to interview and write a “hatchet job” about her, only to abandon his plans after he met her and realized that she had his number: “I might detest the skin-deep seriousness of the media game she accepted without a murmur, but not her. She had worked harder and more conscientiously than I ever had, for all my anti-Establishment thunder, and I knew she had never really harmed anyone with her capsules of informed common sense… [S]he is my straight, smart JAP sister who has survived on a tougher track than I could ever play on and once caught her smartass brother with his juvenile, scarlet-envy pants down.”

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