Dr. Joyce Brothers, who died Monday at age 85, was one of the first examples of a public figure who had a career of, by, and through TV. Before it was commonplace for psychologists, advice-givers, and sundry gurus to have syndicated shows and accompanying media empires, Brothers used an improbable career in the electronic age to brand herself as a pop-culture counselor and people’s academic: an approachably brilliant woman who knew more than you did about anything and everything, including your own mind.
Brothers’ media career began with the 1950s’ equivalent of reality-TV stardom: in 1955, to earn raise extra money, she went on the quiz show The $64,000 Question as an expert on boxing–a field she knew little of anything about until she decided to make herself an expert for the sake of the game show. (Unlike the scandal-tainted appearances of some later contestants, Brothers’ knowledge and winnings were genuine.) She later did a stint as a boxing color commentator, proving herself a natural broadcaster and a double curiosity: not just a lady who knew sports (in the men’s world of 1950s TV) but an academic who wasn’t above popular media.
Her surprising fame, combined with her PhD training in psychology, led her to a string of TV advice shows and print columns through the ’50s and ’60s. It was the time in Cold War American culture when therapy and psychology were breaking into popular consciousness, in everything from the comedy of Bob Newhart to the panels of Peanuts, and the country was ready for a chipper counselor to the masses.
I was born after Brothers’ heyday as a TV advice host; like other children of the ’70s, my first memory of her is as a near-ubiquitous guest on every kind of TV show imaginable—Happy Days, The Tonight Show, Mama’s Family, What’s My Line?, and (see the video above to believe it) Sha Na Na, to name a few. In a way Brothers’ TV ambassadorship for psychology may have been as influential as the advice she dispensed: with a sense of humor about herself, she let a generation know that seeking therapy was helpful and without shame, that—in the words of Sha Na Na’s Bowser—”It helps to know how ya mind woiks!”
Dr. Brothers’ sitcom therapy may not have always been dignified, but it was demystifying. Her message was that anyone could benefit from knowing their own brains; and she spread that message by believing that having a brain was no reason not to be a TV star. RIP.