Like any worthwhile pop culture junkie, a good book title can get my attention with relative ease. And thus was the case with TV critic Bill Brioux‘s new effort from Greenwood Publishing, Truth & Rumors: The Reality Behind TV’s Most Famous Myths. I recently got a chance to interview Brioux about the book and another project he’s got in the pipeline. Once you’ve read the interview, be sure to visit Brioux’s blog, TV Feeds My Family.
Tim O’Shea: As a veteran critic of several years, I would imagine you view most entertainment rumors with skepticism–in researching this books, were there many items that you always assumed to be true that you found out to be false?
Bill Brioux: I think the ones I was most interested in were the ones I remembered from my childhood. There was a rumor that ripped through my schoolyard one day–Jerry Mathers, the kid who played freckle-faced Beav on Leave It To Beaver, was dead. He had been killed in Vietnam.
Now, I knew pretty quickly that wasn’t true (or at least I knew for sure when Still The Beaver came on with Mathers intact in the early ’80s). But, as a TV beat writer, I was always curious as to how these rumors got started and how–back before 500 channels and the Internet–one could have spread up to a school yard in Canada so quickly.
One that everybody seems convinced really happened and didn’t–Johnny Carson telling Zsa Zsa Gabor, “I’d like to, but the damn cat’s in the way,” after she invited him to pet her, ahem, pussy. People seemed stunned even to this day when I tell them that never happened. Ed McMahon of all people told me he was there when it happened!! Carson and Gabor both repeatedly denied it, as did producer Peter Lassally (who, unlike McMahon, wasn’t a big, uh, “tea” drinker back then).
The trouble is, it sounds exactly like something Carson would say–and sometimes that’s all it takes. Plus–and this is a big one–all those early Tonight Show tapes, the first ten years of the Carson era, were erased! Since there is no video evidence it didn’t happen, many of these rumors live on. Same with stories originating with Steve Allen and Jack Paar. As I say in the book, The Tonight Show was the hotbed of TV rumors.
O’Shea: Some folks may think this book may not be necessary, given that we have websites such as (the normally accurate) Snopes and (not as normally accurate) Wikipedia. But as a journalist, you understand better than most–as revolutionary as the Internet may be in terms of equalizing the information age–it is not always accurate. In researching this book, did you make it realize even more how much inaccurate information the Internet offers as accurate?
Brioux: Have to say Snopes is terrific and very accurate. They cover every type of rumor imaginable–as do several other books, including one by movie reviewer Richard Roeper. I wanted to see if there were enough about television alone to fill a book, and, in 25 years on the beat, I had stumbled across a few I’d never seen covered anywhere else.
Wikipedia is still a bit iffy because much of the information there is contributed by people just browsing the Internet. But it was also a handy place to start a search, as were many other web sites. With Snopes, it was important to challenge some of the facts with first-hand interviews, but I have to say they really do their homework and full credit to them. They’ve posted, for example, the letters from both Zsa Zsa and Carson denying the “pussy” rumor right on their web site, and it has been there for years.
The handy thing about a web site, as I’ve found on my own blog, TV Feeds My Family, is that you can always update your posting. My book, however, is a lot handier to bring to the beach or the bathroom.
O’Shea: How did your book get picked as part of The Praeger Television Collection?
Brioux: I’m a long time member of the Television Critics Association (TCA) and served on the board for several years. A fellow board member, David Bianculli, long time TV critic at the New York Daily News (and now posting at his own site, TV Worth Watching), is supervising editor of the Praeger series and asked if I had a book in me. Then there’s a pitch process and a few other hoops to jump through before your idea gets a green light. I’m working on a second book now for Praeger, a history of late night television.
O’Shea: In terms of covering late night TV in your next book, will you be delving into the short-lived incarnations like the Chevy Chase Show–or Dennis Miller’s first late night show? Or are you focusing on the icons-from Steve Allen to the present day?
Brioux: I’ll be looking at all the winners and losers over the years in late night, including Miller and especially Chase. I was among the critics who were given a tour of the historic old theatre in Hollywood which was retrofitted at great expense for Chase’s Fox flop. It was about a month before The Chevy Chase Show went on the air and you could smell disaster in the air. Chase was awkward and aloof with the press and the Fox executives were mortified. I remember standing at the curb after the event waiting for a shuttle back to the hotel and overhearing two nervous Fox executives. They were fearing for their jobs once Rupert Murdoch got a whiff of this thing.
That will be fun to write about, but I’m especially looking forward to saluting the heroes of late night, including Johnny Carson–Chevy Chase’s steady bridge partner for years!
O’Shea: Was it challenging to shift into the mode of writing a book (versus the pace and equally demanding role of TV critic for a daily paper)?
Brioux: All writers are lazy bastards so, yes, sure. I was so used to hitting that daily deadline that I thought at first I could leave it to the last minute and turn around a book in a few weeks. It took six months! My book clocked in at 70,000 words, the equivalent of 100 daily newspaper columns.
O’Shea: Is the line between truth and rumor blurring with shows like TMZ and/or reality shows that seemingly are scripted?
Brioux: Reality programming hasn’t just blurred the line, it has erased it. There is a Reality TV chapter in my book dealing with shows like The Amazing Race, American Idol and Survivor. I spoke with Rob and Amber of Race and Survivor fame and they’re only too eager to keep alive the Race rumor that that plane waited for that other couple to hop on and spoil their free ride to a million bucks. Reality “stars” make their living on rumor and innuendo.
But its not just reality programming that has blurred the line–it is reality. The governor of California, for Pete’s sake, is Arnold Schwarzenegger! The Terminator!
TMZ and the other tabloid TV shows just burn through so many rumors today that these mini-myths aren’t as much fun anymore. Rumors can break at 11 a.m., be on talk radio by 2 and be denied at 6:30 now. This age of instant gratification has changed everything. Still, my teens still enjoy being surprised and love a juicy rumor or an intriguing mystery. It all comes down to stories well told.
O’Shea: Without revealing if they are truth or rumors, can you mention some of the most challenging items to research?
Brioux: Was Charles Manson really one of the hundreds who auditioned for The Monkees back in 1965? I actually tried to get an interview with him in jail. Even if I did, he’s nuts, which is a bad thing when you are looking for somebody to nail down facts. I did speak to Davy Jones and several others and the story is pretty remarkable. That’s what I found as I wrote this book–it often didn’t matter if it happened or not, it was how and why it was out there that made the story.
Another was something I’ve read a million times in other books: that William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols shared TV’s first interracial kiss and that a handful of Southern stations refused to air it. I was a bit shocked at how networks do not have any historians on hand with any perspective on things that happened beyond three or four years ago. If only I could have boldly gone back and visited a few local station managers in the South in 1968.
O’Shea: Were there any truths or rumors that you could not clearly define as either?
Brioux: In the back of the book, there’s an index full of terms beyond truth and rumor–urban myths, legends, hoaxes, etc. The idea that Adam Rich, the child star of Eight Is Enough, was murdered by an irate stagehand, was an out and out hoax perpetrated–with Rich’s permission and cooperation–by a magazine.
O’Shea: In promoting the book and appearing on various shows, have you started running across more rumors to debunk? Is there a chance you might do a sequel to the book?
Brioux: Yes and yes. Did you know there was a rumor out there that Alfred Hitchcock did not have a belly button? I didn’t. So far I haven’t had the stomach to check into it.
O’Shea: I have to know, thanks to Amazon, your name comes up with the 1994 book, TV Guide Collector’s Edition: TV Celebrity Cookbook. Did you actually interview celebrities (or their agents) for recipes?
Brioux: Gad yes. Back in the day I wrote for the Canadian edition of TV Guide. I was even stationed in Los Angeles for a couple of years as their Hollywood Bureau Chief (basically me in an apartment in the Valley). So, yes, I ran around and got recipes from various stars–Robert Prosky, who followed Michael Conrad on Hill Street Blues, and his delicious “Atomic Bomb Muffins” come to mind–I can smell them now–but I don’t own a copy of that book and I’d honestly forgotten all about it!
Hope that helps Tim and thanks for spreading the word about Truth and Rumors. It is available at Amazon.com.