Dr. Joyce Brothers’s path to becoming television and radio’s best-known psychologist was not a conventional one. She first made her mark not for dispensing advice on attaining personal fulfillment, but as a quiz show contestant with an expertise in boxing, of all things. Having proven to the television audience that she was one smart lady, she was soon in demand as a commentator and purveyor of wisdom—putting viewers at ease with her gentle manner and discussing sometimes touchy topics such as marriage, sex, and love in terms that were easy to understand. Never pretending to be the “final word” in solving problems, Brothers has referred to herself as “a kind of middleman between the viewer and psychological literature.” Whether it was hosting her own programs (sometimes appearing on more than one series during the same period), dropping in on talk shows, making cheeky guest appearances that showed she was capable of good-naturedly sending up her image, writing widely circulated columns, or even stretching by taking a handful of acting roles, Brothers cultivated a vast and loyal following and paved the way for others in her field to bring their talents to television. Brothers has theorized, “I think we should follow a simple rule: if we can take the worst, take the risk.”
The daughter of lawyers, Joyce Diane Bauer was born in Manhattan and raised in Far Rockaway, Queens. It was while attending Cornell University as an undergraduate that she developed an interest in psychology. After receiving her BS there, she obtained an MA from Columbia University, where she pursued advanced work in behavior and personality. She earned her Ph.D. there in 1953 with a doctoral dissertation on anxiety avoidance and escape behavior measured by the action potential in muscle. After marrying medical student Milton Brothers in 1949, she chose to put her career temporarily on hold to raise their daughter. Badly in need of money, Brothers struck upon the idea of making herself eligible to appear on television’s top-rated quiz program, The $64,000 Question, where the producers were looking for an incongruous pairing of contestant and topic. Learning anything and everything she could about boxing, Brothers first appeared on the program in the fall of 1955, becoming an audience favorite and confounding the judges with her knowledge of a field considered by many to be the exclusive domain of men. She won the full $64,000 in December of that year, becoming only the second contestant and the first woman to win the grand prize. Two years later, she repeated her triumph on the series’ spin-off, The $64,000 Challenge, where she took on a group of former prizefighters and brought her earnings up to $134,000. When the quiz show scandal erupted in 1959, Brothers was exonerated, proving herself the genuine item, having refused to cave in to any pressure from the producers to lose or answer questions dishonestly.
Thought of as an authority on athletics, Brothers won a spot on the Sports Showcase in 1956, commenting on sports and conducting interviews, but it was not until two years later that television finally came around to showcasing Dr. Brothers in her real area of expertise, psychology. Still best known at that point for her quiz show stint, NBC figured it could cash in on the Brothers name with an afternoon program in which she shared her ideas on marital problems, sexuality, and relationships among other things. The response to The Dr. Joyce Brothers Show was so enthusiastic, judging from the amount of mail she received, that NBC quickly decided to let the show go from local to national. Three years into its run, Brothers made the jump into nighttime television, taping fifteen-minute segments to be broadcast at 1 a.m., where fewer restrictions were placed on just how frankly she could speak about some borderline-taboo subjects. Consult Dr. Brothers ran for five years, by which time she could be seen in yet another variation on her format, Tell Me, Dr. Brothers. Both of these series overlapped with Ask Dr. Brothers and a pair of radio programs, one of which allowed her to take calls directly from listeners.
Marya Mannes in the Reporter praised Brothers’s knack for making private topics public without being embarrassing or offensive. While certain authorities in the field carped about what they considered a surface examination of human problems, Brothers won a vast following through intelligence, genuine compassion, and her ability not to intimidate those seeking advice, making the most complex issues easy to understand and relate to. “I do not and will not talk about problems of mental illness,” she once explained. “I am not trying to do therapy on the air. If I think there is even a possibility that people need therapy, I suggest they seek professional help.”
By the early seventies Brothers was nothing less than a household name, her reach encompassing not only television and radio, but syndicated columns in some 350 daily newspapers, as well as features written for the Hearst papers and United Press International. A favorite of talk and game shows, Brothers also took a cue from a 1965 appearance on an episode of The Jack Benny Program, in which she played herself, seldom hesitating to accept similar future offers. Possessing a refreshing sense of humor about herself, as well as a very engaging on-screen presence that had already been evident in her self-help discussions, Brothers set the stage for a long line of guest spots and cameo appearances on both television and in motion pictures. Whenever the psychology profession was ripe for a bit of ribbing, if someone with legit credentials was needed to help stress an issue, or if casting agents wanted a certain level-headed normalcy to contrast with the comical surroundings, Brothers was the one to call. She could be seen playing herself in everything from Happy Days, ALF, Ally McBeal, and Entourage to the soap operas One Life to Live and Santa Barbara, even popping up in animated form on The Simpsons. Though not a trained actress, she “stretched” to a degree, portraying fictional characters (usually doctors) in such television movies as Beggarman, Thief and The Day My Parents Ran Away and in series like Charlie’s Angels and Picket Fences.
Her appearances on so many scripted programs might have suggested a public resistance to taking Brothers seriously. But, in fact, she was often cited among the most admired women in America, according to various polls over the years. Her value as someone with compassion and insight was never more evident than in two on-air incidents in which she was able to prevent disturbed individuals from committing suicide, once in 1965, and then again on her radio show in 1971. The latter was a much-publicized event in which Brothers comforted a distressed woman who had taken an overdose of sleeping pills and was kept on the line for three and a half hours by the doctor’s quick thinking. When her husband died in the late eighties, Brothers turned her own grief into something she hoped would be helpful to others in the same situation, publishing the book Widowed, which explained how she herself went from thoughts of suicide to leading a productive life once again. The most personal of her many books, it was also the most popular. Gratified by the positive response, Brothers said it “made my own pain not only bearable but worthwhile.”
Brothers’ manner of dispensing advice never went out of fashion, as she continued to be one of the prevalent names in her field, appearing in the seventies on the talk show Living Easy with Dr. Joyce Brothers and in her own series in the eighties on the Disney Channel, where she specialized in sharing psychological tips with celebrity guests. Beginning in the late nineties ,she was invited to chat on frequent occasions with Conan O’Brien, becoming something of a semi-regular feature on his late night show. Early on, Brothers was quoted as saying, “The person interested in success has to learn to view failure as a healthy, inevitable part of the process of getting to the top.” For Brothers that journey to reaching the top of her field and staying there for an amazing five decades was one rife with success and relatively free of any degree of failure.