Who is Bill Boggs and what was he doing here?
By Billy Eye
“Unlike productions in the other arts, all television shows are born to destroy two other shows.” — Les Brown
There’s a hilarious new novel Eye want to tell you about: The Adventures of Spike the Wonder Dog (as told to Bill Boggs). It’s a darkly absurdist sendup of the television industry, itself a nonsensical environment, written by someone who knows the ins and outs of the business like no other.
You may remember Bill Boggs as the host of Southern Exposure, a local morning talk show airing at 8 a.m. on WGHP-TV from 1972–74. I recently caught up with the author who, for 13 years after leaving High Point, hosted Midday Live on WNEW in New York City, picking up four Emmy Awards for his efforts.
He’s acted in movies like Trading Places, guest-starred on numerous comedy programs such as Spin City and Chappelle’s Show, and produced television shows and specials that include A Night With Lou Reed and The Morton Downey Jr. Show.
For several years he pulled double-duty jetting to Las Vegas to interview heavyweights on Showtime’s Boxing Report Update while also sharing kitchen space with celebrities like Richard Simmons, Whoopi Goldberg and Joan Rivers on Bill Boggs’ Corner Table for the Food Network. “I tell people, ‘I have more than one interest,’” Boggs says. You may have seen him more recently as the celebrity correspondent for My Generation on PBS.
His latest project, The Adventures of Spike the Wonder Dog, “follows the structure of my career, starting in High Point,” Boggs tells me. “The character of Bud is not exactly me in terms of how I am and how I act, but it’s Bud, no last name. And he has a beloved dog Spike.”
While none of the on-air talent at WGHP are represented in the novel, there are other characters who are inspired by people he’s known along the way. For instance, the character of Lombardo is based on WGHP’s former general manager. “Phil Lombardo went from being the first Italian-American to be general manager of a television station in America,” Boggs notes, “to owning seven television stations worth almost a billion dollars and now heads a huge philanthropical foundation. Buffy is inspired by Buffy Queen, my associate producer at channel 8. They’re jumping-off points.”
Before arriving in High Point in 1969, “I had an opportunity to do a local show in Philadelphia because Tom Snyder had left to go to California,” Boggs explains. “I was associate producer of the morning TV show where I was on the air once a week. After two years of that I learned a lot about producing.” In 1972, he made a New Year’s resolution that he would go anywhere in America in order to have his own talk show. Within weeks that wish was granted.
WGHP had been casting about looking for someone to shake up their morning show flop Farm, Home and Garden. “I auditioned for Phil Lombardo and he hired me,” Boggs recalls. “He was a brilliant manager, he gave me full rein. He really saw that I was highly motivated, that I had left a major market where I was on the air to come to High Point, North Carolina. People in Philadelphia thought I was nuts at the time but I wanted to do a show every day.”
Lombardo’s plan was to have Boggs on the air a week and a half after settling in. “I was replacing a show that was an asterisk, no ratings whatsoever. How are people going to know I’m on the air? I suggested we create a two-month teaser campaign — ‘Who Is Bill Boggs and What Is He Doing Here?’” This would allow the Philly native time to get to know the culture of the area and opportunities to pre-tape celebrity interviews.
“To his credit, unlike any other bosses I’ve met along the way,” Boggs says, “[Lombardo] listened with the intention of understanding and not immediately responding, ‘Nope, you’re going on the air in a week and a half.’” Instead, Lombardo leaned into the idea, instigating a media blitz ahead of the premier of Southern Exposure, culminating in a primetime one-hour sneak preview before debuting in its regular daily 8 a.m. slot. The show’s cohost was an English bull terrier named Spike the Wonder Dog.
“I had all of the freedom in the world in High Point. It was very successful,” Boggs reflects. “A month later I get a call from Lombardo. ‘Come to my office I want to talk about ratings.’ I got a lump in the pit of my stomach. He says, ‘You have done the impossible.’ We had beaten the Today show in the very first [ratings] book.” Southern Exposure continued to top the Today show for the next three seasons, substantially so.
Whenever a big-name act appeared at the Greensboro Coliseum, Bill Boggs was there with camera and microphone interviewing superstars, usually right before they took the stage. His gets included The Jackson 5, Sonny & Cher with Chastity on their lap, George Burns, David Cassidy, Duke Ellington and Glen Campbell, among others. Even at that early point in his career, he was an insightful interviewer on par with Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas, possessing a knack for asking questions no one else had thought of, resulting in amazingly engaging discussions.
“I also created a late night show called The Late Bill Boggs that was as progressive as anything that had ever been on television up to that point,” Boggs tells me. That program profiled the kind of guests not normally seen on local TV, like massage parlor workers and the like. “We had a guy who came on the show — this was 1972 — who went out, smoked a joint, then came back in and talked about what the experience was like. It was like R-rated television that came on at 1 o’clock in the morning. That went on for several months.”
Noticing this unlikely success percolating down South, Gotham came calling; Bill Boggs received an offer to host a morning program in New York City. “I went from being in complete control of what I was doing to constantly having to pitch my ideas like a salesman, so I wrote an element of that into the book.”
The concept behind The Adventures of Spike the Wonder Dog? “What if the dog, who had been so popular on the show Southern Exposure, hadn’t gotten killed shortly before going to New York and had come with me to New York and became a huge TV and Internet star in today’s world?” One of television’s funniest writers Alan Zweibel (Saturday Night Live, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show) calls the satirical novel “so smart, witty and inventive that I had to keep reminding myself that I didn’t write it.”
Before somewhat reluctantly relocating to the No. 1 TV market in America in 1972, Bill Boggs confesses, “I told myself, ‘Never forget you can come back to something like this.’ High Point, WGHP-TV, was, no pun intended, a creative high point of my life. I loved High Point one hundred percent, I have not one single negative recollection of my time there.”
This laugh-packed, decidedly un-PC novel America needs right now, The Adventures of Spike the Wonder Dog (as told to Bill Boggs), is available wherever books are sold and at orderspike.com. Check out BillBoggsTV on Youtube for video highlights from this legendary broadcaster’s storied career. OH
Billy Eye is unapologetically O.G. — Original Greensboro.