Why Urban Legends are Born

A long fascinating deconstructing of a Snopes rumor about a radio announcer using profanity during a children’s radio show:

If the legend isn’t based on any real-life occurrence, then just how did it get started? One obvious explanation is that it was made up out of whole cloth, an example of the “famous person is the opposite of what he appears to be” type of rumor. These kinds of rumors frequently arise about celebrities perceived by the public as having achieved tremendous success too easily, by blandly appealing to the lowest common denominator of popular tastes or by creating innocuous programming for children. (Prominent examples include modern-day rumors about popular singers John Denver and Mariah Carey.) Robert St. John characterized the “little bastards” rumor as “an amusing but unlikely story, for it is improbable that anyone could be as successful as Uncle Don was with millions of children and still have the contempt for them that the remark implied.” 48 This is precisely what we would expect this type rumor to describe: someone who had achieved tremendous success by creating lowbrow children’s fare but was the exact opposite of his famous genial, kiddie-loving host character. A man actually contemptuous of children! As both the most well-known and the most successful of all the children’s hosts, Uncle Don became a natural target for the rumor once it was set in motion; once the story became fixed in the public’s mind, there was no dislodging it. As Carney’s biographer wrote, “The story has been told so often even his close friends believe it,” so “who can blame the public for not wanting to forget a bit of its folklore?” 49

Another explanation, perhaps far-fetched, is that this rumor might in some way have to do with a fear of technology. Horror stories involving technological mishaps (such as the infamous “poodle in the microwave” legend) often arise after inventions based on new technologies take hold in society. With the advent of commercial radio, it became possible for the first time for a peformer to make an embarrassing (or career-ending) mistake live, to an audience of millions. A flub committed while shooting a movie could be eliminated merely by filming another take; a gaffe made on the stage was seen by no more than a few thousand people. This new radio technology was dangerous, however: an unfortunate remark could instantly reach huge audiences over wide areas, and once it was said there was no way of retracting it. The “little bastards” rumor may not have ruined Don Carney’s career, but it certainly has unfairly sullied his reputation for nearly seventy years now.

I confess to taking a wicked delight in sending the URL of urban legends to friends who email it to me. But everyone is duped once. For me, the legend that got me was the Nieman Marcus cookie recipe story