Hi there, Kind World fans. We thought you might be interested in what our friends at WBUR's Endless Thread are up to this season. Each week they're dropping the untold story of iconic internet memes and the unsung heroes who found viral fame--sometimes even after they're gone. This episode looks at the complicated but surprisingly wholesome life of high-octane TV pitchman Billy Mays, who went from the face of OxiClean to a face of the afterlife in an unlikely meme.
Anybody old enough to remember life before cutting the cord has probably seen the work of TV pitchman Billy Mays. But people much younger still know his face and squeaky OxiClean personality.
While Mays died years ago, he’s lived on in meme form, from the famous product launches of Apple to more obvious image macros with impact font. Why? We ask his son Billy Mays III, his biggest frenemy, and a host of others to explain why someone who was squarely in the age of television continues to appear online in strange and provocative ways. It’s the story of an American staple whose consumerist existence belies a personality that, in the end, was surprisingly wholesome.
- Website honoring the life and work of Billy Mays
- Original OxiClean infomercial
- Billy Mays on Home Shopping Network
- Billy Mays for The Crocodile Cutter
- Billy Mays for Quick Chop
- Billy Mays Orange Glo infomercial
- Billy Mays' last interview
- Every product Billy Mays ever pitched
- Steve Jobs and the history of "One More Thing"
- Infinite Third, the music of Billy Mays III
Subscribe to the podcast
This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Ben Brock Johnson: This is a story about two men. Rivals. Friends. One is no longer with us, but still around...in his own way.
Amory Sivertson: The other one is definitely still with us. And he won’t shut up.
Ben: This is the story of a hero who is no longer with us.
Amory: But his nemesis is, eh, really more like frenemy. And his frenemy won’t shut up.
Anthony Sullivan: I was told as a kid that I had the gift of the gab and verbal diarrhea. I think verbal diarrhea was when people didn't like what I had to say. And the gift of the gab was when I was saying something that people actually thought was somewhat worth listening to.
Ben: We’ll say Anthony Sullivan...has the gift of gab.
Sully: You're welcome to call me Mr. Sullivan. Most people, it ends up being Sully or Anthony.
Amory: In the early 90s, when Sully was 20 years old, he was trying to figure out how to move from his salad days to adulthood. He’d just landed home in the rainy UK after spending a few years in Hawaii.
Sully: I was just dossing – it's an English word – with no, I was just, you know, flailing in the wind, rudderless at 20 years old, like really actually thinking, what am I going to do with myself? A friend of mine got a speeding ticket and he asked me to take care of his market stall.
Amory: This is a stall in an outdoor market. Where all kinds of people sell all kinds of stuff. Not hugely interesting to Sully.
Sully: But I went to this market to help him out and opposite me, opposite my friend's stand was this guy selling this car was called the Amazing WashMatik. And I saw this guy selling these car washes and he's doing this speech, which I later found out was a pitch. And I'm watching I'm counting how many he's selling because he's right opposite me and he's doing the same thing. And every time he finished his speech, people were giving him ten pound notes. And I was like, this guy's making a lot of money. So I walk over to him and I say, "hey," I said, "you know, mister," I said, "you know, I think I would be good at this. Could you teach me to do it? And maybe I could come and work for you?" Well he literally flicked me off. He didn't want anything to do with me. So I went home, told my friend, I said, that guy needs to hire me. I will be really good at what he does.
Ben: Turns out...outdoor market product pitching is a pretty insular scene. Sortof of like magicians or something. A seasoned pitcher isn’t going to just give up their secrets to some rando. But Sully wears the WashMatik guy down. So the guy gives him an old tape recorder. And says, "record my pitch. Learn it word for word, and when you’ve done that...come back."
Sully: So I showed up and I was nervous because this is a performance and I never really performed in my life. And I'm I have to stand up in front of this crowd of people. How am I going to do this? Well, the thing I didn't figure out was I hadn't really worked with a product that much. I knew the words, but I didn't know the how to. So anyway, I stand there and he just throws the car wash at me. It's a bucket with a nine foot piece of hose in it, with a check valve on one end and a brush on the other end. And I'm sitting there holding it and I have this out of body experience. I don't - what do I do now? How do I, how do I bally a tip?
Ben: Ballying a tip means drawing a crowd. Part of this whole lingo the pitch men use. You usually bally a tip by using the product. Which Sully doesn’t know how to do. But then he gets lucky. Somebody walks up and asks, "how does that thing work?" So Sully launches into the script.
Sully: I wish I had it on tape. It was awful. It was probably the most awful pitch of my life, but I sold one. And that was it. I am like, oh, my God. It was it was like this magical––I spoke and the guy gave me ten pounds.
Amory: Then Sully sells another WashMatik. And another. In a little while his new, skeptical boss comes back.
Sully: And he says how many did you sell? and he's kind of belligerent and just looking at me. And I pulled like seventy pounds out of my pocket and he's like, Holy moly, you just never done this before. So the next day he sends me off and and I come back, he gives me like fifty or sixty car washes, is expecting me to sell thirty and I sold them all by lunchtime. I just loved it.
Ben: Something is unlocked in 20-year old Sully.
Sully: It was a physical thing for me. I found that if I could move and move my hands and engage with the eye contact, I could have the crowd under a spell called that we call it under the ether in the business. You have the crowd underneath the ether. And I could do it. It was like a magical thing and I could extract money out of people. I mean, that was people who had no intention of buying a car wash and within five minutes they would give me money.
Amory: Sully starts to study everyone in his outdoor market.
Ben: And he gets so good that he goes pro on the product hawking circuit. Makes it far enough that he decides to sell his belongings and go across the pond to the real mecca of perfect product materialism. The place where anything is possible in five easy payments of $19.99. America.
Amory: In America, Sully starts trying to get on television. Infomercials. He’s working his way up to the big leagues. But even in the big leagues of pitching products, you still have to do the traveling shows in all the major cities. And one day, Pittsburg, where, in the early 1990s, Sully meets his match.
Ben: The guy who would become Sully’s nemesis. The guy who our story is really about, who at the time, was doing the same thing Sully was.
Sully: He also sold the Amazing WashMatik. And there wasn't very many people in the world that I met to this day who who know how to sell the Amazing WashMatik. And I heard about this guy called Bucket Billy.
Ben: Bucket Billy had made his own way up the product pitching ladder far from England. He’d made it on the Atlantic City boardwalk. Where thousands of pedestrians amble past open air stalls and people try to get them to buy knife sets, stain removers, and WashMatiks.
Sully: I was really excited to meet him because here's a guy from what I say is my tribe, and there's not very many of us.
Amory: But Bucket Billy has ONE thing to say to Sully when they meet.
Sully: Billy says, you're not in England anymore. This is Pittsburgh.
Ben: Bucket Billy and Sully are not quite fast friends. But they’re cut from the same cloth. And to this day, Sully is still in awe.
Sully: I never forget watching him go to work with OxiClean and coming out with all the one liners. And it was literally like watching–as a pitch, it was like watching a master. It was like watching Mr. Miyagi. He he just got it.
Amory: Mr. Miyagi...Bucket Billy. But most of us, whether it’s from the Memes, or from him being AS SEEN on TV, most of us know this other man by his rich dark beard, his button down blue shirt, and a different name.
[Billy Mays: Hi Billy Mays here for OxiClean, the stain specialist]
Sully: I would watch him in the green room and my jaw would hit the ground. Oh, my goodness. Just the things he would come out with on live TV. And we just then that's when our friendship kind of started and he kicked my ass. There would be like two thousand people calling in, a thousand people on hold. The computers would be like smoke coming out of him because he couldn't handle the call volume. There was more operators. And Billy, you could hear him. He would wear a microphone, but he'd be shouting, like I used to say to my buddy, Why are you shouting? You got a microphone on. But that was part of his charm. Right. Hi, Billy Mays here. Your dog would turn around, if that happened, your dog would like look at the TV. He just had a way of getting people's attention.
Ben: Hi, Ben Johnson here.
Amory: Hi, Amory Sivertson here, and this is Endless Thread!
Ben: The show featuring stories found online that tell us more about who we are… irl!
Amory: We’re coming to you from WBUR, Boston’s NPR station and oh my god how did Billy Mays keep that up for so long?
Ben: We will get to that, Amory. But also, to how Mays couldn’t keep going as long as he wanted.
[News segment: At just 50 years old, his death came as a shock to many, including us]
Amory: Today, the story of a larger-than-life infomercial star who positioned himself perfectly for a larger-than-life legacy online.
Billy Mays III: There's one of the Obama art that everybody knows that says HOPE, and it's my dad and it says SOAP under it instead.
Amory: Remember our meme chorus? The group of experts we’ve asked to talk about memes? Something they mentioned often was the idea that with some memes it’s ALL about the context. Get the context? Get the joke.
Don Caldwell: A lot of times people will start treating memes as these kind of these kind of cultural currencies.
Sarah Laiola: To me I see memes as a more inclusive in-joke.
Ben: If you are of a certain age, Billy Mays is hilarious. His message is clear, his image is clear. He’s the perfect meme for people who understand what he was about: Capitalism.
[Billy: It’ll make your whites whiter, it’ll make your brights brighter. As a stain remover, it’s the best. Grass stains, clay stains. Long live your laundry! Oxiclean: the stain specialist]
Amory: Ben, if I had been old enough to buy something over the phone when this commercial launched, I just might have purchased that “whopping 6 pound bucket” of Oxiclean. Here was this enthusiastic guy, not quite yelling at me, but projecting! And gesticulating! And making me feel like this product was the solution to problems I didn’t even know I had.
Ben: Yeah...like clay stains? What are even clay stains and who gets clay stains.
Amory: Those pesky clay stains. But yeah, I didn’t know why he had this effect on me at the time. He was intense, but there was also something kinda familiar and relatable about him.
[Orange Glo Infomercial: I love beautiful wood – don’t you? Well let me show you how to take care of all your wood with Orange Glo wood cleaner and polish.]
Ben: Well clearly, Amory, you were not the only person under Billy Mays’ spell. In his breakout pitch on the Home Shopping Network in the mid-90s, he sold 6000 units of Orange Glo at 18-bucks-a-pop in just 11 minutes.
Amory: Billy Mays became a household name in the early aughts. And not just because he was selling household products, but because he made sure you knew his name.
[The Original Quick Chop infomercial]
[Crocodile Cutter infomercial]
Ben: Billy became the Home Shopping Network’s “it guy.” If a product wasn’t hitting its numbers, a producer from the network would call up Billy and ask him to come down to the studio. He could sell tens of thousands of dollars worth of cleaning products in a single day.
[Billy on HSN: That white sock is not hurt by the reds.]
Amory: But Billy’s success as a pitch man.
Ben: Eh, it’s actually pitchman.
Amory: I’m gonna say pitch man for the sake of this episode. Billy’s success as a pitchman, it didn’t happen overnight. He had hustle.
Ben: You kinda want to say pitchman though, now that we’ve talked about it. Don’t you kinda… part of you is like halting now. You’re like, oh shit is it pitchman or pitchman?
Amory: Yeah, it’s funny but it’s just going to make me laugh if I say pitchman.
Amory: There are actually three Billy Mays’. Billy Mays senior, who has a full on white beard. Billy Mays Junior: the Mays in the middle.
Ben: And Billy Mays the third.
Billy III: I think it was more I was – there's probably a term for it – but I was like a carny kid. I think that I would walk around the convention center and it’d be like fun for me because everyone knew who I was and they all knew to keep an eye on me because I was young. And at this point, my dad, he was like legendary.
Amory: Billy Mays the third didn’t know his dad all that well when he was a kid.
Billy III: My dad and my mom got divorced when I was three, and I lived with my mom from that point on until I was about 18.
Ben: But for one or two weeks every year, Billy Mays the second would come back through the family hometown of Pittsburgh for the home and garden show to sell products. And bring his son along.
Billy III: My time was spent directly underneath the booth, like I could see his legs and he's up on a little booster. And I'm underneath the booth with a whole batch of toys like X-Men Toys or Star Wars or wrestling figures, whatever I was into at the time. And so I remember that being like my little playroom at these long days at the convention centers.
Amory: Billy knew his dad was a big deal long before he really knew why he was a big deal. But he got a better sense of it when he started seeing his dad on TV.
Billy III: I do remember always tuning in live because that would be the only time that you could watch it. I mean, I guess that was true for commercials at that point, too. But I remember, like, there would be a scheduled time or he's going to be on the seven o'clock hour and we would put a VHS tape in to try to capture it.
[Billy: It’s powered by the air you breathe, activated by the water that you and I drink. In your laundry, the power of bleach, but it’s safe.]
Amory: The Mays in the middle hadn’t had an easy rise to television though.
Ben: Billy grew up outside of Pittsburg. His dad ran a hazardous waste trucking company. Billy played football in high school, and then at West Virginia University. But he dropped out. Went back to work for his dad’s company.
Billy III: and my dad worked for him for a few years and I think they didn't get along doing that. cause he would just be like a hard, he would work so hard and he would, you know, try to instill this, like, work ethic. And so that's probably where the working every day, like on on something comes from.
Amory: Billy was in his early 20s, restless, and ready for a change of scenery.
Ben: Mmmmm shades of a young Sully.
Amory: And then one day, one of his old football buddies told him he was going to Atlantic City to sell Ginsu knives on the boardwalk.
Ben: It’s actually pronounced jin-su.
Amory: F*** you. Hahahaha.
Ben: "Want to come?," the friend asked.
Amory: Billy packed a suitcase.
Ben: Billy didn’t just find work in Atlantic City. He found a calling. And it didn’t take long for the bigwig of the boardwalk... to find him.
Ben: Is it true that you discovered Billy Mays?
Cris Morris: Well, Billy started working for me, and if you want to get into Billy, let's give you a quick history of the pitch business.
Ben: This is Cris Morris––former president of the professional pitch-person group International Housewares Inc. And the history Cris is referring to goes back to the 1940s.
Amory: Suffice it to say a bunch of guys started selling home goods on the boardwalks in Asbury Park and Atlantic City in New Jersey because beach goers were perfect for ballying a tip. Relaxed people mildly interested in something entertaining? Money in the pocket.
Ben: One of those pitchmen was the grandfather of Cris Morris.
Cris: All the greatest pitchmen started there in Atlantic City.
Amory: In 1983, a 25-year-old Billy Mays joined them. The first hit product he pitched was that nifty car-washing hose, the WashMatik.
[WashMatik infomercial: It’s the only washing system in the world that works directly from a bucket.]
Ben: Billy Mays the third doesn’t remember everything his dad pitched in the early days, but someone saw to it that the WashMatik would not be forgotten in Mays family history.
Billy III: And there's actually like photos of me–of of him holding me as a baby and with the product on the booth. And they called him Bucket Billy at this time. And I was little Bucket Billy, like we had like the matching t-shirts and stuff like that.
Ben: Bucket Billy did well for himself in Atlantic City. And pretty soon, he was taking his show on the road — to home shows, auto shows, and state fairs. He became a full-time traveling pitchman, going from state to state, in a car piled high with products, working lonnnnng days, and sleeping who knows where.
Amory: It was hard work, and Billy III and his mom experienced the personal toll it took.
Billy: The reason they got divorced was that my dad had a dream of like being this big pitchman. And once I was born, my mom couldn't take the travel lifestyle and was just like, this isn't going to work. I don't see what where this is going. And my dad just like followed that instead.
Cris: So he had been a pitchman for maybe 15 years, 12 to 15 years before TV.
Amory: Cris Morris says Billy got noticed at one of these home shows by the founder of Orange Glo International — The company behind the product that catapulted his career… Oxi-Clean.
Ben: But even after it took off, whenever Billy was asked where he learned and honed his craft, he'd always credit his buddies on the boardwalk.
Cris: Most of these pitchmen were tremendous, you know, could sell anything.
Ben: So why do you think Billy became such an icon himself?
Cris: Well, Billy had a good look. And he had the talent to really make a pitch out of any product. And he used the same format in a pitch as like a song.
Amory: So, fun fact about Cris: he also had a career as a music producer. He worked with The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Wonder. He knows a hit when he hears one, be it a song or a pitch.
Cris: It's about three minutes long. It has a hook, you know, it's got a couple verses and it's got a good chorus hook and it's got the end, which we call the turn.
Amory: Take Billy’s famous Oxi-Clean commercial, for example. Let’s break it down.
Amory: It’s an efficient two minutes long. And I think you could argue that there’s a couple of hooks in there…
[OxiClean infomercial: Don’t just get it clean, get it OxiClean…LONG LIVE YOUR LAUNDRY]
Ben: There’s also just some honest-to-goodness poetry.
[OxiClean infomercial: Pet stains, food stains. They get down into the matting, into the padding.]
Amory: And after a couple hits of the hook, Cris says there’s something called the “load up.”
Cris: You get one knife, then you get another knife. Then here's a paring knife, here's a spiral slicer.
[OxiClean infomercial: You’ll also receive the squirt bottle and the super shammy absolutely free. If you call during this show, you’ll receive a bottle of our world famous Orange Clean.]
Ben: This is the classic “But wait… there’s more!” trick.
Amory: Or, in the words of Billy…
[Billy Mays: But I’m not done yet!!]
Ben: And then comes “the turn.” The moment Billy turns from being the entertainer… into the guy who takes your money.
[OxiClean infomercial: But you gotta call now! Here’s how to order.]
Amory: Now, for some of you, this kind of full throttle, in-your-face style of advertising probably feels light years away from the way you’re used to having products pitched to you–in mostly silent, impersonal ads that you scroll past on your phone.
Ben: But for people who grew up before phones were smart and TV was streamed, Billy Mays was a cultural touchstone. Comfortingly distinct and familiar, in a truly memetic kind of way: The big smile, the ageless, rich black beard, the thumbs up. The blue button-downs and khakis that you can almost picture lined up in a row in his closet, like a cartoon character or something.
Amory: His approach was distinct too – simultaneously over-the-top, yet down-to-earth. And he was talking right to you. Making you feel like he really could make your home cleaner, your work simpler, your life easier. In bite-sized, memorable phrases that you can almost hear in impact font.
Ben: Oh man, they were made for impact font. Or maybe impact font was made for Billy.
Amory: Take a listen to someone from our Meme Chorus...talking about what gives an image, a video, or in this case, a person, viral, memetic potential.
Gianluca Stringhini: does this meme contain a character? Is the character well-framed in the image? Maybe takes most of the frame? Is the character showing, you know, a funny pose, maybe a facial expression? Do we see movement in the image?
Ben: I mean...check...check...check...check...check. Bucket Billy was ahead of the meme curve.
Amory: And you know what else was ahead of the meme curve? Billy’s main medium: television. Where he and Sully, the Pitchman road show rivals, discovered they had compatible strengths.
Sully: I guess this is like Elton John and Bernie Taupin of pitch man. He's going to be Elton and I'll be Bernie.
Ben: I was going to say, who's who?
Sully: OK, yeah, he's definitely Elton without the sunglasses and he's straight. But he and I was more of the the writer.
Amory: The owners of OxiClean must’ve recognized this, because they suggested the two team up for a commercial.
Ben: But in this case, Sully would be the writer, and Billy, the performer. Would it work?
Sully: And I said, there's no way Billy and I will ever be able to work together in that capacity. And they said, Well, you're going to do it. And I said I said, well, I'll try.
Amory: Billy brought his boundless energy and classic turns of phrase, but it was Sully who helped cull his wealth of one-liners into the pithy pitch that made Oxi-Clean a hit.
Sully: And this is where I think the Hi Billy Mays line came from, because I said, we got to open this commercial up. What are we going to say? And he goes, Hi, Billy Mays here. I said, right, great. Hi. Billy Mays here. So that was it then.
Ben: Their writers’ room? First-class on a United flight from Vegas to Tampa, two bottles of Chardonnay deep.
Sully: I said, Billy, what are your seven demos that you would do on HSN? And let's condense them down into, you know, ten words. Billy Mays here for OxiClean, the stain specialist powered by the air you breathe, activated by the water you and I drink, it's Mother Nature approved and it's safe on colored fabrics. I can remember this script to this day, and I wrote it twenty one years ago with him.
Sully: and I didn't know at the time, but it was literally it was like, this is going to make you laugh. It's like Shakespeare of pitching.
Amory: And for the first time, the bards of pitching and this leading man were about to have an audience beyond just the Home Shopping crowd. Because this was the OxiClean commercial that they had just penned — two minutes of copy that added rocket fuel to Billy’s upward trajectory.
Ben: In the early 2000s, Bucket Billy from the Boardwalk became the Syndicated Stain Specialist Spokesman. On more networks, reaching millions more viewers – and pocketbooks – than this hardscrabble, homegrown pitchman had probably ever imagined.
Sully: All of a sudden he became probably one of the most watched people on TV. Yeah, no TV training, no theatrical background. And all of a sudden he's on TV like he's an authority, you know, Billy Mays here. You better be paying attention to what he was selling.
Amory: And pretty soon, Billy was selling just about everything.
Ben: Billy was everywhere – on TV, and IRL. If he wasn’t filming a commercial, he was at a home show. Or doing press. Or signing autographs. Or… taking the field?
Sully: Billy was a legit star. I remember sitting and skiing in Colorado, turn on the TV one day and there was a college football game, one of the big college games, and I turned the TV on and Billy is running around the field with his blue OxiClean shirt on like high-fiving the quarterback. And there's 80000 people there. I'm like, what the hell is he doing?
Amory: What he was doing was riding the wave. Saying yes to everything. Every product, every opportunity. Until pretty soon, Billy wasn’t just pitching products. He was the product. The in-demand brand.
Sully: The guy was a moment in time. You know, when you hear Billy, you remember that was that was the 2000s.
Ben: But there was only so much Billy to go around. Eventually, all those yesses... caught up with him.
Amory: But he’s not done YET...
Ben: And neither are we...
Amory: But wait there’s more!
Ben: In a minute.
Ben: By the mid-2000s, Billy Mays had earned himself a reputation — as a prolific pitchman… and a workaholic.
Sully: We ran pretty hard, but we were always focused, eye on the prize and, you know, trying to do the right thing for the people we work with.
Amory: His collaborator Anthony Sullivan was right there with him. And they kept each other going on long days of filming. If they were taking themselves too seriously or they just got a little loopy…
[Billy and Sully: Sully: Here’s how to order.
Billy: BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!
Sully: Here’s how to order.
Billy: But wait, we’ll give you a dirt ball, absolutely free. Call in the next 20 minutes!]
Amory: Billy and Sully’s playful frenemy dynamic turned out to be a pitchable product all its own.
[PitchMen trailer: Billy: Hi I’m Billy Mays. Sully: And I’m Anthony Sullivan. Billy: And we’re here to tell you about our new show, PitchMen. For years, we’ve taken your designs, Sully: And turned them into gold mines.]
Amory: The show debuted on the Discovery Channel in April of 2009. It was like Shark Tank on steroids. Inventors would pitch their products, but instead of investing their money, Billy and Sully put in their time and energy, writing and starring in commercials for them.
Ben: Like one for a shock-absorbent gel that involved a 6000-pound van driving over Billy’s hand… which he was… not thrilled about.
[PitchMen episode 1: Sully: Action! Ben: Talk about shock absorbency, I’m gonna let this sit… Sully: Billy, just relax. Billy: Back it up, no no not relax. Sully: Are you gonna do this or not? Billy: Gimme one more chance.]
Ben: PitchMen had all of the drama and shenanigans you’d want from a reality show. And it propelled Billy to a new tier of fame and recognition — he was a reality TV star now, more quotable and imitable than ever.
Sully: That year, the number one Halloween costume was Billy Mays after Elvis or maybe before Elvis like he hit a chord with with the American kids and everyone.
Amory: But with reality show stardom came the grueling reality show filming schedule, on top of Billy’s already grueling schedule.
Sully: Now, here's a guy that's representing OxiClean, Orange Glow, Mighty Putty, Mighty Mend It. So he had a stable of products that he represented that required him to be shooting somewhere for someone at any one time. And he was shooting a 13-part reality show that took us all over the country.
Amory: And Billy had just signed a deal to shoot commercials for Taco Bell. Billy was peaking, and he was only 50 years old. But while his career was reaching new heights, his health was nosediving.
Billy III: So by this time he's living in constant pain.
Ben: This is Billy Mays the third again, who had been living with his dad at the time… and working on PitchMen as a production assistant.
Billy III: You could ask Sully this or anyone that was around him on these shoots, he was a little bit different.
Sully: Billy had two hip surgeries in and around the time that we were shooting, and they had both gone bad. And the second hip surgery was bothering him a lot during the shoot schedule.
Billy III: He was he was taking a lot of painkillers.
Sully: And I'll just be completely candid. Billy was taking some pretty serious pain meds, and it was very difficult. And anyone who struggled with with any opioids of any kind will know that it is hard to manage. You know, there's millions and millions of people who struggle with it. And it's been openly talked about since then. Billy was in the eye of that storm.
Billy III: and he basically had to decide. And this is what he would tell me, is either he takes painkillers and he's a little out of it, but he could still get his job done. Or he doesn't take the painkillers and he just can't even stand up and especially stand up for eight hours for the shoots, doing all the voiceovers and everything like that.
Sully: So between his work schedule, his press schedule, his bad hip and and, you know, everything that was going on, he loved red meat and he loved red red wine. He didn't exercise because he couldn't.
Ben: And both Sully and Billy the third say… Billy Mays never said NO. Not even to swarms of fans wanting autographs when he was just trying to get through an airport. Fundamentally, Billy was a giver. He’d just button up that blue shirt, turn on that salesman grin, and power through.
Billy III: We were so go, go, go. And looking back, that was probably a huge mistake. Like we should have rested. He could have took time off. I just think he didn't want to let go of it now that he had the success.
Amory: But eventually, the pain Billy was in would make the choice for him. At the end of June 2009, he was supposed to go in for a third hip surgery, which would force him to take it easy, at least for a bit. But then, two weeks before the surgery, Billy got a cal from The Tonight Show.
Ben: Conan O’Brien was filling in for Jay Leno, and he wanted the pitchmen on the show. Billy called Sully to tell him the good news… and the bad news.
Sully: And he goes the only problem is it's on the day of my surgery, the twenty second of June, um, and they won't move it.
Amory: Now, The Tonight Show wasn’t exactly a big deal for Billy at this point. He had been on just a few months before. But for Sully, this was a real “I have MADE it” kind of opportunity. And we all know Billy couldn’t say no… so he moved his surgery back a week.
Sully: the last thing we ever did together in public was that was The Tonight Show with Conan and it was and he actually said to me, like when he was doing Leno, he asked Jay if I could be on The Tonight Show with him. And Jay said to to Billy, he said Sully will get his time. And like his gift to me is his parting gift to me was I do get emotional when I talk about this, because it was like he before he when he made sure that I got to experience, you know, being on The Tonight Show with him. And that was the kind of guy that he was.
Ben: Billy the third was there too.
Billy III: And that night. We're all at the hotel kind of just celebrating that that milestone, and we were just having, like, the best time ever. Um. But that that night ended up being the last time that I saw him.
Amory: Two days before his surgery, Billy was flying home to Tampa after 2 weeks on the road. His second wife and three-year-old daughter were waiting for him.
Ben: The flight had a rough landing--rough enough to get on the news.
Amory: Right after getting off the plane, Billy told the local Fox affiliate that something hit him on the head pretty hard. That interview would be his last.
[Billy’s last interview: I’ve been a, jeez, I’ve been going for two weeks straight. I just came from the Conan O’Brien show. Just did an OxiClean commercial up in Philly, and um, on my way back home to have surgery on my hip Monday so, that’s the toughest part of it. Interviewer: But you’re good? Ben: Yeah, I’m good. I’m good.]
Billy III: He had just gotten home to my stepmom and his daughter, and so they were all in bed together and they woke up the next morning and he was dead. And there didn't seem to be any, like, traumatic thing that happened, it just looked like he was dead. And so, uh, as far as I know, he he went out pretty peacefully.
Ben: Did your dad O.D.?
Billy III: No. Well, I don't think so. It actually doesn't bother me if people look at the situation and and note all the different prescription drugs that he was abusing at the time. You know, with the pain he was living in, I totally understand where he was at.
Amory: According to a toxicology report released about a month later, the cause of death was hypertensive heart disease. But there was also cocaine found in his system, which the medical examiner listed as a contributing factor to his death. The Mays family contested it, but the celebrity news circuit ran with it.
Billy III: TMZ had to, like, highlight that one little part of the of the story and then now the legend is that he overdosed on cocaine, and that must have been why he had so much energy and blah, blah, blah.
[TMZ: So it really is kind of, especially the cocaine contributing to his death, it really did come out of the blue. Frankly, we thought this was just a tragic case of a natural cause death way, way too early. But there may be more to this and that story is developing.]
Billy III: For me, it illuminated a lot of how our society views people who are addicts and how we just sort of like lose respect for them. Or and no one not a lot of people, really try to understand the circumstances or what that person is trying to run from. So I got to experience quite a bit of, um. Unfortunate. Mistreatment online, just from people who have that weird perspective that, like it makes him a bad person.
Ben: But there’s more to the legacy of Billy Mays. A lot more. In the 12 years since his death, the tabloid narrative has been mostly drowned out by a veritable ocean of Billy Mays... MEMES.
Billy III: One of them is it's the three wise men from like a Christmas movie, it's something like we've brought gifts for you and uh.
Ben: Haha, I’m looking at it right now, I’m looking at it right now. So we brought you gold and frankincense for you, Jesus, and then your dad pops up and he says...
Billy III: he says, but wait, there's myrrh.
Ben: When did you start to realize that your dad was being meme’d.
Billy III: From my perspective, I would say that without knowing what he was doing, I think that he sort of meme’d himself into a meme.
Ben: So he meme’d he meme’d his own memes into being?
Billy III: I think so I think to a degree, I think that I think that at some point he he caught wind or he understood what was happening and that there was this sort of like joke to be made about what his character was in the public's eye. And instead of, like, trying to keep it as like to to hold on to the artistic side or the you know, he started embracing it and being in on the jokes.
Amory: So even though Billy didn’t live to see most of the memes made about him, it’s comforting to feel like he’d get the joke. Like we’re laughing WITH him. Which isn’t to say he’d necessarily find them all funny...
There’s one showing Billy in front of the twin towers. The first tower has just been hit, and the caption reads… "But wait! There's more."
Ben: But his son had a good laugh at one that was going around last year…
Billy III: It started off as just when you think 2020, you can't get any worse. It's it shows my dad saying, but wait, there's more. And then now it's like you thought 2021 was going to be better than 2020 but then. But wait there's more and we just keep going. So I feel like that's just going to be a thing now.
Ben: We often think of memes as meteoric and ephemeral. They capture a moment, they have their moment, and then… they’re gone. But in the case of Billy Mays, the opposite is happening. It is the way that he lives on. It’s the way that people discover him and learn about him. Not ephemeral. Eternal. Meme-orialized, if you will. And there are other ways Billy lives on, on the Internet and in the media. There are impersonators…
[Billy Mays impersonator: Hi Billy Mays here for Capriotti’s big box lunch]
Amory: Ehhh, the timing’s off for me. But there was a great impersonation in an episode of South Park, where the ghosts of dead celebrities are haunting Kyle’s baby brother.
[South Park: Hi, Billy Mays here for Mega Scrub Cleanser. Ike: Ahhhhh! Ben: Are you tired of your kitchen counters getting those nasty stains? Don’t just rub ‘em, Mega Scrub ‘em! Ike: Billy Mays nooooooo!]
Ben: Billy the third has catalogued the memes, the fan art, and the references and tributes to his dad on the page billymays.org.
Billy III: I call it the museum. I call it a digital museum. There is a sort of separation in my mind of the person in the meme. But there also isn't like it's also I recognize that as his energy sort of still out in the world. So to me, I'm just like proud of that, I'm proud that he made enough of an impact to even be considered a meme and he'd be proud of it, too, I think.
Amory: He might also be proud of the comparisons made to another legend of the industry. Someone you may not have thought of as a pitchman, but whose techniques echoed — or maybe even deliberately emulated — Billy’s.
[Steve Jobs: We think we’ve got the strongest product line-up that Apple’s ever had. So thank you for coming today and checking this out with us. We’re very very pleased to introduce this to you.]
Ben: This is the late Steve Jobs, the former Apple CEO, giving a keynote speech in 1999, with his classic line...
Steve Jobs: And uh, oh wait a minute now… But there is one more thing. There is one more thing that I want to show you.
Ben: Good pitchmen borrow, great pitchmen steal. So much of what happens with pitching is this constant evolution of tricks, references. Which is exactly how memes work. If you see a way to evolve the thing...you do it. You make it better. And if you make it better, sometimes, you make it big-time.
Lindsey Brooks: Billy was like our Steve Jobs here. Here he made it.
Amory: Lindsey Brooks is a former pitchwoman whom Billy took under his wing in his Atlantic City days. And she has no doubt that Billy’s success as a pitchman invigorated the industry as a whole.
Lindsey: It's one of those things that I think really propelled, you know, just some some of the entrepreneurship that we've seen now in the last 10 years and 15 years, maybe in the inventor world and things is knowing that. Right, because it's all in the pitch. Right. And that was something that he used to always say, you know, life's a pitch and then you buy.
Ben: Some people might hear that line – “Life’s a pitch and then you buy” – and get those kind of sleezy businessman vibes. Billy was in the consumerism industry, after all. There is – and always will be – more. But people in his circle say… he saw it differently. Billy pitched products that he believed in. Products that he himself used. And he never stopped driving around with a car full of ‘em. Even after he became successful enough that that car was a Rolls Royce.
Amory: And the way Billy sold those everyday products – with his one-liners, his look, his voice – it’s a masterclass for the modern-day influencer. Billy became the brand. It didn’t matter what he was selling, it’s that he was selling it. And he’ll be remembered long after his products are gone from the shelves.
Lindsey: Yeah, well, he instead of making us buy things, he made us love him. And he was really easy to love.
Ben: The people who knew Billy best… say there was a side to him that was NOT “as seen on TV.” One you won’t find articulated online or meme-orialized.
Billy III: he was a really quiet guy. He was a sort of reserved in his like friendships and stuff like that.
Sully: behind that facade of him being this just loud, you know, abrasive, some people say obnoxious pitchman was this gentle, caring, giving, quiet, beautiful human being.
Lindsey: oh my God, it's Billy Mays. And he stops. I'm like, oh Lord. Because I know Billy. He'll talk to anybody for an hour.
Billy III: I found him to be someone that was extremely generous sometimes to a fault. when people would get excited about his nice car that he was driving at the time. they would say, "oh, man, that car's awesome, can I check it out?" And he would basically just like, throw them the keys. And say "let's go, you want to drive?"
Lindsey: he was a man of the people and he really cared about people's dreams and goals. And, you know, if you met him, I mean, he was somebody that could make you feel like you were the only person in the room and it didn't matter who you were, what you were like, how much money you had. You know, he was just a real light.
Sully: I think Billy would maybe still be with us today if he'd said no a couple of times. And, you know, Billy is an example of, you know, we can you have to be good to yourself, you know, and it's. Yeah, just just, I think slow it down. I do think we do live at an exhausting pace right now, and even when I look back now, you know, this was pre-Internet, pre-Instagram, pre-Facebook when he was early in the days. And we were living in what would be considered archaic media communication times, but there is an element of like, slow it down.
Ben: Billy the third is a dad himself now. And he’s picked up the torch professionally, too. But not in the way you might expect.
Billy III: As much as I had tried to distance myself from being a pitchman or in that business at all, the years have gone on, I've realized I'm essentially doing the same thing he did.
Ben: The younger Billy grew up making music, but his father’s death really reignited that part of himself. He started performing under the moniker Infinite Third. And a few years ago, he left the TV business to pursue music full-time.
Billy III: I find myself in these cities by myself playing a festival and my goal is to attract people's attention, give them a good show and then sell them merch so that I can get to the next city. And I realized, like, he was doing that for like 15 years or 20 years maybe. And so it's a way that I feel close with my dad and a lot of ways to where I now feel that a lot of him is in me.
Amory: You might even say… in a way… Billy Mays is not done yet.
Amory: Endless Thread is a production of WBUR in Boston.
Ben: Want early tickets to events, swag, bonus content, pictures of Amory’s oatmeal or my breakfast sandwich? Join our email list! You’ll find it at wbur.org/endlessthread.
Amory: Also, we want to know what you think is the most underrated meme. Call us. Yes, pick up the phone. 857-244-0338. Or better yet, record a voice memo and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. We just might feature your voice memo and your suggestion on the show.
Ben: For example...
[Liz: Hey y'all I'm Liz. I don't know if this is just a meme that's popular with my friend group, but it's this little boy. If you're on twitter and do a GIF, and you type in HELL YEAH. This little kid has so much passion and joy, and just like pizzazz in this one little dance move that's like, "HA HA HA, arm in the air, hell yeah!"]
Ben: Big thanks to our meme chorus:
Sarah Laiola teaches about digital culture and design at Coastal Carolina University.
Joan Donovan is Research Director at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center.
Gianluca Stringhini studies online security disinformation and hate speech at Boston University.
Amanda Brennan has the extremely cool title of Internet Librarian.
Please go find their work and benefit from their meme genius.
Amory: Our series and our show is produced by Dean Russell, Nora Saks, Dean Russell and Quincy Walters. We are co-hosted by us… Amory Sivertson
Ben: And Ben Brock Johnson. This episode was edited by Maureen McMurray.
Amory: Mixing and Sound Design by Matt Reed. Original music in this episode also by Matt Reed. But the LAST song you heard was called “Rounded Corners,” and it was by Billy Mays the III, who performs as Infinite Third. You can find more of his music on our website, wbur.org/endlessthread.
Ben: Special thanks to, and additional production work from, Josh Crane, Frank Hernandez, Kristin Torres, Sofie Kodner and Rachel Carlson.
Amory: Endless Thread is a show about the blurred lines between digital communities and a zoom room you can smell. If you’ve got an untold history, an unsolved mystery, or a wild story from the internet that you want us to tell, hit us up. Email email@example.com.
Ben: Stay cool forever!