What It’s Like to Be the Most Hated Character in Sitcom History

Robbie Rist played eight-year-old Oliver Tyler during the final six episodes of ‘The Brady Bunch.’ But according to much of the internet, he was single-handedly responsible for getting it canceled and now serves as the (literal) poster child for the creative death spiral of any show in crisis
What It’s Like to Be the Most Hated Character in Sitcom History

On Married… with Children, it was Seven, Peg’s little cousin who came to live with the Bundys in Season Seven. On The Cosby Show, it was Olivia, Denise Huxtable’s stepdaughter who joined the proceedings during Season Six. Then, of course, there’s Scrappy-Doo, the tough-talking pup who became a part of the Mystery Machine gang a decade after Scooby-Doo’s debut. Each is a classic example of “Cousin Oliver Syndrome,” where a TV show that’s struggling in the ratings adds a cute kid in hopes of giving things a boost. 

Examples of Cousin Oliver Syndrome predate The Brady Bunch, but the trope still gets its name from eight-year-old Oliver Tyler, who entered the Bradys’ orbit during Season Five. Oliver was an accident-prone kid who often caused mishaps to happen to the other Bradys. He called himself a “jinx,” which would turn out to be rather prophetic, as many fans pin the show’s demise on him since it was canceled just six episodes after his arrival. 

In reality, by 1974, The Brady Bunch’s ratings were already in decline, and Oliver was a last-ditch effort to resuscitate its glory days, as opposed to being some sort of harbinger of doom. When it comes to the internet, though, the truth is often irrelevant, and as the decades clicked by, Cousin Oliver became a punchline for Brady Bunch fans on irreverent early websites like jumptheshark.com and whowouldyoukill.com.

Robbie Rist, who portrayed Oliver, was originally bothered by the criticism, but these days, he embraces it — even gleefully playing along with it in recent media appearances. To that end, he happily jumped on the phone with us to talk about what it was like to be a Brady for six weeks, only to spend the next half-century being blamed for their undoing.

Robbie Rist today

Becoming a Brady

By the time I was cast as Cousin Oliver, I already had a ton of experience. I’d worked with Jonathan Winters, John Denver and Jodie Foster, and I’d been in over 200 commercials; so The Brady Bunch was just another job for me. The experience was all very positive, though. I was nine, and I got to get out of school. All I had to do was stand on a piece of tape and make people laugh. What could be bad about that?

I did it for six weeks. When the season ended, everyone was like, “See you next year.” Sometime later, we were waiting around for the call to get started up again for the new season. My mom called my agent, and my agent said, “I just got a call today. It was canceled.” That was it really — I just moved onto more jobs. 

Adding Oliver was probably a network decision because the ratings had declined and some of the kids had gotten older. But then the network decided to pull the plug anyway. 

Cousin Oliver Syndrome

Back in the 1970s, The Brady Bunch was just a regular show. Then, during the 1980s and 1990s, it became a thing that was on the air three times a day. So a couple of generations of kids grew up watching this thing before school, after school and after dinner. The Brady Bunch was huge again — there were fanzines, and obviously, the movies, too. Through that lens, The Brady Bunch became this kitschy thing from the 1970s. 

That’s when I started to notice the “Cousin Oliver killed the show” thing. People would come up to me and say, “You’re the guy who killed The Brady Bunch.” It cemented itself in the early days of the internet. On jumptheshark.com, there was a page called “New Kid in Town,” and my picture was at the top the entire time it was up. 

Jumptheshark.com’s “New Kid in Town” page

There was another website called whowouldyoukill.com, and Cousin Oliver had more posts on there than anyone else. It was things like, “I’d throw Oliver into a volcano,” and “I’d drag him around my block with his neck tied to the back of my pickup truck.” There was so much that a friend of mine made me a little booklet of them.

Screenshot about Oliver from Whowouldyoukill.com

The Oliver Preservation Association

The popularity of The Brady Bunch crested a while ago, but I’ll admit that there was a time where I had concerns that the one thing I’d be known for was for what I used to call this “silly little television show.”

However, I’ve come to learn that The Brady Bunch isn’t just some silly television show. I do a lot of conventions now, and I’ve realized none of this stuff is silly because a lot of people have stories about how they’ve connected to something I did — be it The Brady Bunch, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Sharknado. With The Brady Bunch, while it’s remembered as this kitschy thing, the setup to the show is kind of dark — he’s a widower; she’s divorced — and some people really connected with it. There’s a dude who told me that, when he was a kid, he had a single mom who had to work three jobs, so he was in the house alone from 2 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. That meant a shit-ton of television. He said he connected to the Oliver episodes because Oliver was a kid trapped in a world that he didn’t make either. 

As for the people who say I killed the show, well, Oliver killing The Brady Bunch is as ridiculous as Yoko killing the Beatles. But the truth of it doesn’t matter to some people — it’s “print the legend.” If you really think that a nine-year-old child had the capability to bring down a popular American television show, then I say, “Believe that and enjoy.”

I get some of that from my upbringing. My parents were German, and Germans have very colorful ways of explaining things. In America, we say, “Give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.” But in Germany, they say, “Offer them your hand, they’ll take your arm.” When I was young and getting into acting, my dad said to me, “You understand that you’re now in a business where, when you’re in public, you’ll be more known than everyone around you. And when you stick your head above the crowd, somebody’s going to want to come along and chop it off.” When you put yourself out there, some people think they can say whatever they want to you. But it comes with the territory — it just becomes part of the management process.

That’s why I’ve embraced a lot of this Oliver stuff, and even have had some fun with it. Like, for MeTV, I did this joke commercial for The Oliver Preservation Association, which was really funny. I also loved a tweet this one African-American guy did, where he wrote, “Robbie Rist is the only man to ever kill an entire white family in broad daylight and get away with it.”

And according to The Onion, Cousin Oliver has been a member of the last six presidential administrations. Going back to George H.W. Bush, there was an Onion article that read “Cousin Oliver to Join Last Year of Bush White House.” Then they did it for the Clinton White House and the Obama White House. It’s also become a shorthand for the new guy on football teams.

All in all, The Brady Bunch was a very positive experience for me. I mean, here we are 50 years later, still talking about it. That’s why, when someone says to me, “You killed The Brady Bunch,” I say, “Yeah, I did — I was a nine-year-old Bond villain, bring it.”

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