Question: Here's something I'd like to settle. Where did the phrase "bigger than a bread box" come from? My mom says it's from an old show, but since she can't remember which one, I'm not sure if she's right or not. I figured you would know since you know everything. Thanks.
Answer: Always listen to your mother, Carrie. Well, except for when she's wrong, but this ain't one of those times. "Is it bigger than a bread box?" was made famous by the late Steve Allen during his appearances on the classic game show What's My Line?, which debuted on CBS in February 1950 and, at its zenith, was wildly popular among the privileged class and hoi polloi alike.
In case your mom can't give you a refresher, the show's premise was simple. A person with an interesting occupation was brought on and a panel of regulars tried to guess what the job was while asking only yes-or-no questions. The player received five bucks for every "no" answer, and if the panel couldn't guess it in 10 questions, the game was over. Adding some intrigue to each show was the mystery guest, a person recognizable to the audience either by face or name, who answered the blindfolded panelists' questions and tried to keep them from guessing who they were. Allen's question, of course, was aimed at estimating the size of an item in question usually something the player manufactured.
Now if your next question is how a mere game show injected a phrase into our vernacular like that, you have to understand how popular What's My Line? was. Imagine a surprise success like American Idol or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? both of which surpassed expectations when they came along airing back in the days when you could count the number of channel-watching choices on one hand... with missing fingers.
Over the course of nearly 18 years on CBS, the show counted the Duchess of Windsor and Indira Gandhi among its live-audience members, and former Secretary of State Dean Rusk and India's ambassador to the U.S. among its ardent fans. Some of the biggest Hollywood names of the day appeared as mystery guests, including Tallulah Bankhead, Fred Astaire, James Cagney, Tyrone Power and Lucille Ball. For a long time, What's My Line? was the show.
Of course, not everyone who appeared as a mystery guest did so for the honor alone. It was, after all, shot in New York, and the big names lived in California. "They're coming to New York anyway, Bob Bach, who booked the mystery guest each week, confessed to TV Guide in 1960. "So if they can get on What's My Line? they can justify writing off their transportation costs as a legitimate business expense on their income-tax returns."
Not only that, but many stars weren't very comfortable with appearing on live TV without any script to tell them what to say. "You know, we keep the mystery guest hidden in a special room at our studio," he said. "We don't show him backstage until the show is on the air so the panel won't see him. Well, you should see the big names who fortify themselves with a couple of swigs from a flask before stepping on stage. I'm certain the studio audience has caught on several times."
Nevertheless, the show was a cultural phenomenon for a respectable amount of time, warts and all. Now, if your next question is how big a bread box actually is, I'll tell you to use your imagination... and stop loafing.