Joseph Pyne was born in Chester, Pennsylvania. His father, Edward Pyne, was a bricklayer; his mother, Catherine, was a housewife. Pyne graduated from Chester High School in 1942, and immediately enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. He saw combat in the South Pacific, where he earned three battle stars. In 1943, during a Japanese bombing attack, he was wounded in the left knee; he earned a Purple Heart as a result of his injuries. In 1955, he lost the lower part of that leg due to a rare form of cancer.
Discharged from the Marines at the end of World War II, Pyne attended a local drama school to correct a speech impediment. While studying there, he decided to try radio. He worked briefly in Lumberton, North Carolina, before he was hired at a new station, WPWA, in Brookhaven, Pennsylvania. However, he argued with the owner and was fired. Next, he got a job at radio station WILM (AM) in Wilmington, Delaware, the first of three times he would work at that station. He moved to WVCH, a new station in Chester, which went on the air in March 1948. Seeing little chance to advance his career in Chester, Pyne left after a year and a half. He moved to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he was hired at WLIP, owned by local station owner William Lipman (hence the call letters). After six months of hosting innocuous programs such as Meet Your Neighbor from various grocery stores, he quit during a confrontation with WLIP management in which he threw Lipman's typewriter against a wall. Pyne worked at several stations in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and began to change his style of broadcasting.
Pyne gradually tired of being a disc jockey who made comments about politics and current events. He developed his on-air persona as an opinionated host who knew something about everything. He returned to WILM, where he debuted as a talk show host in 1950. He would later tell reporters that he first experimented with two-way talk during his time in Kenosha. His new show was unique. He named it It's Your Nickel, a popular idiomatic phrase when a call from a pay phone cost five cents. The format was Pyne expressing his opinions on various topics. Listeners would call to ask questions, offer their own opinions, or raise new topics. At first, Pyne didn't put callers on the air; he paraphrased for the audience what they had said. Soon the callers and his interaction with them became the heart of the show. Pyne became famous for arguing with or insulting those with whom he disagreed. One of his trademark insults was "Go gargle with razor blades."
By the early 1950s, television was replacing radio as America's main medium. In 1954, Pyne moved to television with The Joe Pyne Show, broadcast by WDEL-TV in Wilmington. In 1957, he moved to Los Angeles. His initial show was unsuccessful, and he returned to Wilmington. He hosted a TV talk show on WVUE, which was also seen in Philadelphia, and received positive reviews from critics. In the late 1950s the local black press generally praised him for inviting black newsmakers on his show to discuss issues of concern to their community. One of his regular guests was a member of the editorial staff of the area's black newspaper, the Philadelphia Tribune, usually a columnist or the newspaper's publisher. Pyne continued this program until late 1959, when he returned to Los Angeles. This time, he was more successful. By 1960, he was hosting a radio show on KABC (AM). The acerbic Bob Grant took over Pyne's show in 1964, and Pyne continued on KLAC. This led to a television show on KTTV.
In 1965, during the Watts Riots in Los Angeles, Pyne was interviewing a black militant on his TV show. At one point, Pyne opened his coat to reveal that he was carrying a handgun. His guest did likewise. The station suspended Pyne for one week as a result of this stunt.
In 1965, he began broadcasting a nationally a syndicated show "The Joe Pyne Show", that was carried by as many as 85 television stations and 250 radio stations at its peak. At the height of his fame, he was making $200,000 annually.
In 1966, NBC gave Pyne a daytime game show, Showdown. Its distinguishing feature was that contestants who missed a question would fall to the floor in a breakaway chair. Showdown lasted only three months and was replaced by The Hollywood Squares.
Pyne spoke out against racial discrimination and supported the Vietnam War. He ridiculed hippies (a favorite target), homosexuals, and feminists. Though generally a conservative, Pyne spoke in favor of labor unions. His tendency toward insult and vitriol offended most critics, who called him "outrageous," "belligerent," and "self-righteous." Groups such as the Anti-Defamation League accused him of catering to bigots; however, audiences kept listening and watching.
There are many documented cases of Pyne getting into altercations with people on his show. He preferred controversial guests such as Anton Szandor Lavey, Sam Sloan and invited members of the Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party, and followers of murderer Charles Manson. Pyne argued this was educational, since it exposed these violent groups to the public eye. The Joe Pyne Show was not only verbally confrontational: at times the conflict became physical, with chairs being thrown at Pyne by the interviewee. If the "discussion" got too heated, the guest would often walk off, or Pyne would himself throw the guest off the show. Still, Pyne once described himself as an "overly compensating introvert."
A notorious story of a confrontation on Pyne's television show involves guest Paul Krassner, the editor of The Realist. Pyne made insulting remarks about Krassner's acne scars. Without missing a beat, Krassner asked Pyne if his wooden leg caused any difficulty in having sex with his wife. Pyne was bewildered, so he sought comments from his audience, which, at this point in his career, was made up of whomever KTTV could bring in from Hollywood Boulevard. The audience happened to include musician and activist Phil Ochs, whom Krassner had brought along to the studio. Ochs very calmly remarked, "What Paul Krassner has just done is in the finest tradition of American journalism." No video of this incident survives; Krassner insists that it occurred, but was edited out of the broadcast.
Maulana Karenga, an African American author, political activist, and creator of Kwanzaa, was a frequent guest on the show, as was Robert Dornan ("B-1 Bob"), later to become a congressman from Orange County.
Gay activists Harry Hay and John Burnside—who were a couple from 1962 until Hay's death in 2002—appeared on Pyne's show in 1967.
The 1969 film Midnight Cowboy includes a brief clip of a fictional TV talk show similar to Pyne's, with screenwriter Waldo Salt appearing in a cameo as the host.
Pyne developed lung cancer, and died in Los Angeles on 23 March 1970, at the age of 45. He was survived by his fifth wife Britt Larsen Pyne, their daughter Claudia, and his other children, Cathee, Ed, and Sheila.Pyne was a chain-smoker who referred to his cigarettes as "coffin nails".
As an audience member approached the microphone, Pyne would say "State your beef."
Pyne's signature line was "Take a hike" (a line still used by Michael Savage), usually followed by a rude, but not vulgar, epithet, such as "jerk," "dummy," or "jackass." Often, he would stand when he said it, adding a subtle threat; he always wore a suit, and his jacket would be open when he stood, giving him the mien of a plain-clothes cop.
Pyne once suggested a caller "take your false teeth out, put them in backwards, and bite yourself in the neck."
"Go gargle with razor blades!"
"Look, lady, every time you call this program and open your mouth to speak, nothing but garbage falls out. Get off the line, you creep." ("Get off the line, you ..." was used by hosts such as Bob Grant and WFMU's Tom Scharpling.)
"I could make a monkey out of you, but why should I take the credit?"
"Why don't you go out and play on the freeway?" / "Why don't you take a long walk on a short pier?"
"I have no respect for anyone who would come on this show."
Pyne closed his radio show with "Good night, straight ahead, and get Castro!" Bob Grant also picked up the "Straight ahead!" line, and changed get Castro to "get Gaddafi!" (referring to the Libyan leader and suspected terrorist supporter) as his regular sign-off.
Pyne closed one program by telling guest Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan, "I'd like to tell you where to go, but you'd enjoy it."
In confronting a guest, hippie and vegetarian Lewis Marvin, who spoke out against slaughtering farm animals for food, Pyne stated "Do you know that there is now scientific proof that when you cut a tomato it screams?....You are a killer of tomatoes!"