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Brian Williams, Matt Lauer and the entertainment angles of network TV news

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In happier times: Brian Williams and Matt Lauer on Today show set.

In light of NBC anchor Brian Williams’ transgressions and suspension, much has been written about whether the celebrity status of today’s news anchors has been injurious to their journalism. They’re now pretty much expected to appear on late night comedy shows to further sell “the brand.” Eighteen years ago, when Williams was still an up-and-coming MSNBC anchor and Matt Lauer was in his first year as Bryant Gumbel’s Today Show replacement, I interviewed both men in New York about their willingness to straddle both worlds. Back then, Williams thought it would be “crossing a line” to host NBC’s Saturday Night Live. He eventually crossed that line while also “slow-jamming” the news with Jimmy Fallon on several occasions. This article originally was published on Nov. 24, 1997.

By ED BARK
NEW YORK -- Termed “unfairly handsome” by Gentlemen’s Quarterly, Brian Williams, 38, fairly oozes with aplomb and appeal. Not only that, he’s a terrific talk show guest.

If Williams isn’t the fastest-rising star in television news, then . . . Matt Lauer is. Anointed television’s sexiest anchor by People magazine, the 39-year-old babyface has kept Today’s ratings rising and shining since replacing Bryant Gumbel in January. Not only that, he’s a terrific talk show guest.

That both men work for NBC should send seismic tremors through rival news organizations. While they search and scramble for the next century’s superstars, NBC already seems to have the future in its hip pocket. Williams and Lauer are standard-bearers for a new generation of news dude. Good-looking and glib, but also geared for the hard-drive of pressing events, they seem equally adept at bantering on late-night television or grilling a slippery politician. Williams, who was NBC’s chief White House correspondent before becoming a full-time anchor last fall, underscores this point with an assist from President Clinton.

“My wife and I went to a state dinner,” he says seconds before slipping into a dead-on impression of Clinton.”We get up to the president’s receiving line and he says, ‘I saw you on Jay Leno last night. You were good.’ I just couldn’t believe it. It’s remarkable. An hour and a half earlier, I was on his front lawn kicking him in the shorts. But he’s never stood up at a press conference and said, ‘Who are you to make that allegation? You go on late-night TV and Eric Sevareid never did, you ninny.’ “

Not that Sevareid, television’s pre-eminent commentator of the 1960s, was entirely stiff, starched and humorless. But most earlier-era TV newsmen wouldn’t have come close to making People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People in the World” list, as Lauer and Williams have. Nor could they have segued seamlessly onto a late-night talk show to trade barbs and quips with the likes of Leno, David Letterman and Conan O’Brien.

Lauer, billed as Today’s “co-anchor” in NBC press materials, questions whether that shoe fits anymore. He is interviewed an hour after wearing a Barney Rubble costume on Today’s annual Halloween show. But he also is only 15 minutes removed from doing live updates on the trial of British au pair Louise Woodward.

“I don’t think I’m expected to be the “quote-unquote anchor” anymore. I don’t know that the word has the same meaning it did 20 years ago,” Lauer says. “The role has changed. I consider myself to be more of a host. I like the word better. It means you’re going to do the cooking and fitness segments and interview the celebrities. But you’re also going to be there when the stock market declines and the manny trial verdict comes in. People are used to seeing a more well-rounded personality from guys like me, and I think that’s better. I don’t know if in this day and age you can survive as a kind of one-dimensional news anchor.”

Both NBC newsmen grew up watching and worshipping Johnny Carson, who hosted The Tonight Show for 30 years before giving way to Leno in May 1992. For each, being a guest on Tonight is a fantasy fulfilled.

“The first time I was on the show, I was a little upset that I hadn’t had the chance to do it when Johnny Carson was there,” Lauer says. “If you ask me who’s the one person I want to interview right now, it’s Johnny Carson. That would have just been a mind-boggling experience if he were still doing Tonight. I probably would have wet myself and sat there in a puddle.”

In a memorable Tonight appearance last year, Williams more than held his own with fellow guests Cher and Jane Fonda. When Cher cracked that he was handsome but looked “too Republican,” Williams told her she might try being a little nicer to one of the few people who had bought her “Half Breed” album.

“I use the same set of skills I use every night on the news,” Williams says minutes after completing another edition of MSNBC’s The News With Brian Williams at the fledgling 24-hour network’s eye-popping, future-is-now building in Secaucus, NJ. “You think on your feet whether you’re interviewing a head of state or Cher is serving up some line. It’s like a high slider and you may have an eighth-of-a-second turnaround time on that stuff. And you try to kill it.”

Williams is described as the “heir apparent” to Tom Brokaw so often that he might as well have it stenciled on his forehead. But he already has an arguably better job than the veteran Nightly News anchor. His acclaimed prime-time MSNBC newscast, which airs at 8 p.m. weeknights, is repeated the following hour on the CNBC cable network. Williams also anchors the Saturday edition of Nightly News and is the No. 1 substitute on Meet the Press and Today. NBC recently signed him to a new contract that runs through 2002. By then, might the Nightly News be looking rusty, dusty?

“They are a bona fide institution over there at 30 Rock,” Williams says of NBC Studios in Manhattan. “And the Nightly News is still an enchilada-class job, as in big. But this is a fabulous job, too. And what these ‘heir apparent’ stories miss is that I quietly have my own gig over here and it’s pretty wonderful. If this was only about getting myself seen in front of as many Americans as possible, I’d be a game show host. Or I’d be hosting a syndicated magazine show (such as Inside Edition or Hard Copy) that comes on after Tom.”

He instead settles for recurring appearances on Tonight, Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O’Brien and the Late Late Show with Tom Snyder. He has declined invitations, however, to be a guest host on Saturday Night Live. That would be “crossing a line,” says the self-described “comedy dilettante.”

“I basically go on Leno because I can, and because it’s great fun,” Williams says. “I’m the son of an actress, a very loud Irish Catholic woman from the South Side of Chicago who at her death from cancer left behind a gene that gave me the ability to make my mouth move in front of people watching me. Not to say I’m Shecky Greene.”

Rob Burnett, executive producer of Late Show with David Letterman, says Williams and Lauer are “just perfect talk show guests. You don’t have to worry about these guys. You can ask them anything. They know how to fill up time, how to be funny, charming and witty. Dave’s favorite thing is to go out there and just talk to people without using the prepared notes. And these guys can do that.”

On Lauer’s last two Late Show appearances, Letterman has introduced him as “everybody’s favorite TV pretty boy.” This doesn’t particularly amuse Lauer, but he understands the game being played.

“He’s trying to get you to walk out there and immediately be in a combative mood with him,” Lauer says. “He does like to banter back and forth, and that’s his way of getting it going immediately. The second time he said that, I told him, ‘That’s why nobody likes you.’ And we were off and running.”

Lauer says he’s always running scared, though. Outwardly smooth and conversational, he’s inwardly twisting and churning like a taffy-making machine.

“I don’t love it,” he says. “You take a deep breath, you suck it up and you hope you don’t bomb. But in terms of being real comfortable with these appearances, if it comes off that way, it’s a miracle. I dread them. I start thinking about them two nights before. I get nervous and then I usually do a post-mortem and think I was terrible.

“Brian’s hysterical. The guy could be a stand-up comic. He’s great on those shows. I’m OK being funny spontaneously, but I don’t like the pressure of being told that in your five-minute segment you’ve gotta have five funny lines. It’s not easy. It really isn’t.”

But in today’s crowded TV news environment, it increasingly seems to be part of the job. During a recent appearance on Snyder’s show, a woman caller who had never seen Williams before told him how impressed she was with his quick wit and ability to communicate. As a result, she planned to watch his newscast every night.

“This is someone I hadn’t hit before,” Williams says. “I hadn’t arrived on her radar screen.”

Lauer says viewers “are more comfortable hearing the news from people they’d actually like to spend time with. So on these talk shows, we tell them a little bit more about ourselves by showing our personalities. Then they know we have the same hopes and fears they do. And senses of humor that can be quirky and weird sometimes.”

Don’t expect competing networks to laugh, though. Williams and Lauer give NBC a leg up on the millennium while ABC, CBS and CNN watch their incumbent Big Dippers grow grayer.

“I can’t believe I’m seeing myself on television of any kind,” Williams demurs. “This is a coveted job I have in a very tough industry. And I think I’ve been able to get here without leaving a trail of blood or enemies. Of course, some people hate me. It’s the nature of the business. But I don’t think you’d find all that many. I’ve tried to do it nicely and be respectful to the people who have helped me on the way up. I’ve had a heap of luck, really. I’ve made some good decisions here and there . . .

“I’m starting to sound like Bob Dole,” he says before easily sliding into an impression of the 1996 Republican presidential nominee.

It’s a good one, of course.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net