By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 3, 2007
Every weeknight, Brian Williams presents himself to the country as a buttoned-down newsman -- crisp, formal and not particularly humorous.
Tonight, the challenge is to be laugh-out-loud funny.
As the first network anchor to host "Saturday Night Live," Williams is gambling that a boffo performance will showcase his lighter side without eroding his authority as the face of NBC News.
"People are certainly smart enough to understand what I do for a living, and what 'SNL' is," Williams says. "There's a very bright line between them. . . . Not one friend or colleague I polled advised me not to do it."
Lorne Michaels, executive producer of "SNL," says he regards Williams as a natural, funny enough to have hosted the "Tonight" show if life had taken him in that direction. He says the writers worked with Williams in winnowing down 30 possible skits.
"I don't think it will diminish him," Michaels says. "He knows he won't have to do anything he's uncomfortable with. I don't think the show ever works if the host is uncomfortable."
Away from the "Nightly News" set, Williams has a well-earned reputation as a purveyor of punch lines, adept at getting laughs on the after-dinner circuit or as a guest of Jon Stewart or Conan O'Brien. He is a dead-on mimic who does a mean Tom Brokaw. But despite the urging of NBC executives, including network chief Jeff Zucker, that he loosen up on the air, Williams usually keeps his inner funnyman well hidden during the newscast.
Williams turned down a guest-hosting offer last season, concerned that he would look silly and tarnish his carefully cultivated journalistic image. He did appear in one skit, but was so nervous that he sweated right through his shirt. (In that sketch, Williams appeared convincingly crushed when Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers told him that his "Weekend Update" gig had been abruptly canceled.)
This time, Zucker and NBC News President Steve Capus strongly urged their anchor to take the plunge. Williams is a diehard "SNL" fan who has taken his family to rehearsals and become friendly with some of the program's stars. "I have a fair amount of reverence for this young cast," he says. "They don't understand I'm thrilled to be around them."
As if to underscore the changing of the hats, Williams moderated a Democratic presidential debate in Philadelphia Tuesday night, arrived at 30 Rock at 1 a.m. and pulled an all-nighter with the "SNL" writing staff, subsisting on Tostitos and Reese's peanut butter cups.
Many of the potential skits have been built around Williams's job -- though he won't always play himself -- and he has been collaborating in the writing. As for avoiding objectionable material, Williams, a Supreme Court buff, invokes "the Potter Stewart standard: I will know it when I see it."
ABC's Charlie Gibson overtook Williams in the ratings race earlier this year, but "NBC Nightly News" has staged a mini-comeback, edging out "World News" in three of the past five weeks.
Asked if a successful "SNL" stint might lure some younger viewers to his newscast, Williams says: "It hadn't occurred to me that people would come up with that angle, the marketing angle."
While Williams may have feared a chorus of condemnation over tomorrow's star turn, it hasn't materialized yet. On MarketWatch.com, columnist Jon Friedman wrote: "It's about time that Brian Williams tried to let his hair down on TV. Maybe, just maybe, this unusual experience will help Williams loosen up."
But a handful of critics have said CBS's Katie Couric would have been barbecued for such an appearance and that news anchors should steer clear of such froth.
Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, says that while he respects Williams, "I associate that position with serious journalism, and I don't think appearing on late-night comedy shows encourages seriousness. Quite the opposite. These people need to decide whether they want to be taken seriously as journalists or they just want to be celebrities. Which is it?
"One reason a lot of people are watching Charlie Gibson is because he doesn't show up on these shows."
Michaels, however, believes the stint will help Williams as an anchor, saying: "I don't think you ever really trust someone who you don't think has a sense of humor."
Williams rejects the notion that he will morph into a wild and crazy guy. "If anyone's been paying attention to the post-9/11 'Nightly News,' with a few exceptions here and there it has been serious. We try to offer a feature at the end about somebody doing something good. The skills required to successfully navigate the 'Daily Show' or 'Saturday Night Live' have nothing to do with my job."
So what is his level of trepidation about his late-night debut?
"High to extreme," Williams says. "I don't work in front of a live audience with cue cards and all of that. This is going to be totally new."