Brian Gumbo, Byron Gumbolt, Chicken Gumbo, Bryant Gumbel -- NBC's "Today" show this morning replaces the five-years-familiar Tom Brokaw with a primordial soup of unknown potential and pronunciation.
But Bryant Gumbel knows exactly who he is, where he came from and what he does best. He came from the sports division, he is 33, and . . . "I think if somebody analyzed me, not that anybody should, they would find that I wasn't that handsome, or that tall, or that great a student. They would find that what I'm best at is thinking on my feet."
Brokaw's stint as cohost on the the 7 to 9 a.m. national wake-up -- covering space shots, spelling bees, assassinations and cookbook authors -- won him a spot on the "NBC Nightly News" with John Chancellor. Gumbel is now installed in the chair next to Jane Pauley, but with only one of Brokaw's shoes to fill. He will not have to do the news -- that job falls to Chris Wallace, in the Washington bureau.
But Gumbel remains NBC's high-profile breakfast utility personality -- charged with guiding 6 million half-awake Americans daily through "Today's" topical smorgasbord of weather reports, movie stars, authors, advocates, oddballs, politicians, headlines and tragedies. Wallace will get 11 minutes a day -- more if he has interviews.
"Sure, he'll be compared to Brokaw," said Steve Friedman, "Today's" executive producer. Friedman worked with Gumbel 10 years ago at KNBC in Los Angeles, where Gumbel worked until July 1980.
"Any change like this seems cataclysmic, but wait two weeks. I think Bryant actually has a better chance to succeed than Brokaw did, because Brokaw was in the unenviable position of not only being host, but also having to ask the tough questions. Now we'll have a host who's easy to like, and Chris Wallace, who can really ask the tough questions in Washington."
Despite permutations of his name, Gumbel is not exactly anonymous. He has been doing three sports reports a week on "Today" since 1980, has been seen by 70 million persons simultaneously in Superbowl coverage, is a familiar face on the network's Sunday pre-football show and has done duty at Rose Bowl and Macy's parades. He is reported to have signed a $1.5 million, three-year contract with NBC last year -- and his current compensation is estimated at more than $800,000 a year.
Since he arrives from sports, not news, reports circulated that frivolity might infect "Today," a program which originally had a chimpanzee as cohost and in its 30-year tenure has successfully accommodated personalities as diverse as Joe Garagiola, Barbara Walters and John Chancellor. Two of its current mainstays are Willard Scott, the original Ronald McDonald, and Gene Shalit, a reviewer known for his mustache.
Gumbel considers himself a "serious guy," and says he always believed sports should be fun, or not at all: "The day Nixon resigned, I didn't think we should do a sports show. I didn't want to be perceived as a guy who on the day of this important challenge to the Constitution was concerned about Jack Nicklaus shooting a 71.
"But the news director at KNBC wanted me to go on. So I said on the air -- 'This is frankly not my idea, but if some of you want to hear this, all right.' Sports just didn't have a place that day.
"The same thing when Sadat was shot. I was in the Houston Astrodome, and I missed the announcement at 7:16. I didn't know why my time was cut, and I was ready to give somebody hell. As soon as I found out, my reaction was, 'You can have all my time for something like that.' "
"Today" does little hard sports coverage, so the pieces Gumbel reported while testing for "Today" cohost were on heroin, crime, William F. Buckley, cellulite, Saturday morning television, Auschwitz, Treat Williams, Peggy Cass, computers, desegregation and seal hunting, according to Friedman. And on Jan. 22, Gumbel already is scheduled to interview John Ehrlichman.
"I'm not afraid of interviews," Gumbel said, smiling his boyish grin. "I'm a communicator. If I have a nuclear physicist on there, I'll do my homework. I think there was depth to my interview with David Stockman. Is Bryant Gumbel an economist? Of course not, and I'm not supposed to be. If you ask a question that only David Stockman can understand, then you're failing."
According to Friedman, Wallace will handle many political interviews in Washington. "But if we have a politician in New York, I'll use Bryant or Jane. I mean, we're not bringing Chris Wallace up when we've got them already here."
"Yes, I can do political interviews," Gumbel said. "My dad was a probate judge in Cook County under the Daley machine. That forced me to be atypical in a lot of ways, and it meant I met a lot of politicians, both white and black, when I was growing up. When there's a political guest in New York, I consider that my subject matter. I at least consider it a jump ball.
"I don't consider what I do terribly hard," he said. "But I can tell you why interviewers fail. It's because they're either trying to make themselves look good, or they're trying to ask the question they think they ought to instead of the one they're actually interested in. I mean, what's the big deal? You're never lost as long as you can ask directions."
Gumbel's best qualification, according to Friedman, is that "he's a smart guy. And he has a way of pushing people so they don't mind it. He asked Muhammad Ali if he was punch-drunk, which really takes a certain amount of courage. I mean, Ali is a big guy. Another time he interrupted a man who was talking about drugs to ask, 'Why should we care what you say -- you're a junkie, right?'
"The old joke is the interviewer with the stuff written down," Friedman said. "The interviewer says, 'What do you think about the farm vote?' and the subject says, "I think we'll carry the farm vote and the labor vote, too. And the interviewer says, "What do you think about the labor vote?' That's not a problem with Bryant."
Gumbel will continue to do two sports reports weekly, however. "And if there's a big prizefight or a super bowl, he'll cover for us," said Friedman. "Keeping him out of sports would be pretty dumb, and believe me, we're trying very hard not to be dumb."
Gumbel will also be involved in choosing his own subjects. "The day of the automaton is over," Friedman said. "Somebody like David Hartman on 'Good Morning America' talks to every world leader there is. People start thinking of them as statesmen. Actually, I think Hartman's lost a little. You get the impression he knows too much now."
ABC's "Good Morning America" is of course "Today's" major competiton, and has about the same number of viewers. "The CBS Morning News," which has not been a ratings threat to either, is now being revamped with new anchor Bill Kurtis. And it is no accident that this week, as Gumbel makes his debut, "Today" is also offering a five-part interview with Fred Astaire. GMA counters with five days of Burt Reynolds.
In the long selection process -- there were several candidates for the New York job, including Wallace -- Gumbel is not aware that his race ever came up.
"There was actually a headline in New York that called me a 'dark horse' candidate for the job, if you can imagine that," he said. "But no, there was never any discussion of that with me. I'm sure NBC dealt with it, of course. But being black hasn't stopped me yet. Maybe someday it will, but I'm not using it as a crutch.
"Actually, I really don't know whether it was a factor, one way or the other. What really happened was that Steve came to me and said, 'What do you think?' and then I vacillated about 50 million times."
Gumbel, who was born in New Orleans, grew up in Chicago, and graduated from Bates College in Maine, is married ("eight years and seven days," he says without hesitation), with a son, Bradley Christopher. He and his wife have a home in California, and a co-op in New York, and for the past year and a half have been shuttling back and forth as his career turned transcontinental. He considers himself a private person, and even a "bit of a recluse sometimes," despite his networky demeanor and gregarious charm.
"I'm on the side of the private person, in interviews," he said. "I never ask sports people how much they make. The number as a number takes on a meaning it really doesn't have. If Tom Snyder makes $800,000 a year, that's a lot of money. But if Brokaw makes more, and Carson makes more, and Gumbel makes more -- then does Snyder look like a jerk? Everybody has a different style, nobody's asking you to be somebody else. What works for Barbara Walters might be a little out of character for Bryant Gumbel."
But asking Ali if he's punch-drunk is another issue.
"That's not an invasion of privacy, it's something people are genuinely concerned about. And look, if Billie Jean King is in the news and she comes on the show, you're not going to ask her about her backhand. But you can argue this stuff till doomsday. I went to Catholic schools, and it's like 'If God's so powerful, can he make a rock so heavy he can't lift it?' You just have to ask good questions."
"I'll tell you what makes me mad, though," he added. "I was interviewing Bruce Jenner at a parade, it was 8 a.m. in New York when the interview took place, and it was 45 seconds long. So Sports Illustrated comes out and rips me for doing a 'lightweight interview with Bruce Jenner.' Hey, that's ridiculous. At 8 o'clock in the morning people aren't expecting 'Meet the Press.' "
Gumbel expects that his "Today" assignment will permit a more "routinized" life for him and his family. He plans to arrive at the "Today" office about 6 a.m., and be gone by 3:30. "Brokaw came in earlier, but he had to do the news.
"They say this job is tough," Gumbel said, "but I don't know. There's nothing tougher than being on the road covering sports. I remember one time doing an NFL game with Pete Axthelm. It was the day the Chargers beat the Bills, 20-14, that's all I remember. We did that, and then we went to dinner, and we never did get to bed, and we had rehearsal the next day at 9 a.m. for the Cleveland-Oakland game. Then we covered that, after 18 hours with the same clothes on. Axthelm kept telling me, 'It's no fun if you can only do it sober. Anybody could do it sober.' "
At the moment, Bryant Gimbel, Byron Humbolt, Brian Gumbo or whoever, is the New Face At Breakfast in 6 million American homes. Each week, he will casually meet and chat with more interesting, accomplished people than most of his audience meets in a lifetime. In a matter of weeks, he will be a household name. In a matter of months or years, he may become more of a celebrity than most of his guests.
In other words, he may become Tom Brokaw or David Hartman. Given the ratings realities, he will either become someone, or he will be replaced.
How long has he got? "Well, Charles Kuralt only got 10 weeks at CBS, and I hope we're not in that same boat," Friedman said. "If the ratings change a little in the next two weeks, there won't be any panic at NBC.
"I would say, come back and ask me in October how he's doing. Then Kurtis will be installed at 'CBS Morning News,' and David Hartman will be seven months older. Don't laugh! You can get old fast in this business, and he is already a known commodity.
"Really, the ball is in our court now. The mystery man is Bryant Gumbel."