Williams’s comic personae, from least to most zany. (We use the term relatively.)
It’s all worked almost too well. These days, when people come up to Williams in public, more often than not it’s to praise his extracurricular work. “No one ever stops me at La Guardia to say ‘That oil-price-per-barrel graphic you guys use? Killer,’ ” he says. At the same time, given the role his lighter side has played in keeping his cultural footprint from shrinking, one could argue that Williams has yet to really receive his due as a comedian. He gets credit for showing up, but not enough for what he does once he gets there. A close study of Williams’s ever-growing body of work reveals a versatile performer who can disappear into a character, play the straight man, deliver a monologue, or trade barbs from the other side of the desk. He’s a confident, kempt success in a profession dominated by neurotics and Apatovian man-children. Isn’t it time we took the comedy of Brian Williams seriously?
With his rectilinear jaw and immovable hair, Williams could hardly be more anchorish—he looks as if he were genetically engineered to sit behind a large desk and intone. (The only hint of his inner imp is his nose, which bends ever so slightly to stage right.) It’s no surprise, then, that Williams is often called upon to play the straight man, the square. Place this paragon of seriousness into an absurd or uncomfortable situation and it’s bound to be funny.
Of course, such performances are not nearly so simple. Though the straight man’s contribution to a routine is more muted than his foil’s, it’s no less demanding. The straight man has to seem impervious to the clowning of his partner, often selling his half of the joke with little more than the curl of a lip. He’s Bud Abbott explaining to an increasingly exasperated Lou Costello that it’s Who playing first base; he’s George Burns teeing up Gracie Allen for one of her fantastic flights of illogic. Williams’s best work in this mode is in Jimmy Fallon’s “Slow Jammin’ the News” segments. Williams, appearing as himself, reads a news item, which Fallon then “slow-jams,” taking an unsexy story like the debate over extending the Bush tax cuts and turning it into baby-making music. Much of the humor derives from Fallon’s entendres (“Mitch McConnell has a massive tax package, and he’s swinging that massive package in President Obama’s face”), which he delivers in his best Barry White. But it’s the fact that Fallon is talking dirty in front of the buttoned-up anchor that gives the bits their frisson. Unlike Abbott, who was too dim-witted to realize why Costello was so confused, and unlike Burns, who lovingly shrugged off Allen’s silliness, Williams’s straight man knows exactly what Fallon is up to and disapproves, wincing whenever Fallon’s material shades toward the blue. “He’s a great straight man,” Fallon says of Williams. “He’s very subtle. He’ll do a little eye roll, but he doesn’t overact.”
Fallon, famously, possesses no such self-control. I was in the studio during the taping of a recent “Slow Jammin’” segment, the one that preceded the tie mishap. A recurring joke in these bits involves Fallon’s bestowing various slow-jammin’-appropriate nicknames on Williams—Brizzle, Brilliams, and, my favorite, BriWi. On this night, while slow-jamming the labor standoff in Wisconsin, Fallon rechristened the anchor “Brian Will.i.ams.” The studio audience greeted the line with loud applause and assorted hoots, and though he tried valiantly, Fallon couldn’t hold it together. The newsman, meanwhile, kept his straight man’s cool.
Williams’s regular appearances on 30 Rock call on a different set of skills. Because he ostensibly portrays himself on the show, it’s easy to overlook how impressive his turns are, but Williams is playing a character: Just as Tina Fey and Tracy Morgan play exaggerated versions of themselves, so too does the anchor. Our first glimpse of 30 Rock’s “Brian Williams” came before the real one ever appeared on the show. In an episode from the debut season, Kenneth the page is seen cleaning Williams’s dressing room, a task he attends to each day between 11 and 11:30 a.m. “That way, by the time Mr. Williams gets back from the liquor store, it’s nice and tidy,” he explains. (In real life, Williams is a teetotaler.) Among other things, viewers see in the anchor’s ravaged dressing room a copy of Junk in the Trunk magazine, a tube sock filled with birdseed, and a half-erased graffito reading KAT COUR SU.
That Williams agreed to appear on the show after that introduction is a testament to how sporting he is. Hoping, perhaps, to stir up some internecine drama between NBC’s news and entertainment divisions, Broadcasting & Cable asked Williams about the dressing-room scene. He said he thought it was “brilliant and hilarious.”