Williams had clearly had that bee in his bonnet for some time; he told me he’d rehearsed it on his “long-suffering wife” before trotting it out on Morning Joe. Like any good comedian, he’s learned to milk a good routine for all it’s worth—he now does a shorter, less-impassioned version for Taxi TV.
But Williams’s comic abilities are hardly limited to prepared material, as demonstrated by his visits to The Daily Show, where no amount of rehearsal can prepare a guest for what Jon Stewart might choose to throw at him. Stewart, relishing as he does his role as media gadfly, loves to lob sexual innuendo, politically charged rhetoric, and jokes about Diane Sawyer at Williams and watch him try to respond in a manner befitting the desk once occupied by Chet Huntley.
Williams parries these attacks by turning the scrutiny back on Stewart—he is too sharp a wit to stay on the defensive. His most recent appearance came on the heels of his reporting trip to Egypt. The trip afforded Williams the opportunity to deride Stewart for cowering behind his fake-news desk, a variation on a favorite theme. “I noted as soon as this broke out,” Williams said, “a lot of us headed instantly for Cairo, and you headed for vacation.”
Williams’s most famous Daily Show moment remains his appearance, in 2007, in the form of a giant head, filmed in extreme close-up, looming on a screen behind Stewart’s desk. The so-called Giant Head of Brian Williams chastised Stewart for using a teleprompter: “Let me get this straight: You have to read the fake news? You can’t remember it?” The sarcasm is all the more withering coming from a man whose day job often requires him to be deadly earnest. During his next visit, Williams reported back that his fans had really enjoyed that bit. “Wherever I go,” Williams told Stewart, with only the faintest twinkle in his eye, “people say, ‘Tell Jon: Give us more giant head.’ ”
Stewart clearly enjoys the fight his real-news counterpart brings to every outing. As he recovered from being wrong-footed by one of Williams’s zingers, he once asked the anchor, “Why do I get the feeling you’d be better at my job than I am?”
Among his comic personae, the Williams who shows up for The Daily Show feels closest to the Williams I spent time with. Though he looks like the pride of Princeton, Williams is in fact a community-college kid and, as he is fond of pointing out, a former volunteer firefighter on the Jersey shore. (“You probably know he was a fireman if you’ve recently passed within earshot of him,” says Seth Meyers.) His weapon of choice is not the refined witticism of the country club but the irreverent barb of the chow line.
I sat in on one of Nightly’s 2:30 editorial meetings, during which Williams and executive producer Bob Epstein start to build a lineup of stories for that evening’s broadcast. Williams noshed on a slice of pizza scavenged from a previous meeting and listened as reports from bureaus around the world came in over the Polycom. At one point, a producer suggested a segment on the Libyan refugees suddenly choking the borders of Egypt and Tunisia. Williams liked the story. “Think of the two countries taking in the exodus: We’ll be with you when we have a government—have a beverage.” The room cracked up. Epstein turned to the next story on the budget. Williams ducked out early to tape Letterman.
Though Williams has lately allowed himself to spend more time on such appearances, he’s realistic about any benefit they might have on Nightly’s numbers. “I don’t know that any of my extracurriculars steer one viewer to my day job,” he says. The audiences for his comic work and his newscast could hardly be more different. The evening of Williams’s last “Slow Jammin’ ” segment, Fallon introduced a Late Night–inspired flavor of Ben & Jerry’s seemingly designed specifically for consumption by collegiate insomniac stoners. (Chocolate-covered potato chips are the key ingredient.) As has long been the case with all three network newscasts, you need certification in gerontology to understand what most advertisers on Nightly News are selling to its Jurassic viewership.
And though Williams no longer worries, as he did in the run-up to his SNL appearance, that his comic work might damage his reputation as a journalist, he still places the broadcast ahead of all else. The evening I met him for dinner, he proudly showed me his weather-beaten backpack, a North Face stuffed to its ballistic-nylon gills. Inside is everything he needs to report from anywhere in the world: laptop, passport, titanium flashlight. He carries it with him at all times, in case news breaks and he has to get on a plane to cover it. Having hefted the bag at Williams’s enthusiastic invitation—and having watched a brawny member of The Four Seasons wait staff struggle to do the same after Williams asked him to join the fun—I can confirm that it must be a royal pain to schlep around town, a constant reminder of the weight that still accompanies his role, even at a time when the network-news anchor is no longer the center of the journalistic universe.