Williams has too much respect for that role to ever turn his newscast into a variety show, and he continues to maintain a strict separation between his journalism and his comedy. Because the news is “deadly serious” most nights, he told me, delivering it “demands a certain decorum. It just still does.” Jon Stewart, laughing at one of Williams’s barely appropriate jokes, once issued the anchor a warning: “One day, on NBC Nightly News, you’re going to lose it and say what you really think, and it’s going to be the greatest day of my life.” Williams has kept Stewart waiting.
Still, if you’re looking for it, you can occasionally see a glimmer during the Nightly News of that other Williams we’ve come to know. Over the winter, in one of the feel-good segments that round out the newscast, Williams highlighted the story of the Caltech men’s basketball team, which had just won its first conference game since the Reagan era. “There’s no turning back for the Division 3 Caltech Beavers,” Williams deadpanned. “The Beavers are on fire.” A few days later, a segment looked into how the impending government ban on certain incandescent lightbulbs will affect Hasbro’s bulb-operated Easy Bake Oven, in which generations of children have prepared what Williams described as “highly questionable cakes and brownies.” These are not moments of high hilarity—this is not the meta-comedy of 30 Rock or the frenetic humor of SNL—but in a sense, they might be the best evidence of all for Williams’s comic capabilities. He’s found a way to inject a touch of levity into the lately all-too-depressing business of delivering the news, to elicit a smile without giving up his gravitas. That’s how finely tuned his comic instrument is.