The Comic Stylings of Brian Williams

Photo: Matthias Clamer

Over dinner at The Four Seasons, Brian Williams takes off his regimental tie and discusses his burgeoning side career in comedy. The evening we meet, protests are still roiling the streets of Cairo, Libya is descending into civil war, and the NBC Nightly News anchor is coming off a reporting trip to Egypt. He has also just finished a two-week stretch in which he visited The Daily Show, Letterman, and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. There are full-time comics who would trade their rarest Lenny Bruce record for just one of those bookings.

Williams has been honing his act for some time—the first of many entertaining appearances on Conan’s Late Night occurred back during the Clinton administration—but it’s only recently that he’s shown how funny he can be. And as demand for his comic talents has grown, balancing the resulting opportunities with his day job has proved more challenging. Such are the hazards of juggling the roles of anchor and semi-pro wiseacre that the necktie he removed as we sat down for supper—a purple number, bordering on the foppish—had earlier that day been the source of mild controversy: To buy time for his appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s show, which tapes in the late afternoon, Williams had prerecorded the headlines segment that opens his 6:30 newscast earlier than usual, then, on his way back to the newsroom from Fallon’s studio, spilled soda on himself, requiring a tie change before the live newscast began. Eagle-eyed viewers noticed the switcheroo, prompting Williams to put up a blog post in which he came clean about l’affaire cravate and offered an apology to “the tie community.”

Williams is quick to note that he never set out to be anything but a newsman in the mold of his childhood hero, Walter Cronkite. Those early Conan outings weren’t the product of ambition or aptitude but of a de facto company policy that asked in-house talent to fill in when unreliable rock stars or overscheduled starlets canceled at the last minute. (Williams made 25 appearances during Conan’s Late Night run; Al Roker, no one’s idea of funny, made 28.) But Williams is being too humble. The man has real ability, and he’s earned the respect of some of the funniest people in the business. “He has that kind of timing that you have to have, that you can’t learn,” says Tina Fey. “He knows his instrument as a newsman, but he’s very aware of his comic instrument as well,” says Saturday Night Live head writer Seth Meyers.

Told of Meyers’s admiration for his comic instrument, the anchor replies, “That’s odd, because we’ve never belonged to a health club together, and we’re both in successful long-term relationships.” It’s a classic Williams line: suggestive enough to shock—did Brian Williams just tell a penis joke?—yet veiled enough that it doesn’t seem untoward coming from the man my grandmother trusts to keep her up-to-date on rising health-care costs.

And it’s material like this that has won Williams a following beyond my grandmother’s demographic, even as the Nightly News, despite its wide ratings lead, follows the rest of the network newscasts on a slow, steady decline in viewers and impact. A Brian Williams 30 Rock cameo is catnip for recappers, a visit with Jimmy Fallon an occasion for a #BrianWilliams lovefest on Twitter.

Williams hasn’t given up on the evening news; far from it. “During times of great moment, we see a huge audience turn to us,” he says. In February, when he reported on the revolution in Egypt from the streets of Cairo, the Nightly News enjoyed its highest ratings in six years. The writing, however, remains on the wall, and even Williams acknowledges that a swath of the American viewing public prefers Jon Stewart’s fake newsroom to NBC’s real one. In such a landscape, the anchor who can tell a joke—and take one—is the one who remains relevant. Though his career in comedy may have started by happenstance, Williams has managed to stay in the conversation because he can speak in the vernacular of his new competition.

Contrast Williams with his rival Katie Couric, who is preparing a possible exit from CBS’s anchor desk when her contract expires in June. David Letterman had Couric on the Late Show recently and ribbed her about her rumored departure. “Once you take that anchor chair, that’s what you do,” he said, suggesting that the job is still the pinnacle of a career. “Really?” replied Couric, clearly unconvinced.

For Couric, the move from the Today show to the Evening News ultimately brought a net loss in prestige. Despite her successes—she was among the first to bewilder Sarah Palin on national television—she never found a way, as Williams has, to counter the forces conspiring to diminish the anchor’s cachet. “To some extent, the job is what you make of it,” Williams says. With her new book, The Best Advice I Ever Got, Couric has just made the job a platform for publishing an earnest compendium of life lessons from the likes of Michael Bloomberg and Madeleine Albright. Williams publishes a blog called BriTunes on which he posts videos of himself palling around with Julian Casablancas and the dudes from Deer Tick.

Funny How
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.”

Photo: Matthias Clamer for New York Magazine. Illustration by Mark Nerys.

In his many visits to the show since, Williams has embraced the absurdity of the world Fey has created and fully inhabited the outrageous character she’s written for him. He’s spread rumors about Liz’s love life (“Ritchie and Liz spotted in tree, eyewitnesses report k-i-s-s-i-n-g”), and invited buxom women cast off by Tracy Jordan over to his house in Connecticut. Just last week, he appeared in an animated short made in celebration of the sitcom’s 100th episode. In the clip, Williams tries to trade the last serving of frozen yogurt in the NBC commissary to Jack Donaghy in exchange for a role in Law & Order: SVU playing “a handsome reporter driven to serial murder by a busybody morning weatherman.” In perhaps Williams’s funniest appearance, in the season-four episode “Audition Day,” he learns that TGS is holding tryouts for a new cast member and throws his hat in the ring. He bombs. “Have you ever wondered what happens in the refrigerator after the light goes off?” he asks during his audition. “Does the milk say, ‘Let’s go down to the crisper drawer and make trouble’?”

Consider the complexity of that brief scene: It’s Williams doing “Williams” doing bad Seinfeld. The anchor’s cameos are not merely a matter of dropping by the 30 Rock set, reading a line, and dashing back to the safety of the newsroom. He’s pushed onto the sitcom’s high-wire and expected to keep his balance like everyone else.

Told of Meyers’s appreciation for his “comic instrument,” Williams replies, “That’s odd. We’ve never belonged to a health club together.”

It helps that Williams is a student of the form. Fey accuses him of having “a nerdy obsession with comedy,” the kind you typically find among comedians. Williams confesses that while he dreamed of being Cronkite as a kid, he stayed up to watch Carson every night he was allowed to. He pored over the work of Pryor and Kinison. He sent away for Saturday Night Live tickets after watching the premiere episode. (He got them and attended a season-two episode that, according to Williams, Lorne Michaels still considers one of the worst nights in the show’s 36-year run. Broderick Crawford hosted.)

Williams told me he occasionally marks up 30 Rock scripts because the material they want him to do is too risqué. Fey confirmed that she gets notes from the anchor—with suggestions on how to improve the jokes.

The body of work Williams has written as well as performed is small but accomplished. Back in 2007, when he hosted SNL, he was a full partner in drafting his opening monologue. Then in his third year in the anchor’s chair, Williams was concerned that hosting the show might diminish his journalistic stature. That week, Williams moderated a debate in Philadelphia for Democratic hopefuls on Tuesday night, typically a writing night for SNL. Afterward, he got in a car and went directly to Seth Meyers’s office in New York, where they got started on his monologue around 2 a.m. Together, they took Williams’s ambivalence and turned it into material. “I would like to point out that at this very moment, we all have something in common,” Williams told the studio audience on Saturday night. “Each one of us, myself included, is thinking, Now, is this really a good idea?” It was, and Williams was a hit—in no small part, Meyers notes, thanks to his experience reading the news, which gave him a poise onstage that guest hosts often lack. (Think January Jones, visibly struggling to read her cue cards.)

One of Williams’s most-beloved performances, at least among New Yorkers, was a bit entirely of his own composition. It came at the end of the winter, while Williams was taking part in a panel discussion on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. The panelists were debating the top media story of 2010, offering up the predictable hosannas for the iPad, when Williams, out of nowhere, took the conversation in a different direction, delivering a riff full of mock marvel at the New York Times’s sincere, wide-eyed coverage of Brooklyn bohemians:

“Once a day, there’s a story about all the riches offered in that borough. There are young men and women wearing ironic glasses frames on the streets. There are open-air markets, like trading posts in the early Chippewa tribe, where you can make beads at home and then trade them for someone to come over and start a small fire in your apartment that you share with nine others. Artisanal cheeses, for sale on the streets of an entire American borough. It’s been fascinating to watch the paper venture over the bridge. Venture through the tunnel. Go out to the outer reaches.”

It was a devastating comic set piece, perfectly capturing the paper’s penchant for writing about outer-borough hipsters as if they were some newly discovered Iron Age society whose folkways demand documentation. (“They are making grilled cheese sandwiches in the streets,” Williams added. “It’s like Marrakech over there.”) Even fellow panelist Brian Stelter, a Times reporter, couldn’t help but laugh. The clip quickly went viral.

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.

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.

From SNL to 30 Rock, Brian Williams’s Funniest Moments

Williams’s comic personae, from least to most zany. (We use the term relatively.) Deadpan-iste Williams reprises his famous Brooklyn rant in a new Taxi TV ad, this time so subtly it’s hard to tell he’s joking.

Williams’s comic personae, from least to most zany. (We use the term relatively.) Prankster Mmmm, doughnuts. From the Today show, one of many impish intranetwork cameos. Photo: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC Newswire/AP Images

Williams’s comic personae, from least to most zany. (We use the term relatively.) Straight Man Jimmy Fallon, slow-jammin’ the news, inevitably cracks himself up in the next frame; Williams pretends not to notice.

Williams’s comic personae, from least to most zany. (We use the term relatively.) Stand-up His original riff on Bobo Brooklynites on Morning Joe seemed ad-libbed but was in fact rehearsed.

Williams’s comic personae, from least to most zany. (We use the term relatively.) Sketch Actor On SNL, acting unfazed by sudden riches. A variation on his straight-man work, made nervier by the costume. Photo: Dana Edelson/NBCU Photobank/AP Images

Williams’s comic personae, from least to most zany. (We use the term relatively.) Sparring Partner In frequent jousts with Jon Stewart, Williams ribs the fake newsman for having it both ways. It stings because it’s true.

Williams’s comic personae, from least to most zany. (We use the term relatively.) “Brian Williams” Williams’s 30 Rock character uses a monkey’s skull as a toilet; the real Williams is strangely okay with this.

The Comic Stylings of Brian Williams