Chuck Ross

The Comedy Continues at NBC News With Reports That Brian Williams Will Become the Face of MSNBC. Have Burke and Lack Missed the Point? The Real Funny Business

Jun 18, 2015

Is this a joke? It appears that Brian Williams will soon reappear, but not at his old job as the anchor of the “NBC Nightly News.” On Wednesday night Brian Stelter of CNN wrote, “So what will [Brian] Williams do? His portfolio will include a position on MSNBC, NBC’s struggling cable news channel. ‘He will be the face of MSNBC,’ handling big breaking news stories, one of the people said on condition of anonymity.”

Likewise, in The New York Times, Emily Steel, John Koblin and Ravi Somaiya wrote on Wednesday night, “Mr. Williams is expected to move to a new role at NBC News, primarily at the cable news network MSNBC, which would probably be in a breaking-news capacity at the beginning, according to one of the people.”

So let me get this right: NBC honchos Steve Burke and Andy Lack don’t think Williams has enough credibility to anchor NBC’s flagship nightly newscast, but they want him to be the face of its struggling cable news channel, MSNBC, because … because what? Because it’s not enough that it’s struggling, they want to make it a real laughingstock?

Clearly, if they think Williams doesn’t have the trustworthiness, the believability, to retake the reins of “Nightly News,” why would he be the person to build MSNBC into some news juggernaut?

And why would Williams do it? He’s been there, done that, also under Lack, not long after MSNBC launched almost 20 years ago, when he left the White House beat to anchor “The News with Brian Williams” on the nascent MSNBC. Does he really need the money?

So what should Williams be doing? One clue would be something that he really wants to do. And, interestingly, we get that clue from a piece Gabriel Sherman wrote several months ago, on March 8, 2015, in New York Magazine:

“Although he seemed genetically bred to be a newscaster—with that perfect almond hair, a jutting jaw, and a commanding yet calming baritone—Williams had, in recent years, developed ambitions to do more than read a teleprompter for 22 minutes a night. To the surprise of many, he had pulled off an unlikely second act as an entertainer. He parried penis jokes with Jon Stewart, slow-jammed the news with Jimmy Fallon, confidently hosted ‘SNL,’ and played ‘Brian Williams’ on ’30 Rock.’ ‘I love late-night comedy,’ he told a friend last year. For one recent birthday, Jane Williams arranged for her husband to take the stage with members of Upright Citizens Brigade. ‘Tim Russert always used to say, “Brian would have been a better Chevy Chase than Chevy Chase,” ’ recalled a former NBC producer.

“… A few years ago, Williams told Burke he wanted to take over the ‘Tonight Show’ from Jay Leno. Burke dismissed the idea and instead offered Williams a weekly prime-time program called ‘Rock Center.’ Williams hoped it might develop into a variety show. But ‘Rock Center’ ended up more like a softer ‘60 Minutes,’ and it was canceled after two middling seasons. Undeterred, Williams pitched CBS CEO Les Moonves about succeeding David Letterman, according to a high-level source, but Moonves wasn’t interested. (CBS declined to comment.)”

Let’s indulge Williams. Seriously. Or, I guess, humorously. Jon Stewart, a comic and the nation’s designated liberal to pointedly attack all sorts of political nonsense with a logic and finesse that is often laugh-out-loud funny, is leaving in August. Why can’t Williams do his version of what Stewart does, but do it for MSNBC. If a success it could become that network’s signature show. I don’t know what would work for Williams, or if the public would buy it, but there is a precedent for someone who can go back and forth between doing newsmaker interviews seriously and skewering newsmakers satirically: the late David Frost.

Frost, an Englishman who died two years ago at age 74, was a tenacious interviewer and master satirist. The latter was on display most noticeably in the 1960s in a fondly remembered comic news revue called “That Was the Week That Was,” which Frost first did in the U.K, and then in an American version on … NBC. It was live, weekly, from New York, a precursor to, among other shows, “SNL.”

For those of you who don’t remember “That Was the Week That Was” — which was affectionately referred to as “TW3” — here’s a description of that series from the indispensable “Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows” by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh:

“The satire could be very brutal. In one scene two good friends, a Catholic and a Jew, were discussing the fact that the Vatican had just exonerated the Jews from responsibility for Jesus’ death. Well, they were off the hook for that one, after 2,000 years, but no, the Jew still could not join the Catholic’s country club — that one hadn’t been worked out yet. Then there was the news report from Jackson, Mississippi, where UN paratroopers had just been dropped by Guatemalan Air Force planes, to rescue Negro ministers, missionaries, and civil rights workers. The musical numbers were no less offensive.”

Perhaps hosting or anchoring some sort of 21st century version of “TW3” would turn out to be Williams’ forte.

First, though, I think he must address, in some public forum, the issues about what got him in trouble in the first place. Besides the actual incident of Williams claiming to be on a helicopter that was shot at when he was not on that helicopter — which led to his suspension — there have been other incidents subsequently talked about in the press.

Perhaps the best way for Williams to address these issues is to convene a special forum, let’s say at a big auditorium on the campus of Columbia University in New York, presented under the auspices of the Columbia School of Journalism. Williams could say that for the next two hours he will address any questions put to him by a combination of the faculty of the journalism school and its students. It would be broadcast live on the Internet and also by any broadcast or cable network that wanted to pick up the feed, for free.

Back in 2007, Williams was the first network news anchor to host “SNL.” At the time our good friend (and former TVWeek columnist), TV critic Tom Shales, wrote in The Washington Post, “While it wasn’t the most hilarious ‘Saturday Night Live’ ever done, the ‘mission accomplished’ banner can probably be raised insofar as Williams’ image goes. He was able to keep his dignity and get laughs, too — especially when spoofing himself and his need to keep his dignity, ironically enough. One of the funniest bits was an ‘SNL Digital Short’ purporting to show a day in the life of the anchor; his activities included making a gushing phone call to himself, standing outside the building and waiting for someone to recognize him, and, later, dropping pennies from a window in the GE Building onto Al Roker and Matt Lauer as they attempted to do the ‘Today’ show far below in Rockefeller Plaza.”

Shales added, “During his opening monologue Williams said that both he and the audience were probably wondering, ‘Now, is this really a good idea?’ Happily for all concerned, it turns out that it was.”

Is going back to MSNBC a good idea for Williams? Not if it’s just to try to become the hard news face of that network when they still don’t trust him to anchor NBC’s “Nightly News.” But perhaps it is a good idea if he can move forward and successfully pull off doing a modern-day “TW3” kind of show.


  1. MSNBC and Brian Williams. I think it’s a match made in heaven. Seriously, it’s brilliant.

  2. Note to self: If I get fired for lying, I’m hiring the lawyer Brian Williams had.

  3. I remember TW3, and though I was maybe 13, I thought it was brilliant. I have been wondering for years why, when TV is in the “Ooooh, let’s do that again” mode, that show was never brought back. I even still have the LP by Tom Lehrer, who did a musical number every week and was also a professor at Harvard. Still funny 50 years later, and unfortunately, still relevant.

  4. Chuck,

    I don’t disagree with your logical analysis but logic alone won’t and SHOULDN’T guide NBC’s decision, which must be made with both head and heart. Social media vitriol, including the media echo chamber, is a highly-distorted view of actual public opinion. Even published polls have little value compared to the deep research NBC has no doubt conducted on this topic (Do you know their top research guy, Alan Wurzel? That boy knows his stuff!)

    In short, I think you’re underestimating the sympathy and affection millions of viewers still feel for Brian Williams. Even more millions can identify with having said or done something similarly stupid and deeply believe “we all deserve a second chance.”

    You alluded to the reason this decision strikes me as wise: Almost 20 years ago Williams built his initial reputation by making MSNBC a credible news source. They have since squandered that breaking news credibility and it’s a smart way for them to go since numerically, they’ve attracted all the “progressive” eyeballs they’re ever going to reach.

    Personally I hope both Williams and MSNBC succeed together.

  5. P.S. to Scott. Tom Lehrer taught at MIT, not Harvard. Mathematics. Can you believe it!?

  6. Writing with my broadcast journalist hat on, (yes, I have been one), I think they were correct to pull him off of Nightly News.

    Writing with my creative producer hat on, I would suggest Brian decide exactly what HE wants to do an not listen to agents, “advisors” and the like.

    Once he comes to his internal, honest identity…he should GO FOR IT!

    He does have an audience. Once they know where and when he can be found, they WILL find him and he will thrive. (You want a producer, Brian, call me.)

  7. Brian should fit in well with the MSNBC team, he seems a natural blend with the likes of Al Sharpton and Ed Schultz. His lack of integrity and honesty will not adversely affect his opportunity for success.

  8. Chuck you sre a judgemental gerk. Williams made mistakes, he’s not perfect, and he’s paid a steep price. So please shut up. Unlike you, most Americans believe in giving a person a second chance, in giving them a break. Obviously you do not. Gee, it must be a burden to be perfect like you are, right?

  9. Bringing back TW3 is a great idea! So you know that NBC won’t do it. Williams leading it with his self-deprecating humor would give him a great second chance, without the vitriol we see above. With shows like Sharpton’s and many others, you can already argue that MSNBC carries a lot of Satire. Why not a show that intends to be humorous? The timing could be perfect with the Republicans in Congress and the 20+ field for President. And if a Republican wins the Presidency, it would be a great 4-year opportunity. With proper balance, It is exactly the type of show that could bring viewers, other than the hard-core liberals, to MSNBC and could remake Brian Williams career. NBC has the talent at SNL that could help pull this off and help NBC/MSNBC be the center for comedy talent tied to news.

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