When the writers of “30 Rock” sent Brian Williams lines earlier this fall for his latest cameo, the NBC News anchor had a couple of suggestions. A scene in which he auditioned to be on the show’s fictional comedy sketch series was “too blue” for his taste. In another, in which he approached Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon about trying out for the program, Williams adopted an alter ego that paid homage to his late uncle Tony Mortarulo.
“I’m not saying I want to audition, but Nicky Mortarulo from Scotch Plains, N.J., might be interested,” Williams said with a broad grin and his best Jersey inflection. “Hey, fuggedaboutit!”
Fiddling with comedic material is not traditionally the terrain of network news anchors. But Williams, who privately cuts up colleagues with his wry humor, has grown increasingly confident about showing that side of his persona.
“In airline pilot terms, I feel like I have enough stripes on my sleeve to be able to do more of it,” he said in an interview last week in his corner office at the real 30 Rockefeller Plaza. “People are much savvier now. They get the difference. They know when you change hats.”
So last month, days before heading on an intense reporting trip to Afghanistan, Williams appeared on the NPR news quiz show “Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me,” cracking up the audience with a Bill Clinton impersonation. Host Peter Sagal dubbed him “the funniest man to jockey an anchor desk.”
Williams’ growing comfort with that title comes as he approaches his fifth anniversary as anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” which has cemented its rank as the most-watched evening newscast during his tenure. More remarkably, at a time when ABC’s “World News” and " CBS Evening News” have continued to shed viewers, “Nightly News” has gone the other direction: After two straight seasons of ratings gains, the newscast is up again this season, averaging 8.5 million viewers, a 3% boost over the same period last year.
For that, NBC executives credit Williams’ sober yet accessible approach, along with the strength of the news division’s reporting corps, which includes the likes of chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel and chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd.
“People see Brian now as a destination,” said executive producer Bob Epstein. “That flies in the face of everything that’s been reported about the demise of network television.”
In an era when the U.S. president makes appearances on late-night talk shows, it hasn’t hurt to have an anchor who can mock arm-wrestle Jon Stewart and, as Williams did in November 2007, host “Saturday Night Live.”
“It gives people a better sense of who he is and what makes him tick,” said NBC News President Steve Capus. “I’ve known Brian 23 years now, and there’s always been that sense of humor, but it’s never been out there, because he’s always thought he needed the right forum to do it. He’s always very cautious in making the decision to do ’30 Rock’ or ‘SNL’ or something like that, because he doesn’t ever want to undermine his day job.”
Williams’ forays into comedy represent a sharp departure from how his predecessors conducted themselves, noted Lawrence Grossman, a former president of NBC News and PBS.
“It was frowned upon for the news anchors -- who are supposed to pull the country together in times of crisis -- to be to flip,” Grossman said. “I think we tolerate a lot more of that now than back in the day when network news was the holy grail. But it still requires some discipline and some boundary lines.”
Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” joked that he was “really annoyed” to discover Williams’ quick wit when he first invited him on in 2003.
“Nobody likes a guy who can do a real job and your job,” said Stewart, calling the notion that news anchors shouldn’t show a sense of humor “a false ideal.”
“It’s a silly thing to keep bottled up,” he said. “It won’t necessarily perjure your other work.”
Williams’ levity may surprise viewers who see him as the consummate newsman. He’s made six trips to the war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq and received numerous awards for his on-the-ground coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. (This week, he received the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism from Arizona State University.)
“People used to always joke that Brian was born in a suit, born to do this job,” said Epstein, who has known the anchor since they both worked in local television 20 years ago.
Williams speaks about the evening news with reverence, saying that when he inherited the broadcast from Tom Brokaw in 2004, he felt like Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate.”
“Everyone was saying, ‘You ready for this? You think you’re going to be all right?’ ” he recalled. “When it’s the only job you’ve ever dreamed of having, it’s impossible to relate how that felt. I still will catch my name on the door or on a piece of artwork or stationery, and I wonder when the FBI is going to come in and say, ‘Are you Brian Williams?’ ”
Inside the news division, NBC executives often discuss the best way to let “Brian be Brian” on the air, to show the person behind the earnest anchorman. Producers now try to have correspondents on set for him to interview so the back-and-forth is more relaxed. During his trip to Afghanistan, he not only reported from a U.N. compound that was attacked but also visited an orphanage, where he and a young girl playfully exchanged eyeglasses.
Still, Williams is constantly calibrating the appropriate tone for the occasion. He planned to appear on “The Jay Leno Show” via satellite while in Afghanistan but scuttled it after 14 Americans died in helicopter crashes that day. “It just didn’t seem right,” he said. And he’s reluctant to be too off-the-cuff during “Nightly News.”
“I have probably way too much of a sense of propriety, having grown up watching the evening news, and I’m sure it’s anachronistic,” he said. “This is kind of one of the last serious zones, along with the top of the ‘Today’ show every morning, that there is in television.”
The landscape will change in January, when Diane Sawyer replaces Charles Gibson on ABC’s second-place “World News.” That’s one topic that’s no laughing matter for Williams, who calls Sawyer “a formidable competitor.”
“If I lose so much as one customer,” he said emphatically, “I’m going to want to know why.”