I’m reading a book about Steve Allen who was a master at adlibbing. If you watched Jack Paar, Letterman, Carson, Leno, or watch any of the doofus’s who are on late night TV now, with slight variations, they are doing exactly what Steve Allen did when he started the “Tonight Show” on NBC in 1954. What Allen did had never been done before, but it has been copied ever since.
I’m not brash enough to compare myself to Steve Allen. He was a genius and I’m a dummy. But we both started in radio and in radio you learn to adlib. When I did my weather programs at WSB and WXIA they were all adlib. I knew what I was talking about, but there was no “script.”’ I see weather people now, on the weekends especially, who are obviously “reading” their weather shows off a TelePrompTer. I wouldn’t know how to do weather from a script.
On live TV there is always something going wrong. That’s where adlibbing comes in handy. You can talk while whatever catastrophe is happening is being fixed. And like Steve Allen, I always felt that when something went haywire, you should let the audience in on it. But TV Producers and Directors didn’t like that. They wanted me to ignore it when, for example, the microphone might go out. The Producer and Director would be trying to get Jerome to crawl on the floor out of sight to surreptitiously hand me another mic. But I’d stifle that. I’d tell the cameraman, “Get a shot of Jerone there, Bobby. Jerome get off your knees and come up here and give me a dccent mic, and dump this one in the trash. Smile, Jerome, and say hello to all the folks in TVland.” I drove Producers and Directors nuts with adlibs like that.
One night, right in the middle of my 11PM weather thing, I’m looking at the map and talking about snow in Butte, Montana, when “Ka-Boom!” a bank of lights fell from the ceiling and just missed crushing Pruitt and Monica as it crashed to the floor. It shocked me so much I reacted with, “Damn! What the hell was that?” When I saw what it was I asked the camera guy to swing around and show it, and then explained what had happened.
Next day, I got a call from the Director of the FCC whose office was right down the street from WSB on Peachtree. He said, “A preacher filed a complaint against you for using profanity on the air. Come down to my office.”
The FCC guy was a big, gruff individual and all the radio and TV stations were scared to death of him. But he was really a pussy cat. He said, “The fine for your crime is a thousand dollars and a year in jail.” I’m contemplating how I’ll look in an orange suit when he continued, “But, if you buy me lunch I’ll suspend it.” He became a good friend and we stayed in touch after he retired and until he died. He never did tell me who the preacher was who filed the complaint against me.