The year 1975 was notable for a few reasons: the debut of Saturday Night Live, the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, Patty Hearst landed on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, the Vietnam War came to an end, and Bruce Springsteen released his hit album Born to Run. That summer the movie Jaws would reign supreme in its popularity and—voila!—movie fans were pummeled by an enormous shark snacking on the beachgoers of Martha’s Vineyard; it would instill fear in the hearts of swimmers everywhere. It also inspired the nickname for my hot-tempered resident curmudgeon of a news director, Andy Brigham, a.k.a. “Jaws.”
Andy was my first real news director and my first real boss. He was a terrific investigative reporter but a little gruff. Andy was rough around the edges and usually sported a tattered sweater (which might or might not be stained, depending on the day of the week and/or what he ate for lunch), his hair was slick, and his overly loud voice could probably be heard in Canada.
I’ve been known to give a good nickname . . . my nicknames really, really stick. Take veteran NBC News photographer Tony D’Amico. When I got my start at WNBC doing the week-end weather in New York City, Tony was starting out as a desk assistant. A fun-loving Italian guy from Brooklyn, Tony showed up every single Saturday with a bag of warm donuts from his local Italian bakery. So, naturally I started calling him Tony Bag O’ Donuts, eventually shortening it to Tony Donuts. Over the years Tony would become one of the best news field camera guys we have at NBC, but everyone still calls him Tony Donuts. I’m very proud of that.
But back to Jaws. Great white sharks are generally really big. The average female shark is 15 to 16 feet long and a male can be as long as 13 feet. The shark in Jaws was a whopping 25 feet long. Massive. It should come as no surprise then that the mouth of the fictional monster shark would be enormous. Picture the size of an extra-roomy car trunk, big enough to easily accommodate multiple gnawed-up human corpses.
While Andy didn’t share the shark’s proclivity for dining on human flesh, he could really chew a person out. He was positively famous for it. And when it happened, everyone knew it. You could be sitting at your desk hard at work on a story, happily in sync with the buzz of the newsroom—the constant phones ringing, typewriters clacking. (For those of you who don’t know what typewriters are, imagine that your keyboard is connected directly to your printer. Every time you hit a key, the key’s letter is physically printed on paper by a small piece of metal with that same letter engraved on it. Ask your parents).
Add that sound to the banter between news folk and the perpetual shuffling of papers, when suddenly a hair-raising bellow would cause the entire newsroom to stop cold. It could start with a simple “God. Damn. It!” or “What in the hell?” But everything would come to a halt and the newsroom would be overtaken by a foreboding silence. It was like somehow even the phones knew to stop ringing. We all sat motionless waiting to see who would be the next victim of Jaws. You prayed. Oh, how you prayed the upcoming diatribe wouldn’t be directed at you!
Finally, Jaws would shout out the person’s name, breaking the silence. “Rob!! Get over here. Now!”
Rob, or whoever was about to be chewed down to a pulp, would sheepishly follow Andy back into his office, letting the door close behind him. The door might as well have been left wide open because nothing short of a bank vault could muffle the sound of an epic Andy chew-out. Another “God damn it” would generally be followed up by a long string of expletives, occasionally punctuated with an f-bomb to really drive home the point that you had royally F#&ked up.
A number of things could set Andy off: cheesy copy, bad grammar, the incorrect use of the word “literally,” weak coffee, an unsatisfactory sandwich, or a missing stapler.
To be clear, Andy also provided guidance, mentorship, and served as an example of journalistic excellence for me and countless others. I am forever grateful for everything he taught me. He wanted us all to do our best and would do whatever he could to make that happen. But take the man’s stapler? God help you.
Like the majority of America, I too had enjoyed a white-knuckled viewing of the popular fish-themed horror film—sinking down in my seat whenever the familiar dah-dah, dah-dah sound started . . . increasing in its intensity and fervor as Jaws gets closer to its victim. Today that film’s ominous attack score is as recognizable as “Jingle Bells” or “Happy Birthday.” Who could have imagined that two simple notes played on a tuba could send such a chill up your spine?
It was my feeling that the Jaws theme song was the universal anthem for incoming danger. So, if I was able to play this song in the newsroom when our very own human Jaws appeared, and just as he was ramping up to chew someone out, I’d actually be providing my colleagues with a sound warning system. A public serviceif you will. And, PS, it would be really, really funny.
To make my vision a reality I had to physically visit a record store and purchase an actual LP from the movie soundtracks section of the store. The early 1970s were basically the equivalent of the Stone Age when it came to procuring music. I flipped past copies of A Star Is Born and Pippin until I saw the familiar shark head.
That was just the beginning. I took the record into the cart room. Back in the 70s, news stories were shot on film and the natural sounds and actual interviews were on the film. Any narration the reporter needed to do or any music that needed to be added was recorded on an audio cartridge, something that looked like an 8-track tape (again, ask your parents).
The cart room had a turntable and a mic and a speaker so you could hear what you recorded. And it was right across from Andy’s office. So, one day I recorded the theme from Jaws onto a 3:30 cart (a three-tiered metal cart on wheels like the kind I used to push around Xavier with pride) and kept it at my desk. A couple of days later, Andy called someone into his office for a royal ass-chewing.
Once the victim went in and closed the door behind him, I sprinted to the audio booth with my Jaws recording, put it into the cart machine, hit play, and cranked up the volume. The dah-dah dah-dah mixed beautifully with the sound of laughter from the newsroom, including my own. What I didn’t know was that I had spared Andy’s next victim by sacrificing myself.
Suddenly, the door of Andy’s office was flung open and he burst out with . . . “What the F#&k is this? Who the F#&k did this?” My colleagues were no longer laughing; in fact they had scattered like cockroaches. There I stood, alone with my finger suspiciously resting on the play button. I was busted. “What the F#&k, Roker? What in the F#&k is wrong with you?” I had witnessed Andy’s outbursts on many occasions, but this was next level.
As I looked at Andy, his eyes on fire with rage, his neck stretched out and his face red, I felt something start to happen. I became aware that my bottom lip was quivering involuntarily. My breathing was becoming ragged and I immediately noticed that my eyes were welling up. Was this actually happening? It was happening. I was going to cry. As soon as the first tear ran down my cheek Andy grabbed me by the arm, surprisingly gently, and led me outside.
By the time we reached the parking lot I was really going at it. I was crying like a kid who had his balloon popped and his ice cream cone thrown to the ground by a malicious clown. At that moment it felt like life would never ever be okay, ever again. I was trying and failing to regain my composure. Then Andy pulled a handkerchief out of his back pocket and handed it to me. I must have hesitated (Andy’s hygiene was questionable at times) because he said, “Go ahead, kid, it’s clean.”
I wiped my eyes and blew my nose, terrified that this moment of kindness was really the calm before a massive storm. I braced myself for whatever was going to come next. “Aw. Shit, Roker. Now, I can’t have you crying on me. You’re making me break my own goddamn rules! You never make the talent cry!” I continued to try to gain some composure. “But here’s the thing,” he said, “you know I just can’t have you raggin’ on me in front of the news team. Ya know what I mean?”
Before I had a chance to apologize for what I now saw was a juvenile stunt, I realized that it was Andy who was comforting me. Even though I had embarrassed him, his focus was on making me feel okay. Contrary to his regular explosions, he was a genuinely nice guy—I knew that—but he was doing it because he had a job to do, and that job was to put on quality news broadcasting. I might have made a jerk move, but Andy knew that helping me collect myself so I could actually do the job was more important than a bruise to his ego.
He might have been supremely ticked off—he had given me such a huge opportunity by hiring me when I was only in college! Then I repay him by acting like an idiot. But Andy had the wisdom to focus on the matter at hand: getting the job done. And that meant helping me get my sorry-crying-self in order quick.
Once my breathing returned to normal and my nose stopped running, we had an actual conversation. “So, Roker. Whaddya doing this weekend? Any good plans?”
I was still slightly suspicious about whether there would be a storm so I said sheepishly, “Maybe a movie or something?” I quickly added, “But definitely not Jaws.” Andy laughed.
“Roker. Seriously, you need to relax. I’m not going to bite you.” It was like the conversation had moved from getting my butt reamed to a breeding ground for puns. I laughed, and at that moment realized everything was going to be okay.
There’s no denying the fact that you are an actual human being when you experience strong emotions, and we all have our own responses, from shutting down to lashing out, or if you’re like me . . . crying. Confession: I still cry at work. I’m not just talking about a single tear either, or the slight watery blurb after a heroic story in a segment. I, Al Roker, have ugly-cried. I am four decades into my job so I’m no longer crying about getting in trouble from my boss for pulling a stupid stunt, but sometimes things just get to me and—hello waterworks!
If you’ve suffered the loss of a loved one, emotions can overtake you at the most inopportune and random moments (like on live television in front of the entire nation). Recently we did a segment about someone dying of lung cancer on Today, and I could feel it getting to me as I started thinking about my parents. It’s almost like knowing you’re getting sick—one moment you feel fine, the next you’re really regretting that decision to buy discount sushi at the corner deli.
It comes on like a punch to the face that you didn’t see coming. I started to sniffle and I had to get out of my chair, quick. I made it to the men’s room where I really went at it; I had a good five-minute-long sob session. My co-workers were concerned of course, but they kindly gave me my space. I’m a human being with emotions, like all of us (except the one percent of the population who are psychopaths), and sometimes they take over.
Crying in public or at work is a debatable topic. As a workplace crier, a man who has cried and survived more than once, my advice is . . . know how to cry. If you’re a sniff or two kind of crier, well, people will likely just think you have allergies, so go for it. Then we have the ugly cry. If you are a full-out, gasping for breath with ten to fifteen seconds of silence preceding the big cry, then I highly recommend you find a safe space in which to cry and compose yourself afterwards.
When I emerged from the men’s room after my big cry I simply said, “Wow. Sorry, guys. That really hit me from out of nowhere.” And I got on with it all. I didn’t let it take down the rest of my day. The good news about this kind of cry is that it tends to be powerful but quick. Like a purge. Being an ugly-crier is nothing to be ashamed of per se, but it is important you know this style of crying can cause alarm amongst coworkers and superiors.
Easter Sunday services nearly always pull a cry out of me, but this cry falls into an entirely different category . . . the misty cry. There’s a hymn my mother always loved, and I can picture her in my mind standing in church, raising her arms up as she sang along to the lyrics We will raise Him up! This beautiful memory on this meaningful day makes me cry, and as far as I’m concerned this is an incredibly reasonable response.
I’ve embraced this style of crying; it’s easy to rebound from. The misty cry, or what I sometimes call the trigger cry, is acceptable. It’s a genuine expression of human emotion in a dose that is generally enough for colleagues to handle. It’s obvious you’re crying, but it’s not happening at such a dramatic level that it causes discomfort to those around you. With this kind of crying, just let a tear or two roll, remember that you are an actual human being who has feelings, then grab a tissue, take a breath, and get on with it all. But whatever kind of cries you feel coming on, I think it’s better to face them.
There’s no need to stuff them somewhere down deep where they’ll just percolate for days, bursting out of you when you least expect it. It’s hard to get comfortable showing your emotions (and rumor has it that this can be harder for men), but if we all got used to it the world would be a better place. It’s a few tears! There’s no need to panic, people!
When I cried for the first time at work—ugly-cried in front of my boss Andy, I grew up a little bit. Firstly, I learned the very important lesson that not all helpful people present themselves to the world with a candy-apple smile. Sometimes it takes a little work to get to someone’s goodness, and it’s worth it. As I wiped away my tears that day in the parking lot I understood that I had a job to do, and Andy had a job to do, and while it’s true my prank was childish there was no time to dwell on that.
We had to face our feelings: mine (terror and massive remorse) and Andy’s (Jesus, this kid is a mess and I can’t believe I’m listening to him cry in a goddamn parking lot) and move forward. I also fully understood that we have no off switches. Andy, although a yeller, was authentically himself. He was kind but abrupt. Nurturing but not likely to show this side of himself too frequently. I might have been more emotional than he was but I wasn’t judged for it. Andy let me be authentically myself too.
Andy and I walked back into the office together. Everyone briefly looked up from their typewriters to note that I was alive with all limbs intact. Sure, I was slightly puffy-eyed from my big cry, but I was ready to move forward. “Go on, kid,” Jaws said, “what are you waiting for? You’re on in ten!”
Excerpted from You Look So Much Better in Person: True Stories of Absurdity and Success by Al Roker. Copyright ©2020. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.