We ask the weird questions

Inspiration: Sam Bee

The Daily Show isn’t news.  But its successful merger of news and humor gives the TV news biz a potential tool to stop the bleeding, audience-wise.  The problem is, humor is tricky business.  Most of us aren’t nearly as funny as we’d like to think we are.

I’d be the first to admit I’m a slow-witted dullard.  Whenever I’m able to conjure a fragment of something humorous, it’s typically painfully premeditated.  That fact hasn’t stopped me from making the occasional effort at TV news humor.  Why?  I’m not sure, except that it’s an effective communications tool.  When a story can make you snicker a bit (for the right reasons), then it’s got a chance to be somewhat memorable.

For the moment, we’ll set aside the significant body of opinion that insists news should be a humorless, just-the-facts place.  We disagree on that.

I’ve found that the writing is only one part of the creation of a news story with humor (and frequently, it’s the culprit when attempts at TV news humor fail).  Mostly, it’s about a) putting a twist on a topic with b) offbeat, deadpan questions and c) editing.

Editing is key.   Editing is the reason Letterman is funny and Leno isn’t.  Or, one of the many.

While observing a session of the legislature last month, I got locked into the House TV / Radio gallery while the Chaplain of the Day spoke.  It happens every day the legislature is in session:  Reporters (and lawmakers) have to decide in a split-second, following the roll call, whether or not they want to stay locked in the chamber for however long the Chaplain decides to intone.

On this particular day, I stayed inside.  During this moment of reflection, I had a dim light-bulb-above-the-head moment:  Why lock the doors for the chaplain, but keep them unlocked for the important business of lawmaking?  Does it mean the spiritual message is more important than the political ones?  I pictured Samantha Bee tackling this story and got inspired.

Of course, I ended up with a story that wasn’t nearly as amusing as Bee’s take would have been.

Three points worth noting about this story:

The sage of Meriwether Co.: Ira Spradlin, WAGA

I interviewed  30-plus year veteran WAGA photog Ira Spradlin.  Though this was potentially an absurd media-interviewing-media moment, this made sense.  Ira has been locked in the chamber more than most folks at the Capitol.

Second, a discussion at WXIA resulted in the deletion of what was easily the most amusing moment of the piece.  At 1:36, Rep. Mike Jacobs reveals that he’s heard some 200 sermons, “and I’m Jewish!”  I followed with what I thought was a question Bee (or John Oliver or Stephen Colbert) would have asked:  “So has this improved your relationship with Jesus?”

Jacobs threw his head back and laughed.  He then said “let’s just say, as a fan of the Old Testament, I am judicious about when I give the prayer and amen.”

Unlike comedy, TV news tries to respect religion.  Though Jacobs and I were amused by the moment, this had “trouble” written all over it.  Cooler heads at WXIA, led by the bosslady, put that clip onto the nonlinear editing version of the proverbial cutting room floor.

She made the right call.  Absolutely.

Third:  The more I watch this story, the less amused I am by it.

When I was a young, aspiring TV news guy, I was inspired by folks like David Brinkley and Mike Wallace.  As an old TV news guy, folks like Bee, Colbert and Jeanne Moos have taken their place — and raised the level of peril for those of us who aspire to occasionally amuse the audience.

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About live apt fire

Doug Richards is a reporter at WXIA-TV. This is his personal blog. WXIA-TV has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, under any circumstances, in any form. For anything written herein, Doug accepts sole credit and full blame. Follow him on Twitter: @richardsdoug. All rights reserved. Thanks for visiting.

9 thoughts on “We ask the weird questions

  1. JeremyK

    A couple questions…

    1.) How did you get Ira’s bosses to agree to his interview?

    2.) I’ve noticed many of your stories are apparently shot by a photographer instead of one-man-banded… or whatever we call it now. I’m assuming you had a photog for this one. What are the general criteria in determing when WXIA/Gannett reporters have photographers and when they shoot on their own?

    Reply
    1. live apt fire Post author

      WAGA’s chief photographer happened to be nearby when the interview took place. I didn’t hear the conversation between them, but I assume the chief figured Ira’s presence on WXIA as a legislative sage could only help his station.

      As to the second question, it’s like this: Certain reporters have been assigned gear and undergone training to shoot and edit on deadline. Those folks are expected to shoot their own stories, except under higher-pressure or more-competitive circumstances. Paul Crawley, for example, usually shoots his own stuff. But when he covers the legislature, longtime Capitol photog Pete Smith shoots with him.

      I was hired as a BPJ and have shot some non-deadline material, including the locked-out shots on this story. But because Avid is still a bit of a mystery to me, I work with photogs on deadline stories.

      Reply
  2. LBJ

    I liked it. And you’re right…Brinkley could have gotten away with it. Goodnight, Chet. (BTW, have you read his autobiography? He had a great story about the early days at NBC Nightly News when a gentleman called up Huntley and asked him out dinner with his wife – and Huntley went!)

    Reply
  3. John S.

    I think this is a horrible piece that wasted time for viewers. I like the idea of it, to tell an everyday story at the capitol instead of the usual updates, but it wasn’t funny or insightful enough to entertain and wasn’t newsworthy enough to warrant almost three minutes.

    but at least y’all tried.

    Reply
  4. Pete Smith

    As one who has heard more than my share of sermons at the state house, locked in and out, I thank you for that story. I have always wondered which is more important, the idea that God is watching or the idea that we are watching and we need to be shown on a regular basis that they know God is watching. At least someone is watching.

    Reply

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