EDITOR'S NOTE: Carol Crissey came to Channel 4 News as a reporter late in 1979. By the time she retired in 2002, as Carol Jasen, she had become one of the most popular news anchors in Buffalo television history. Who better, then, to ask for thoughts about Will Ferrell's current hit comedy "Anchorman"?
Childish. Juvenile. Crass. Vulgar. Raunchy. Irreverent. Irrelevant. Chauvinistic. Prankish. Goofy.
These words describe:
A. The new Will Ferrell movie "Anchorman."
B. Many TV newsrooms in the 1970s.
C. Both of the above.
A Channel 4 helicopter descends slowly to the pavement below. The door on the passenger side of the chopper opens. Out steps the station's main anchor.
This scene is:
A. A news promo for Ron Burgundy in the movie "Anchorman."
B. A 1977 news promo for Buffalo's John Beard.
C. Both of the above.
A young, blond, female reporter goes to her news director and asks to fill in for one night on the anchor desk. He smiles and says "no."
This conversation takes place between:
A. Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) and Ed Harken (Fred Willard) in "Anchorman."
B. Carol Crissey and Tom Bigler at WBRE-TV in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
C. Both of the above.
As you can see, there is some truth underlying all the lunacy and over-the-top exaggeration of both the era and the profession of TV news broadcasting as depicted in the new comedy "Anchorman."
Ferrell got the idea for the movie after he watched a TV documentary about the late Jessica Savitch (whose autobiography, ironically, was titled "Anchorwoman"). One of Savitch's co-anchors in Philadelphia, where her star power reached its zenith, admitted that he was a real male chauvinist pig when first told she would share his 5:30 anchor gig on KYW-TV. That's all Ferrell needed to hear.
Ron Burgundy was hatched soon after.
In truth, there was a Ron Burgundy in every city in America. Oh, I don't mean the clueless oaf with nothing between the ears. (OK, maybe there were a couple of those.)
I'm talking about the young, single baby boomers who came of age in the early '70s with their big hair, big mustache, and skinny plaid polyester pants that flared slightly at the bottom. They had an air of bravado when they delivered the news. They drove convertibles. Their girlfriends ran the gamut from beautiful to stunning.
Some came across as pretty-boy newsreaders (Channel 2's Ron Hunter), while others were seasoned journalists who displayed an easygoing charm (John Beard).
In Salt Lake City, Bob Koop anchored alongside a dark-haired beauty named Kathleen Sullivan. She would later become the first breakout star of Ted Turner's fledging news experiment called CNN. Koop never had anything nice to say about Sullivan. She was too "show business" for him. Koop, God rest his soul, was always a little out of step with the times. He had an inflexible idea of what journalism should be.
And in Harrisburg, Pa., the stud-in-residence at News 21 was a Vietnam veteran by the name of Tom Sinkovitz. Tom had been my news director at a Harrisburg radio station, so when News 21 felt the pressure to hire a female (as does Farrell's fictional station in San Diego), Tom brought me back to the capital city from Wilkes-Barre to be his co-anchor.
The shenanigans in "Anchorman" are culled from that newsroom and every newsroom like it.
Yes, Tom smoked cigarettes on the set. During a commercial break, he'd get up from his seat, stand to the side of the anchor desk and take a few drags. With barely five seconds to spare before we were "on" again, he'd race back into his seat and wave his hands frantically back and forth to dissipate the smoke.
Yes, we would break out into song at any given moment in the newsroom. Unlike Ron Burgundy and his band of merry men, we didn't sing anything as smarmy as "Afternoon Delight." We preferred Motown.
"My Sharona" was another favorite.
In the era of happy talk, Tom and I were pretty good. Our banter was light and harmless. That's why it was jarring when a new reporter at News 21 filled in for Tom one night. I finished reading the "kicker" about the president's dog getting spayed. We came out on a two-shot, and this substitute looked at me and said, "What I want to know, Carol, is when are they going to get you spayed?"
My clever retort was along the lines of "Gee, Rob, I dunno."
Within two weeks, the fill-in anchor was working at a wholesale beverage store.
Harrisburg was my training ground. By the time I moved to Buffalo in 1979, I had learned to walk the fine line between being one of the guys, and being feminine. The "I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar" crah-doo didn't fly in a male-dominated newsroom.
That's why I didn't bat an eyelash when, during my first week at the station, a sportscaster (who shall remain nameless) pulled his shirttail through his fly and asked, to no one in particular, "Ever see a one-eared elephant?"
"No," I said.
"Want to see one now?"
Laughs were always plentiful at News 4, but the stress of deadlines and the clash of egos could also make tempers flare. Many a typewriter was heaved in anger. Tapes and chairs often sprouted wings. The F-word was thrown around like candy at the Canal Fest.
Laughs often came at the expense of someone else. I doubled over in laughter one night when John Beard tripped up on some news copy.
It was during the Iran hostage crisis. John, who apparently hadn't gone over his scripts carefully, started reading, "And, in Iran, spokesman Al Seyy. Uh -- Al Seyy. Uh, uh. Oh, you know, one of those ayatollahs over there."
Only someone with John's ease and quick wit could have pulled that off. But John was seething when he left the set. He ripped into the producer. "What the hell are you doing to me, man? Why the hell did you put that name in there? It doesn't mean anything to anybody! Don't you ever do that to me again!"
It is the one and only time I ever saw John lose his temper. From that moment on, and for evermore, difficult names were spelled out phonetically on the TelePrompTer.
Yes, that same TelePrompTer that tripped Ron Burgundy into telling San Diego to take Dick Cheney's advice, tripped up many an anchor with better credentials.
Longtime News 4 producer Vic Baker still chuckles when he tells of the night an older, veteran anchor fell into a typo trap. The anchor began intoning the 6 p.m. newscast with, "Good Evening governor." (pause) "Carey said today . . ." And he kept right on going, oblivious to the misplaced period that had thrown off the whole sentence.
And there's the noon anchor who rushed onto the set with some late-breaking news from Lebanon. American hostage Frank Reed had just been freed. The producer who wrote the story had accidentally hit the space bar, so the anchor began, "Good afternoon. American hostage Fran Kreed is a free man" Even people in the newsroom looked at each other and asked, "Who's Fran Creed?"
Anyone who has ever anchored a newscast has dreams (nightmares) of the TelePrompTer not working, or scripts not being ready on time or speaking gibberish as soon as the camera goes on. It stems from our basic anxieties and fear of failure in front of an audience of thousands.
While many will see the movie "Anchorman" and point fingers, saying, "that's just like so-and-so," the truth is there's a bit of Ron Burgundy in everybody in television. In some senses, we're really just laughing at the way we were.
Carol Crissey Nigrelli is currently living with her husband, former Channel 4 newsman Craig Nigrelli, in St. Paul, Minn., where he is now a TV co-anchor.