I was an avid reader of Newman's books on language early in my career, and still have my paperback of "Strictly Speaking." After the jump, a story I wrote about Newman in 1996, when he was hosting a TV version of Weekly World News. Yes, you read that right.
From the Beacon Journal:
Channel flippers tonight may believe that TV journalism finally has come to an end. How else to explain the esteemed Edwin Newman hosting a show based on the supermarket tabloid Weekly World News?
But if you look closer at the series, premiering at 10:30 on cable's USA Network, you'll see a twinkle in Newman's eye. And stories so outrageous that you won't need a viewer advisory to know they're a joke. A pizza boy didn't really make a delivery after being shot, and -- although it was especially amusing to Newman -- there isn't really a chicken that lays ham and eggs.
What there is, is a new addition to USA's Saturday comedy block, and for Newman, a chance to indulge his not-so-secret love of comedy. While he was most often seen as a slightly glum presence on NBC's newscasts for 35 years -- retiring in 1984 -- Newman is quick to point out he also appeared on Saturday Night Live four times.
"From the beginning of my working life, I have written a good deal of humor," Newman said. "I've written for Esquire, Harper's, Punch, literally dozens of magazines. And much of what I have written was humor, or intended to be."
On Weekly World News, he said he's the straight man, anchoring the show and introducing the taped segments. Still, he is tickled by the story of the chicken, or a man who cooks with heat generated from his head -- not least because technological advances put such ideas just outside the realm of plausibility.
And Weekly World News is so deadpan in its presentation, after a while its goofy notions start seeming believable.
"If you did it any other way you would be killing the joke," said Newman, who admits to occasional concerns that viewers might take Weekly World News for fact.
"I asked myself that when I would pass the stands on which the tabloids sat. I would ask myself who reads them, and do they believe them? But I find it almost impossible to believe that anyone would think that aliens from outer space would kidnap someone to repair their spaceship."
At least we can hope so. But Newman knows that the wacko fringe of news has moved ever more into the mainstream, that the speed of news gathering has led to emotion and speculation filling the airwaves moments after an event happens.
Newman remembers joining the old United Press wire service in 1941, when "much depended on how fast you could run for the telephone booth. When I was with UP, I would literally be running for the phone and the AP man would be running as well." One veteran White House reporter figured out a way to carom off a wall from the Oval Office to his reporting booth.
But even before he retired, Newman saw TV news changing. "One of the things I disagreed with was the idea of the short attention span, and that this had to be played to. And there was more emphasis on pictures -- if a story didn't have pictures, it would get almost no time."
Now, Newman said, "there are times that I miss (TV news) very much. Other times, I say, 'That is not the way to do that story.' " But, even as I tried to egg him on, Newman backed away from continued complaints about TV news. "One doesn't want to appear to be an old crank saying his time was better because it was his time," Newman said.
Besides, he has a different, and merrier, kind of story to talk about on Weekly World News. A deep laugh broke up Newman's description of the home with a poltergeist in the toilet -- and the disinfectant used to drive the spirit away.