Al Roker on Facing Racism, Crying at Work and Overcoming Mistakes: "You Can Come Back Stronger"

Al Roker - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of TODAY show

With more than four decades on television, Al Roker is used to people commenting on his appearance — especially the roundabout compliments he regularly fields while pressing the flesh in the Plaza outside NBC's studios inside Rockefeller Center. But Roker, ever an optimist, is not one to complain. Instead, he used a common one to cover his 13th book, You Look So Much Better in Person: True Stories of Absurdity and Success, out now from Hachette Books. The tome is a deep dive into Roker's life and career with a special focus on lessons learned behind and in front of the camera.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Roker opens up facing racism, forgiving bad behavior, and the latest projects from his Al Roker Entertainment. 

When you announced the book on Today, your colleagues asked how you managed to fit everything in your schedule. You said when you’re doing something you love, you find the time. But really, how do you find the time?

It’s one of these things where it really is that if you do love and enjoy something and enjoy something, uh, you, you figure out how to do it. Let me also say that I'm very fortunate. Unlike a lot of my compatriots at work, my kids, for the most part, are out of the house. My son [just turned] 18, but my two girls are older. One is a senior in college and the other is working as a chef. I've got time in the morning and I actually find that I like getting up earlier than everybody else, even on the weekend, because I enjoy the quiet. I enjoy that time to myself and that’s when I do a lot of writing. If you take away the time you spend looking at TikTok, YouTube, all that stuff, you actually have a fair amount of time.

Do you have a specific creative routine in the morning?

I like to call it "me time." I could get up probably 45 minutes later than I do, I just don't like to rush. That's when you make mistakes, you’re in a clumped state. I would rather get up, take my time, brush my teeth and do all of that, and then come downstairs and make breakfast. Then I call my meteorologists and pull up my weather info and go through that. I get finished and then chill out. Three days a week, I would work out with my trainer at 4:45 a.m. because the problem with training, or doing anything, is that the day gets in the way. Something always comes up — a meeting, something with the kids. At 4:45, nothing’s coming up. There’s no excuse, there’s no meeting, there’s no phone calls. I was one of those people that if I couldn’t get in an hour to workout, then I’ve failed. Well, if you can get in 30 minutes, great. That's 30 more minutes you had than if you didn’t do it. I lower my expectations. [Laughs]

The title for the book comes from a comment you fielded while filming in the Plaza. What’s the weirdest or most surprising compliment you’ve gotten out there?

It literally happens every day at the Plaza when I would go out to shake hands. Another [common one] is, “Oh, I thought you would be taller.” I'm thinking, well, I'm not sure why you would think that when you see me standing next to Carson [Daly], Craig [Melvin], Hoda [Kotb], and Savannah [Guthrie]. I'm the shortest person there. There’s nobody I tower over unless we're interviewing Dr. Ruth. 

In the book, you pepper it with these pearls of wisdom dispensed through various anecdotes. How did you edit the list down and were there any altruism points that didn’t make the cut?

There were a few that when we started looking at them and they sounded like they're a great idea, and then you're looking at them again and realize that, ah, that didn’t really go anywhere. There were some others that, in hindsight, were perhaps hurtful to some folks. It's kind of like, why do this? That’s not the point of the exercise. This isn't a tell-all book. There are a couple of people I named, but in the end were, they were positive influences or experiences I learned from. That’s the overarching theme of the book. You learn from your experience, both the things that went well, your successes, and the things that didn’t go so well. I try to drill that home to my kids. You’re not going to succeed all the time. You are going to fail but every great invention or breakthrough in our world and in our history came from failure. Nobody makes a great discovery on the first try.

You share a story about crying at work after trying to pull a prank on your boss, and you tell the story as a mistake. Do you think that people are allowed to make mistakes today?

Yeah, I think so. There are two different kinds of mistakes. There are interpersonal mistakes, like in that case, which is one thing you really shouldn’t do — prank your boss. You can prank somebody you work with, not somebody you work for. The other is making a [public] mistake on-air. Today, you know, it could be a career-ender because of the viral nature of what goes on. From an interpersonal standpoint, you can make mistakes and still come back and come back stronger. Something I’ve had to work on over the years is to not be defensive, be open to the criticism or the consequences and then move on.

That’s a powerful lesson, too. There are others you lay out very simply: Pick up the phone, write a letter, live a big life, explore your talents, push your limits. When you’re working with younger staffers or employees at your production company, is there one you find them most resistant to?

I sound very old when I say this: Young people are really most resistant to picking up the phone. I have a terrific assistant named Taylor and I've had a number of assistants all around the same age, in their twenties. I will say, “Did you reach out to so and so?” They will say, “I emailed them.” I asked again, “But did you call them?” They say, “No, I’m waiting for their email back.” No, no, no, no. First you call and then you email. Maybe you might put a text in between. I find that I want a phone call. To me, emails and texts are so much more work. Now I’ve got to read it and then respond to it, then I have to send it and wait for a response. We could knock out the whole thing in a few minutes on a phone call and have a relationship and not risk somebody misinterpreting the tone of my text or email. My Cardinal rule, even with my kids, is just call.

You bring up the subject of race several times in the book and track how it’s played a part in the 40 years of your career, dating back to one of your first big breaks when you wondered if they were looking for “someone slimmer, less bald and less black.” Who helped your process those difficult moments?

It was my dad. We delved into this on the Today show in the third hour — Craig Melvin and I talked about it, raising black children and black sons. It’s the same thing my dad told me, “It’s not a fair world out there. You are going to have to work twice as hard and be twice as good to get half as far as the white kid next to you.” You can say, “Well, that's not right,” but, OK, yeah, we’re in the real world. When I was coming up, there were no jobs that I wouldn’t do when I was starting out in television. I write about this in the book, there was a period at WNBC and the legendary Dr. Frank Field up and left during a contract dispute. I was the weekend weather man. I worked eight weeks in a row with one day off and it was July 4. It’s just what you do.

What do you think it will take for the field to be leveled, and do you think these current conversations around race and equality will actually lead to systemic change?

Yeah, I do. I really do. We’ve got a new NBCU News Group chairman, Cesar Conde, who has put up this five pillar action plan. It doesn't have a time table, and I'm sure as it's implemented, it will, but it's about hiring a more diverse workforce, more people of color and more women. In the not-so-distant future, they want 50 percent people of color and 50 percent women at NBC News and through all levels of NBC News. The fact is, you know, you can have folks like me, Craig Melvin and Hoda Kotb on camera, but it's the folks behind the scenes — the senior producers, the executive producers, the writers — all of whom shape the broadcast. I love that, and I think this moment has made a lot of folks in and out of the corporate offices look at where we are and where we need to be. I'm old enough to remember the ‘60s, the protests, and this is a different time. It's a different feeling. I’m optimistic but we can’t be complacent.

The anecdote you share in the book about Cleveland’s Doug Adair was really interesting because of the way you handled it. You said thankfully his racially charged comment happened pre-social media so that he wasn't obliterated nationwide and chewed up. People say that a harder line should be drawn in attacking racism but that is not the tone you take. You write that you can’t change everyone and you must pick your battles. How do you feel about that now?

There are gradations. I don't think you can apply the same standard to every incident that happens, but I do think that people need to be more responsible and thoughtful about what they do and what they say. If you don't say it, you can't get hurt by it. This guy Doug that I worked with, I saw him as a whole person. Somebody else hearing what he said only knows that and it is outraged by it, as I was, but I didn't want to try to kill the guy, metaphorically, because I worked with him and I knew him as a whole human being.

That’s the issue. That’s where diversity is so important, because if you don't know people, if you're not around people, you only see this two dimensional image of what you've seen in media or heard or been told. If more people of diverse backgrounds live and work together, you're a little more invested in people as opposed to, “You’re wrong, get out.” There are instances where absolutely people have gotten what they deserved, but there are cases that are on the bubble.  Some of the cases that have been in the media, it’s a no brainer. Yes, that person was horribly wrong and needs to be punished. You also have to look at forgiveness. It’s a whole range of the human condition.

I do have to ask you about this, too, because there is a line in the book where you write that there’s no place for bad behavior in the workplace. I’m curious what lessons you’ve learned over the past few years living through what you’ve lived through both internally and externally?

It all goes back to what our moms told us, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” You've got to just live your life or try to live your life, and Lord knows I've made mistakes and not been a perfect human being. I don't want to even suggest that. There are people I've hurt, unintentionally or not so unintentionally. We’re humans. But I try to treat people the way I want to be treated, and that's accepting that people are human and are going to make mistakes, have faults and bad days where things that they do or say might not have ever happened, but external or internal circumstances changed them for that period of time. My grandmother always used to say that you don't know the journey somebody is traveling until you walk in their shoes. It’s tough but just try to live that life knowing that you’re going to scrape the path and hope that you don't do any damage when you do.

We are well past the three month mark of working from home and you’re doing so with your son at home but also your wife who is on a competing network, also juggling live broadcasts. You’ve been married more than 25 years and written a book together. I would imagine, you know each other pretty well by this point but have you learned anything new?

I kind of intrinsically knew it, but I've kind of discovered that my wife actually does have a pretty good sense of humor. And it has only brought into great relief that she is not that technically savvy. It’s been kind of refreshing because most couples don't normally work together and while we're technically not working together, we are supportive of each other and helping set up teleprompters or running upstairs to get something. It’s been really interesting. I was an AV nerd in high school — complete with our own AV gang sign — so this is the AV nerd dream of building your own studio. If you had told me six months ago that I could be broadcasting from my garage complete with a touchscreen, 60-inch monitor, a prompter returned from Studio 1A and doing it using different iPads, I would’ve told you that you’re crazy. I have MacGyver’d this system. I was really one of the first ones to go live from my kitchen in the city because one of our producers who worked on the third hour had been exposed and we were all sent home. I really only thought I would be out for two weeks but it kept going. After the first week, we decided to decamp to our house upstate. Luckily, we live in a very rural area and we have been on DLS up until about six months ago and they just brought fiber up our street. I had a 1-gig line coming in. If this had happened four months earlier, we could have never done it.

What’s the timetable now? Do you know when you'll go back to the office?

I'm hoping to be back in Studio 1A sometime right after Labor Day, fingers crossed, but, you know, who knows. We’ll see.

How has the transition been with your employees at Al Roker Entertainment?

Everybody is working from home. We’ve got a number of projects that we're working on that had to be edited remotely. In fact, we just [aired one on NBC4 in New York] called Side by Side: A Celebration of Service which was about front line workers in New York City in partnership with Northwell Health. A lot of it was shot by the healthcare workers. We did some shooting [on set] but very socially distant and we had to end up editing it all online with everybody at home. I’ve got this terrific staff and we’re still telling these great stories.

We’ve got one coming up called Life Aid: A Story of Hope. It will air on the Discovery Channel on August 30 and then September 2 before Suicide Awareness Month on American Heroes Channel and on the Science Channel. It looks at bringing together the best research and top brain specialists to work with veterans with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries. We’re working with [global healthcare technology company] Cerner Corporation, who have been great to work with. It is a one-hour special and we’re really proud of it.

There’s a great continuum of shows out there and I'm not judging any others, but I don't want people to feel like they've wasted an hour after they’ve watched something we’ve produced. I want them to have enjoyed it and learned something. If it helps push a better narrative, I’m happy.

That can be a challenge because feel good content might not get the ratings that other shows do, especially when it comes to reality or special programming. How do you combat that to make programming that draws a lot eyeballs?

We do all kinds of programming, but in some cases they would not get done if it wasn’t for corporate sponsors coming up and saying, “Hey, we think this is valuable and we’re going to back it for you.” That is the case with Cerner and Northwell Health. But we do have some projects that we’re working on that I can't quite mention yet but those are going to be on other platforms. There are many streaming services now that are looking for content and it's a big tent. There are more opportunities than ever for all kinds of programming, which is really heartening. I feel more optimistic about these kinds of programs than I did say five years ago.

Is there an Al Roker passion project? During your me time in the morning, what’s the thing you can’t get off your mind? Is it another book? A TV show?

I feel bad because I can't say what it is but there is one thing. It is the culmination of everything I love which is weather, family, science and animation. It’s with a group that I can’t mention but it’s just been focused group and we’ve been given areas we need to tweak. If it happens, it's the pinnacle of what I’ve always wanted to do and I’m really, really excited about it. I have always loved animation and if I was not doing this, my dream job was to be an animator for Walt Disney. It has always been my passion. 

Let me ask you then: What is your favorite Disney movie?

My favorite animated Disney movie — and I know there were some issues about it — but it is the performances and animation in Aladdin. I know they had to change some lyrics and stuff like that but Robin Williams, his vocal performance was a tour de force and the animation, too. I would also say, equally but from a different standpoint, is The Lion King. Aladdin was animation and the humor, if you will. The Lion King was for emotion and sheer artistry.

 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 

 
 

 
 
 

To @ouichefcourtney @cleilapatra @nickroker155 and of course @debrobertsabc for making this another wonderful #fathersday I am truly #blessed and wonder why I am so fortunate to have such an amazing #family

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