By Al Roker
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These days, the road to success can feel jampacked with scheduling, networking, nonstop hustle, and flat-out absurdity. And no one knows that better than Al Roker—beloved cohost of The Today Show, weatherperson extraordinaire, and the man we all secretly wish we could turn to for wisdom and wisecracks in our everyday lives. From his college days as a polyester suit-clad weather forecaster in Syracuse to battling and buttering up the "Butter Man" during the legendary Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, Al has learned worthwhile lessons over a long, successful career. And now, for the first time, Al is ready to unleash savvy advice on how to embrace happiness and the power of saying "yes," alongside a host of humorous tips and tricks about how to succeed in life.
In You Look So Much Better in Person, Al teaches us how we can weather the storm of life, no matter how torrential the downpour, and shares anecdotes from his own treasure trove of memories in the spotlight. And it hasn't always been easy—believe it or not, even Al has been yelled at by his boss, suffered an emotional breakdown at work, and been told he'd be better suited in another position. Within these pages, he looks back on his own career and shares valuable "Altruisms" that can be applied to our own endeavors, such as how to:
- Navigate the special hell that is socializing
- Craft the perfect comeback line during a confrontation—and know when to use it
- Get up early and actually make the most of your time
- Cry at work without freaking people out
- And much, much more!
Assumptions Are NOT Your Friend
IT WAS THE HEAD of the communications department at SUNY Oswego, Dr. Lewis B. O’Donnell, who gave me the tip-off about the job. WHEN-TV5 (now WTVH) was adding a 6:00 P.M. broadcast to their Saturday and Sunday schedule and was pulling together a full news team: an anchor, sports guy, and weather forecaster. The news director at WHEN, the CBS affiliate, had a budget for “a college kid or a drunk,” which is why I was allowed to audition for the weekend weather gig in the first place. To be clear, I was a college student, not a drunk. I was never a stand-around-with-a-brewski-chatting-about-sports-with-the-guys kind of guy. Other than the occasional glass of fruit punch at the Rathskeller (our college bar), it would be many years before I started drinking in earnest. By the time I was introduced to some of the finer libations—the Pimm’s Cup, the Gatsbyesque gin and tonic, the where-have-you-been-all-my-life deliciousness of the Aperol spritz—I was married and had three children.
Dr. O’Donnell, or “Doc” as all the students called him, was an excellent professor but his notoriety around campus came from his second job. His side hustle. Every afternoon, after wrapping up a day of teaching classes, grading papers, and holding office hours, he’d head to the WHEN studios where he’d place a miniature trolley over his head. It covered everything except his eyes, which peeked out of the trolley mask like eerie little globes. His nose, covered by a red bulb, was the trolley’s headlight. He strapped a little cowcatcher beneath his chin—and his transformation from distinguished department head to Mr. Trolley of The Magic Toy Shop was complete. (In case you aren’t familiar, a cowcatcher does not “catch cows” per se. A cowcatcher is actually a metal frame attached to the front of a train to move aside cows or any other major obstacles that might be in the way. Imagine what that would look like for just a second.)
Mr. Trolley’s voice had the timbre of Goofy with distinct side notes of the Lion from The Wizard of Oz. It was not at all how Dr. O’Donnell sounded in class when leading a discussion about communication theory. SUNY Oswego’s graphic design teacher, Socrates Sampson (yes, that’s his real name), played his jovial sidekick, Eddie Flum Num, and they were joined in song by Merrily and her magic music box, who was played by Marilyn Herr, the station’s public affairs director. The trio became very popular, despite the fact that they sang chipper songs that were actually cloaked in darkness. They sang about “teddy bear picnics” and how it’s best to not go into the woods, and dear God if you do, don’t go alone—really, please, everyone should just stay home! Apparently, back in the 1960s and ’70s, terror was the way to get children to tune in to a TV show. Doc had been doing this since 1955 and The Magic Toy Shop became the most popular local children’s television show in history. No one has beat it to this day. Years later Dr. O’Donnell would say, “Al, say what you will, but that F#&king trolley paid for my kids’ college.”
Andy Brigham, the news director, had asked Mr. Trolley if any of his students might fit the bill. In other words, who could do a decent job of pointing at a weather map on local TV for forty bucks a weekend? O’Donnell tapped me and three lucky others. We were all earnest communications majors. None of us were the sorority-girl-chasing, raging-kegger jock types who would be too busy partying on weekends to show up for the weather forecast. You know… nerds. We were all a fairly safe bet. We took turns practicing our weather forecasts, using two large maps made for us by none other than sidekick-extraordinaire Eddie Flum Num himself. We switched back and forth between the map of the United States and a New York State map. We practiced pointing while speaking to the camera, swooping our hands down the map to emphasize low pressure—rain is coming! Resist the allure of suede, people! Then we’d try it again, this time adding our most dazzling smiles. We kept pointing-speaking-smiling until Dr. O’Donnell felt satisfied with our performances. Finally, we each recorded a tape of our forecast for the news director in the studios of Lanigan Hall. Lanigan Hall was a fairly new facility that housed the public radio station. It contained several studios outfitted with various hand-me-down equipment. But for an AV nerd from Queens who had never seen so much equipment in one place, my mind was blown. Tape recorders, microphones, cameras, and more cameras! Up until that point, my media experience was limited to what I did in AV club in high school.
I went to an all-boys Catholic military school, Xavier High School on West Sixteenth Street in Manhattan. Xavier was unique in that we were required to wear military uniforms. And in addition to your typical high school fare there was catechism, and also military science where we learned to execute actual military drills. Once a month we’d head up to the Twenty-Third Street Armory to march around in formation inside a Civil War–era fortress. Yes, it was a Jesuit military academy, so in addition to being able to recite the Hail Mary and Our Father, we would also be prepared in the event New Jersey decided to invade Manhattan via the Hudson River. Bring it on! I was a decent student, but I wasn’t the weapon-wielding type. I wasn’t about to join the squad drill team and toss around those shiny white practice rifles topped off with bayonets. Besides lacking strength, hand-eye coordination, or any desire to join at all, I had a profound fear of a knife-topped weapon burying itself into my person.
Nope, that was not my thing.
I found my crew underground… literally. They would hang in the bowels of our ancient school building, right across from the supply room. The AV club guys were my people and we were pretty tight. Let’s face it, who would want to hang with us? Today we would be the internet geeks, running the school website, proficient in coding, video games, and not getting girls. In 1968, it was multimedia rather than social media. Need a film strip to synchronize perfectly with the accompanying record that provides the audio? Consider that handled. Threading the loops for the 16 mm projector? Piece. Of. Cake. We walked the halls of Xavier High School proudly with our heads held high, pushing our rolling carts like tiny nerd bosses. A line from SpongeBob the movie pretty much captures our situation. SpongeBob, ever the optimist, tells his dim-witted starfish sidekick, “They’re not laughing at us, Patrick. They’re laughing next to us.”
I don’t know who it was that came up with the idea, but we eventually came to the conclusion that a group as close-knit as we were should have its own “hand gesture.” It had to be something that would bond us together and represent our solidarity and commitment to serving the audio-visual needs of the school. And this is how we ended up being the one and only AV club that had its own gang sign. Should one AV-cart-pushing geek pass a fellow AV brother in the hallways, we’d look each other directly in the eye and then throw the sign. The thumb and pointer finger would be held upside down, with the index finger from the other hand placed across that, indicating an A—then swiftly turned upright without said finger, to display a V.
It had been years since I was a full-fledged AV club dork, but the reality was that I was still just a college kid, so I was reluctant to get my hopes up about the weekend weather gig. It had been a few weeks since I sent in my audition tape and I hadn’t heard anything. Maybe they were going for someone slimmer, less bald, and less black? Did a guy like me even stand a chance? Perhaps they found the perfect drunk? I was about to tell myself to just accept that it wasn’t going to happen when Dr. O’Donnell asked to speak to me after class one day. “Roker, I’ve got some news.” Dr. O’Donnell was gathering up his books and papers as he spoke, presumably because he was headed off to his more lucrative job of portraying a trolley. “So, Andy Brigham took a look at your tape and he wants you to do an in-studio audition. And there’s one more thing—you’ll be doing it with Ron Curtis.” Ron Curtis! This is perhaps one of the few times in my life I could genuinely say I was flummoxed. As far as Central New York was concerned, Ron Curtis was the Walter Cronkite of Syracuse. In the 1960s and ’70s, as the anchorman of the CBS Evening News, Walter Cronkite was a media legend, and so universally revered, he was known as “the most trusted man in America.” Me, a mere college student, auditioning with the Ron Curtis, the most trusted man in Syracuse? Born Ron Ezzo, he anglicized his name to Ron Curtis, a practice very common amongst media personalities during that time. People didn’t let their ethnicity show—everyone just wanted to blend. Ron Curtis was a refined guy: Italian, sophisticated, and always dressed impeccably. To this day, I’ve never forgotten the model of class and style that was Ron Curtis. He always wore a perfectly crisp white shirt whether on the air or just in his office… and never, ever would you catch him in colored shirts! I never once saw him with his jacket off.
When I got to WHEN the morning of my audition, I looked around and noticed that I stood out like a sore thumb. WHEN was housed in a midcentury, modern glass-and-stone structure that might as well have been the Guggenheim compared to WSYR, the NBC affiliate’s modest, tan brick structure just a block over. But I stood out as much as the building did, for what some would say were all the wrong reasons. I was a young, chunky, black college kid. I was already losing my hair and was wearing a borrowed blazer with flared slacks and a polyester patterned shirt. (I had pulled the whole look together myself!) Who knew that forty years later I would be in that same building cutting promotional spots with their anchor team, plugging The Today Show?
I walked across the lobby to reception, the sun shining through the large glass window. Reception sent me upstairs via a midcentury modern staircase, not unlike the one in The Brady Bunch family’s house. It had the most delicate and useless railing to ever grace a stairway. One wrong step and you’d fall to your death. (How did those six kids survive in that house? Where’s the childproofing, Mike and Carol?) When I met Ron Curtis he could not have been nicer, asking me about my major and where I grew up. When I told him I was from New York City, he said that the CBS station in New York wanted him to be their anchor but his entire family was in Syracuse, so he wanted to stay. He actually turned them down! I still think of Ron when an opportunity presents itself—like when I was offered the chance to drive the pace car through the iconic Indianapolis 500 racecourse over Memorial Day weekend one year. The pace car? Me? The air blowing over my bald head. But I try to choose my family every time due to Ron’s example.
Ron dubbed me “Big Al” right there during the audition. It was a nod to Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, the popular sketch comedy show, and the comedian Alan Sues, who was known as Big Al. I had a nickname! That must mean I’ve landed the job, I thought walking out of there.
After my audition college life resumed as normal, but I was anxious to find out if I had indeed gotten the job. Of course I wanted the job. What college student wouldn’t prefer weekend weatherperson over pizza delivery guy or burger flipper? This was a dream job; it was a chance to do what I wanted to do. But there was also the matter of $500. I had put down a $500 deposit to do a study-abroad program at the BBC in London. I had worked hard, saving every penny I earned working in the dining hall, and what I made working at the SUNY public radio station, WRVO, as well as at WSGO, the local easy-listening station. “Earn Big Money in Broadcasting!” the job advertisement had said, and I earned a whopping $3.50 per hour playing the calming sounds of Mantovani, Percy Faith & His Orchestra, and Andy Williams. Big money indeed. I had never been out of the country in my entire life and all my college friends and I were going on this trip to London. We were going to learn about media at the legendary British Broadcasting Corporation. There’d be fish-and-chips, tea, and I’d finally learn what a crumpet was. Who knows, maybe we’d even catch a polo match. It was London! I pictured myself walking about the streets sporting a deerstalker cap and wearing a mackintosh to keep myself dry, and crying out “The game’s afoot!!” Obviously, a jolly good time would be had—but what if I got the job? I couldn’t afford to forfeit $5001. Worse—what if I didn’t get the job? The mental gymnastics I was doing were exhausting. (A) If I got the job and I didn’t go to England, I’d lose my $500 deposit. (B) If I asked for my deposit back but didn’t get the job, all of my friends would go to England and have that jolly ole time without me, while I’d be back home delivering pizzas to drunk coeds or operating a deep fryer. (C) I could ask for my deposit back, and I just might get the job. I decided option C was the most appealing. Yes, I was going with option C. It was with great reluctance that I asked for my deposit back, knowing I would not be traveling to England and visiting the great BBC with my friends, so I threw all my energy into getting that job.
My follow-up campaign began immediately. I called Andy Brigham at WHEN, and I was relentless. The switchboard operator/receptionist got so used to my calling that we became friends. I knew her name was Rosie, and she had heard all about how badly I wanted this job. It got to the point that she would actually recognize my voice.
“WHEN Syracuse,” Rosie would say.
“Hi, there, it’s Al Roker calling for Mr. Brigham.” A pause.
“Oh, hi, Al. He’s not in, sweetie, but I’ll make sure he gets your message.” For those of you too young to remember, a switchboard operator was an actual live human being who answered the phone and connected you to the person you were calling, or took a message. On a piece of paper! This pattern of call, leave word, call, leave word again would continue for the next two weeks. I called the station so often that I had the phone number memorized. One day, to my shock and surprise, Rosie said, “Hold on just one minute, Al.”
Behold! A few seconds later this gruff, smoky voice came on the phone and barked out: “Brigham! What?”
I was caught completely off guard. I was like a dog who was so used to chasing a car that he had no idea what to do when he finally caught it. I stammered incoherently, eventually blurting out something about how this was Al Roker and… um, had he made a decision about the job? In an exasperated voice and with a big sigh he said, “Roker. Clearly the only way to get you off my ass is to give you this job.”
Andy wanted me off his ass! He was giving me the job! He made a comment about seeing me soon and got off the phone as quickly as possible.
While I’d like to think Andy hired me because he saw something in me—a budding and talented weather forecaster, an affable interviewer who would create dazzling interview segments—I know this likely wasn’t the case. I got this job for one reason only: I kept my eye on the prize. Once I let the opportunity to study in London go I was determined to get this job. I would make it known I wanted it and I’d show my persistence, all while being charming and polite at the same time. And I wouldn’t stop until (a) I got the job or (b) WHEN issued a restraining order against me. Every time I was tempted to give up my campaign, I’d remember that shiny prize: a college job as a weather forecaster. The grand prize represented a lot to me—an actual paying job in the profession I wanted to work in, validation that I was right to give up a chance to study abroad with my friends, and perhaps most important… hope that it didn’t ultimately matter that I was a black, overweight kid from Queens. Eventually my focus paid off and I got hired. There’s something to be said for keeping your eye on the prize, for knowing what you want and going after it wholeheartedly. To be clear, if they had flat out said, “No way, Roker, we’re not hiring you, kid,” I would have moved on, but until that opportunity was closed I was going to keep going for it. If you want something badly, keep at it until it’s yours or it’s no longer an option. Don’t stop because you think you’ve tried hard enough and you believe it’s not going to happen. Don’t make those assumptions. Stop when you receive a flat-out NO. If and when that does happen, you can channel all that energy you devoted to seeking your prize to pursuing a different opportunity.
And when you do find yourself actively going after a big prize, know this—the phone is your best tool. To this day I am a passionate believer in the power of a phone call. Pick. Up. The. Phone. A text or an email are a start, but they do not ultimately create a personal connection. It’s so easy for someone to choose not to respond to an email or a text. But if you get them on the phone it’s unlikely they will refuse to speak to you. A telephone conversation is an actual back-and-forth situation—information can be exchanged and relayed in real time! Mark my words, want to get something done? Pick up that phone. And don’t even get me started on the magic that can happen via letter writing. Want to completely blow someone’s mind? Write a real letter. Use ink and paper… and put the paper in an actual envelope. And put a stamp on it. And mail it!
I was so proud of my follow-up campaign and was still reeling for days from the news that I was about to become an official weatherperson. On TV. I wanted to squeeze this opportunity for everything it had to offer and I wanted to put my best foot forward. But when do I start? How much money will I be making? I gave Andy a quick follow-up call (he was starting to sound like he might regret his decision) to get the particulars. I was going in the following week to learn the ropes—and I was going to start that weekend! This was just at the end of my sophomore year, so I knew I still had so much to learn… but one of my immediate concerns was what was I going to wear? I had dutifully returned the borrowed blazer after my audition. The bulk of my wardrobe consisted of flannel plaid shirts and denim overalls. Farmer chic. My dressiest items were a few button-down polyester shirts with gigantic collars, jeans, a pair of flared slacks, and a single extrawide avocado-green tie with mustard-yellow stripes. I couldn’t walk around the dorms hustling and searching out blazers to borrow before every newscast. It was time to make an investment in my wardrobe. I went to the finest men’s store in downtown Syracuse that I could afford, J. C. Penney.
On my meager budget, I proudly left the store with three suits at $59.99 apiece. But wait, that’s not all. Each jacket came with two pairs of pants… and a reversible vest. One suit was a polyester faux denim, one dark brown–light brown, and for those days when I needed to feel extra sure about myself, there was a lime green–forest green combo. There wasn’t a natural fiber within three miles of these outfits, but according to my calculations these pieces could result in an astounding 1202 different combinations. I was set.
To this day I still enjoy putting together a good outfit. This is due to the late Ron Curtis’s influence, and I’m grateful for it. What I choose to put on in the morning is a sign of respect for my craft, and it sends a message about who I am. I might get up at 3:45 A.M. every morning, but I’m still going to take pride in my appearance. Who wants to get their weather forecast from some slob in a wrinkled polo shirt? Who wants to start their day with him? A good crisp shirt suggests that this guy knows what he is talking about!
Unless I am being tossed around by winds in the middle of a hurricane, or maybe covering a Nascar race (or dressed like Fred Flintstone or Oprah Winfrey for Halloween), I am wearing a shirt and tie. When I first laid eyes on Ron Ezzo I knew immediately that I wanted to emulate him. He was stylish but there was an effortlessness to it. He knew exactly what worked for him and he wore suits with ease. His wardrobe was classy; Ron looked intelligent, sophisticated, friendly, and approachable, and that’s exactly the vibe you want to get from the guy who gives you your evening news. I’ve played with my style over the years and I’m not afraid to admit I’ve been inspired by some major style crushes. Paul Feig, who directed the film Bridesmaids and the remake of Ghostbusters,
*Amazon, "Best Biographies & Memoirs of the Month" (July 2020)*USA TODAY, "Five Books Not to Miss!"AARP, "Inspirational New Books"Gretchen Rubin, "What I Read This Month: August 2020"
- "Sharing a host of lively anecdotes, Roker reflects on what he's learned from his undeniably successful career. [...] Ebullient revelations of a contented life."—Kirkus
- "This sunny, pleasant book is perfect for Roker fans or anyone in need of a quick pick me up."—Publisher's Weekly
- "An easy recommendation."—Booklist
- "[This book is] illustrated with great charm, and [shows] that you don't have to be the company chest-beater to be the winner."—The New York Times
- "Full of amusing stories."—AARP
- "A charming memoir that will inspire readers."—The Chicago Sun Times
- "[Roker] talks straight up success..."—The Washington Informer
- "I love aphorisms, so I loved the organization of this book by 'ALtruisms'-lessons for career and life that Al Roker has learned along the way. So many great insights."—Gretchen Rubin, author of THE HAPPINESS PROJECT
- On Sale
- Jul 27, 2021
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Legacy Lit