Editor's note: This segment was rebroadcast on Sept. 3, 2021. Find that audio here.
“Today” show co-host Al Roker is a jack of all trades.
He's been telling faithful viewers the weather for four decades. He has his own entertainment company, hosted a show on The Weather Channel and has written several bestselling books.
So of course, he’s learned a few things along the way.
Now, Roker is sharing some of those lessons in a new memoir, "You Look So Much Better in Person: True Stories of Absurdity and Success."
The book’s title is inspired by what people say to Roker nearly every day when he goes into New York City’s Rockefeller Plaza to shake hands with fans.
“Every day, someone will say, 'Oh my gosh, you look so much better in person.' And you know they don't mean it as an insult,” Roker says. “But it's like dude, not really a compliment. I make my living on TV.”
Roker writes that he wasn’t always the confident TV personality that Americans know today. When he was in college, Roker got his first job as a weekend weather forecaster in Syracuse, New York.
Roker went down to the station for an audition and was told they would get back to him. But no one called, so Roker started incessantly calling the news director.
“And back in the day — you have to remember it was 1974, there were actually switchboard operators — and the switchboard operator's name was Rosie, and it got to the point where she knew my name,” he says. “Finally, this one time she put me through and he said, 'Look, you know, I've got to get you off my ass. You've got the job.' ”
Roker says he was so excited that he got the job that he didn’t even ask any questions. That was his first lesson in taking a leap and saying yes. Even in the cutthroat world of TV, Roker says he always brings heart to his work.
“It's about passion, and being able to tell people it's OK to be passionate. It's OK to show emotion,” he says. “I had a very good role model in my dad in that he was a very emotional, demonstrative person. And so I learned from him that as a man, it's OK to cry.”
On his relationship with television personality and weatherman Willard Scott
“Well, he's just a terrific human being. He literally is like my second dad. In fact, he's the same age now that my dad would have been if he were still alive. Most people in this business are not generous enough to reach out to a colleague, let alone a total stranger, and he did that. Out of the blue, called me, invited me to dinner. … We didn't work together. We worked at different stations in Washington, D.C. And then he got plucked from D.C. to go to the ‘Today’ show. And I went to Cleveland, worked at the NBC station, and we kept in touch. And then I moved to New York to work at WNBC. And he was the one that said, 'Look, you know, it's time for me to step back a little bit. You ought to put Al in there.' And so, you know, the generosity and just the sharing is something that's always stayed with me.”
On dealing with racism in the workplace early in his career
“At the time I was working in Cleveland and our station was in downtown, and downtown wasn't a great spot at that point. And there was a homeless gentleman who happened to be African American. And one night, our anchorman, Doug, was going to his car and this guy ran up behind him and bopped him on the back of the head and ran off. And there was no harm, no foul. It's basically something that all of us wanted to do to Doug at one time or another.
“Well, it's now six o'clock, and we're on the news. And his wife slash co-anchor Mona starts to introduce me and Doug interrupted and said, 'Mona, before you introduce Al. Al, I don't know if you heard, but last night after the 11 o'clock news, one of your people attacked me.' And that's one of those time stands still moments. You're not quite sure what to say. And I just looked at him and I said, 'Doug, why would a weatherman attack you?' And then just turned to my single camera and went off into the forecast.
“What I didn't know, of course, [is] the switchboard was flooded. People were outraged, and he was suspended, demoted to a reporter and then eventually, within six or seven months, left the station. I could have gotten really angry on air, and I felt that it was better and the point was made by kind of pointing out the ridiculousness of the statement. Not everything requires a sledgehammer. Sometimes a chisel and a small hammer can create more impact than brute force.”
On the lessons he imparts to his children about racism
“With all the kids, I tell them, 'Look, you can't act the way your white friends do.' Like my son takes the subway, and you know, kids sometimes just for fun will jump the turnstile. Well, it's OK if your white friends do it, but if it's a group of you, you'll be the one that's picked out. And of course, he shouldn't be in any case, but especially dealing with the police, it's yes, sir. No, sir. You don't try to think you're funny or show off. And it wasn't until all of this that I was able to crystallize what I feel every day, and that is I involuntarily breathe a sigh of relief when my son comes home every day. And he's a kid who's got some special needs, and he's a big kid. He's got a deep voice. He sometimes is not aware of the space that he takes, could bump somebody. You know, I just worry.”
On his recent interview with the late John Lewis
“I'm a believer in the best parts of people until they show me those other sides. And I think that especially today, we have to be optimistic. We have to be realistic, but we have to be optimistic. And I consider it such an honor and privilege [to be] one of, if not the last [people to] interview with John Lewis. I got to talk with him. I asked him, I said, 'You were out there in the trenches. Does what you're seeing today give you hope?' And he said it gave him such great hope for this country when he saw all those young people of all colors and genders out there. As he says, we've gone too far. We aren't going back. And those young people out there give me hope. Here's a man who has seen triumphs and tragedies, and he's still optimistic and was till the very end. And to me, that's the lesson.”
In the excerpt below, Today show co-host Al Roker shares lessons from his 40-year career and stories from his new book, "You Look So Much Better in Person," that include his mantra for success, “Don’t freak out,” and why kindness is something he taps into nearly every single day of his life.
Book Excerpt: 'You Look So Much Better In Person'
By Al Roker
I was scheduled to take the road test for my driver’s license that afternoon, so my dad was going to take me out in the ole Country Squire station wagon for some last-minute practice. The Roker family car was an absolutely enormous vehicle, turd-brown, featuring a steering wheel as hard as concrete, lap belts, and flip-back seats in the rear that faced the traffic (where the youngest usually sat; those kids would have been guava jelly if the car was hit from behind). When the Roker family went on a Sunday drive back in the 1960s or ’70s, they were taking their lives in their own hands. The safety features in cars were so lacking back then that we might as well have been climbing Mount Everest without oxygen.
As a bus driver, Dad knew that driving anywhere in New York City was like going to war. You had to be ready for anything. You couldn’t just sit back, casually dangling your arm out the open window while singing along to Earth, Wind & Fire. There’s an insane traffic battle out here, and New York City drivers are very aggressive. A typical drive in the city will likely include a near miss with another car or maybe being cut off by a massive speeding bus. In addition to nearly being killed, it is almost impossible not to nearly kill someone else, with pedestrians stepping directly into your path or a bicycle delivery person shooting through a traffic light at breakneck speed. (For God’s sake, you will survive if your pad thai isn’t delivered to your door within six minutes of placing the order. Can we agree that bicycle delivery people should be allowed to ride at a reasonable speed?!) And there’s no point in honking your horn these days; no one will hear you. People are too busy walking and text-messaging and they can’t hear anything! They are listening to their favorite true-crime podcasts, wrapped up in a murder mystery that could very well be their own, but they are oblivious!
But back when I was learning to drive, the horn was actually useful—using it was an art form. The polite tap on the horn signaled Hey you, I’m here and I’m not convinced you see me. The full-on, extended blare of the horn signaled: Thanks for cutting me off, you moron or Brace yourself for impact!
Dad was determined that I be prepared for my driver’s test. So, we started off well. I eased the car out of park, lightly put my foot on the pedal, and went less than twenty driving right past a cemetery, where I saw my own demise flash before my eyes as I sailed by in the steel-death-boxon-wheels. But I was careful with the brake like Dad said;I didn’t want his coffee flying through the front window shield. I successfully executed a lane change, and the sweat that had been accumulating on my forehead was now freely leaking into my eyes. I kept driving at the speed limit without crashing into anyone or anything. Dad said, “You seem about ready for the big test.” I exhaled.
Just as we were pulling up to the house, Dad said, “Al, one more thing. How’s your broken U-turn? Let’s do one before we go to the DMV.” I take a deep breath and turn back to make sure the street is clear, execute the first part of the turn flawlessly but then suddenly we’re moving forward. What! We are moving forward and we’re picking up speed! Suddenly I am completely disoriented and don’t know what’s happening. My body temperature has gone up about a hundred degrees and I can’t get any words out of my mouth to ask what I am doing wrong! What’s happening to the car?! “Brake-brake-brake,” Dad says, staring straight ahead as cool as a cucumber. But suddenly I don’t know what a brake is! What’s a brake?! “Brake-brake brake,” he repeats like a mantra. When my brain finally receives the message that my foot is on the gas pedal and not the brake, we’ve careened clear across the Vereens’ front lawn, stopping about two inches short of their front stoop.
I take a quick look around and assess the carnage. I’ve torn up Mr. Vereen’s meticulously cared for grass and uprooted one of his beloved azaleas. Surveying the destruction, I’m scared to look over at my dad. Will I even live to see tomorrow? As sweat begins to bead on my forehead, I finally look up at Dad. He’s sitting in the passenger seat looking as serene as the Dalai Lama.
“Okay, Al. Let’s back up and try it again.”
What? “You want me to try it again? I just killed grass, an azalea bush, and had a very close encounter with a brick stoop!”
“Al, just back up. You’re going to do it again. We can fix all of this.” I take a breath and I get back out onto the road, and letting my dad’s voice calm my nerves, I pull off the maneuver.
“Good job, Al. There’s just one thing I need to do before we go to your test.”
My dad reached into the glove compartment and pulled out an old envelope and rooted around until he found a pen.
Sorry about the mess we made with your lawn.
Al had some trouble with that broken U-turn.
We’ll be back to fix the damage just a bit later.
I’m taking Al for his driver’s test.
My dad got out of the car, walked across what was left of the neighbor’s lawn, and tucked the note behind the storm door. He climbed back in and said, “Let’s go, time to take your test.” While I was terrified of being grounded…
Dad wasn’t mad at all; he understood the reality of the situation. He knew I did not get behind the wheel of the car thinking, You know what? It would be really fun to destroy our neighbors’ landscaping! I’m going to tear up their lawn with this Country Squire station wagon!...
For the record, we made it to the DMV without incident, and I made it through my test with no problem.
And it should be noted that I was not asked to execute a broken U-turn during the test.
The kindness and reserve my dad modeled for me is something I tap into nearly every single day of my life, especially when I walk out onto the plaza at 7:30 a.m. I toss out my signature phrase, “And here’s what happening in your neck of the woods,” to signal the local stations that it’s time for their forecast. It’s cold out sometimes, so I grab my hat and wrap my scarf around my neck. I step outside and am immediately boosted by the friendly cheers and greetings from the crowd. The plaza is one of my favorite things about The Today Show…
I make my way around the crowd, shaking hands, taking selfies, and chatting. I’m moving along when a viewer shakes my hand, looks me directly in the eye, and says, “You look so much better in person!”
I respond, “Why thank you!” as I move onto the next person who wants a selfie.
I get that so often that I’ve made it the title of this book about my career. I’d like to take a moment to unpack this (as they like to say on cable news).
On a daily basis I have to try to ignore the fact that this comment suggests . . . what? Sometimes when people say this they put a really strong emphasis on “sooooooo,” dragging it out in a manner that suggests they’re relieved for the sake of all mankind that I don’t actually walk around in broad daylight, scaring small children and babies, and traumatizing the fine citizens of New York City with my face. I think people really think this is, in fact, a compliment.
There are probably frantic texts being sent all over the country . . . citizens of Oklahoma, California, Wisconsin, and Atlanta are waking up to messages from friends on the plaza:
Guess what? We can all sleep much better at night now because it turns out Al Roker looks so much better in person! It turns out he’s not a gargoyle! He doesn’t really spend his spare time perched high atop an office building in New York City scowling over the unsuspecting populace!
How do people expect me to respond to this? So, while it’s possible I’d like to respond by saying, “Well, for your information that’s not actually a compliment. In fact, madam, your offensive comment clearly falls under the category of insults! And good day to you!” I do not say it. Call me a cheeseball* if you will, but I am a little bit old school. Sure, I favor fedoras, fountain pens, stationery, double-breasted suits, family dinners, and old-fashioned hardcover books with actual pages. And, yes, my entire family mocks me for wearing a sports coat on international flights. (Sure, there’s a time and place for my beloved and well-worn SUNY Oswego sweatshirts, but it’s certainly not while traveling aboard a jet airliner! Have some class!)
But I’m also a big believer in manners, common courtesy, and the golden rule. The one that says “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” For this reason, I choose to respond with a thank you—with graciousness—because ultimately I know no harm was meant and no one shows up at The Today Show plaza looking to be schooled in manners by a weatherperson (that’s actually what this book is for)! I also think the world would be a better place if we all embraced graciousness.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting we all lie down and let the world run us over. This isn’t about being naïve or a victim.
If necessary, I can get as nuts as the next guy. But how does that ever help in the end? My dad knew that how you react not only reveals something about who you really are but it also has the power to change the situation. You have the choice to react positively or negatively. I admit this isn’t always easy either.
Let’s be honest for a second. In our hyperwired society where we are often anonymous online, it’s never been easier to be mean. Any trolling I’ve experienced has been limited to the Wild West that is Twitter and Instagram—never once have I been walking down the street minding my own business and had someone approach me and say, “Hey, Al Roker. Yeah you. You suck! And your weather forecasting is rotten!”
But on the internet, people are more bold—once I received a tweet that suggested I look like a “deflated balloon.”
(I’m sixty-five! Any wrinkles on this face qualify as character.) Really, is that the best people can do? Once I was pushed a little further when someone tweeted at me:
@AlRoker If it rains today, I’m going to punch you on your mouth.
Oh really? You want a piece of me? I’ve got some news for you, pal. I’m not a wizard. I’m not standing in the basement of Rockefeller Center wearing a velvet cloak, chanting, and waving around a magic wand to coax thunder and lightning from the heavens. But I’ve got to say, if I did have that power I would have made it rain just for that guy. But because I do not actually control the weather and therefore could not pull revenge precipitation from the sky, I had to settle for dropping my preplanned comeback line: Go ahead and try it, I will drop you like a bag of dirt.
I first witnessed the power of a truly fantastic comeback line in a most unexpected place—a bookstore. I was on tour for one of my earlier books and my publisher had paired me with a publicist who was present at all the events.
She was a very kind, very polite young woman who had grown up in the South. Her manners were impeccable, her appearance neat—if she had pulled a pitcher of sweet tea and a platter of fresh-baked buttermilk biscuits out of her purse I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised. She was pleasant and diligent, she got me where I needed to be on time, and generally made sure things were running smoothly. At the end of the tour I had one last bookstore visit before I headed to the airport to catch a flight back to New York. Time was of the essence, and a pretty big crowd had shown up to have books signed.
I was introduced to the store manager, and she walked us over to where the signing table was set up. Everything appeared to be in order. Fresh Sharpies and a glass of water, check! You can really work up a good thirst signing books. I was ready to go. But then Ms. Publicist’s* eyes were drawn to several boxes sitting just a few feet away from the table. The southern congeniality vanished from her face and was replaced with a stone-cold stare. I swear the temperature in the room dropped at least ten degrees then she suddenly shouted out: Sweet candy Jesus on a milk chocolate cross!
The entire bookstore was silent—even the babies and toddlers who were there for story hour were quiet and waiting to see what would happen. She followed this statement with “With all due respect, what in the F#&k are you thinking, ma’am?” I was terrified but really impressed by how she managed to drop a “ma’am” in there. Like, I just told you to F#&k off—but it’s okay because I called you ma’am. Wow. This woman was a force. The color drained from the store manager’s face as Ms. Publicist continued: “How in the hell do you expect Mr. Roker to sign hundreds of books in the time allotted if you haven’t pre-flapped them?” Before I could say “Dixie Carter!” a flurry of activity took place. The books were promptly removed from their boxes, the front flaps of the jackets were tucked in just a way that I wouldn’t have to flip through the pages to find the blank ones I was supposed to sign. This maneuver apparently would save precious seconds, adding up to the difference between me making my flight and having to sign books well after the bookstore closed. While I stand by my commitment to old-fashioned manners, the truth is—sometimes people push us right over the edge. I believe in being ready for these moments, and that’s why you must arm yourself with a great comeback line.
I stole mine from Julia Louis-Dreyfus. In a Seinfeld episode, Elaine and Mr. Costanza are arguing when Mr. Costanza says, “You want a piece of me?” Elaine shuts it all right down by simply saying, “I will drop you like a bag of dirt.” Because that’s what you do with a dirty, heavy bag of dirt—you drop it and walk away. Game over!...
While it’s good to keep that line in your back pocket, ideally it will never have to see the light of day. Gracious ness is about kindness, but also about having a generous spirit and disposition, which often means just letting things go.
Excerpted from YOU LOOK SO MUCH BETTER IN PERSON: True Stories of Absurdity and Success by Al Roker. Copyright ©2020. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
This segment aired on July 29, 2020.