Though I can’t say this for certain, I’m going to go out on a limb and say there’s never been an another television announcer in broadcast history who appeared in an on-camera sketch sitting shirtless in a kiddie pool with a cabana boy on each arm.
But that was Joel Godard, and he did it with style.
Godard was the announcer for all 17 seasons of Late Night with Conan O’Brien on NBC. He wasn’t the first late night talk show announcer to step out from his offstage booth and appear on-camera, but he was the funniest. His willingness to do anything for a laugh, including going along with a running storyline that he was a nihilist with a fondness for Asian street hustlers (Godard’s been happily married to his wife Tedi Dreiser Godard since 1983), earned him a well-deserved cult following.
It’s even funnier when you know his background. Sure, his résumé includes traditional experiences like brief stints as a small-market TV news anchor and weatherman, but it also contains, let’s see: a double major in chemistry and pre-med from Emory University (he was accepted to medical school, but turned it down); fluency in Spanish/competency in Japanese and a bunch of other languages; four years active duty as a U.S. Naval Officer; commercial pilot’s license; and experience teaching business math, international Morse code, and several other courses at a college in Georgia. He’s also a member of Mensa.
Despite all his accomplishments, Godard’s dream was to be a broadcast announcer. He eventually found a home at NBC, where he was the announcer for, among other things, Dateline and NBC’s telecast of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, before he landed the gig at Late Night. Unfortunately, Godard, 74, did not make the transition when Late Night ended in 2009 and Conan moved to Burbank to host the Tonight Show. Television is a business after all. But Godard isn’t retired, and has since left New York for Los Angeles to look for more opportunities.
I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Godard about his background, his fond memories of Late Night, and his plans to write a memoir. He’s a natural raconteur with tons of great stories, not all of which I had the space to include here. But they’re hilarious, and someone should publish them.
How did you wind up getting the job at Late Night with Conan O’Brien?
I was hired at NBC as a full-time announcer in August of 1984…By the time I came on, there were only 7 or 8 staff announcers. I was the second one hired because my mentor Mel Brandt had retired. GE bought the network in 1987, and then about 3,000 people got fired from the network. By 1991 or 1992, they said they were going to get rid of the announcing staff, including me. My wife had been working part-time at Hanford’s Floral Masters in the Gift Building at 225 5th Ave. in New York, and eventually there was an opening for her to become manager of the whole place. The reason I’m telling you that is the Friday that was my last day as a full-time staff announcer, she started on the following Monday as manager of Hanford’s. That saved our behinds. She promised me six months, and if I couldn’t make a go of it, that was it… I was working for nickels and dimes, if I couldn’t find enough freelance work or get something going in six months, we would pack it in and go back to Atlanta where we had been living. She promised me six months and she gave me 15 years…So I was making hardly anything and then in the spring of ’92, Dateline started and I was their first announcer. I don’t remember if I even auditioned for it. I was the announcer there for 15 months, and then they started cleaning house after there was a problem with blowing up the pickup truck and that whole scandal if you remember that in 1993. They started firing everybody. They fired me at the beginning of August of ’93, and then in mid-August of ’93, I was brought in to do test shows for Late Night with Conan O’Brien. They were looking for an announcer and someone had mentioned my name. And I knew we were on to something because I got five of the 10 test shows. Sure enough, on the 13th of September, 1993, I started as the announcer for NBC Late Night With Conan O’Brien. And the way I got into that was I was in the building doing part-time stuff and doing Dateline, and I heard rumors that Letterman was going to leave. So I contacted Late Night Executive Producer Jeff Ross and told him I was really interested. I sent him a tape and a reel-to-reel. I kept in touch with him, and I was lucky that I picked up just the right intensity there. It wasn’t seldom enough where they would forget me, it wasn’t often enough that they would try to avoid me, it was right in the middle.
You appeared in more than 300 sketches. Do you have any experience in comedy prior to that?
I had done disc jockey work through the years, and I was pretty funny on the radio. I mean, I don’t think Larry Lujack or Wally Phillips would have had to worry about their jobs, but I was good and I was funny. In fact, WGN flew me out twice in 1969, but I didn’t make it.
So how did you end up getting on the air?
Two or three years in, wait, let me back up. I was in one movie. I have a big filmography of one. It was this picture called Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones. I played Brenda Vaccaro’s husband in the movie, this wealthy guy named Mr. Briggs. It came out in 1980, and was made for TV for CBS. It did pretty well. It was nominated for an Emmy; it was, I wasn’t. So anyway, by 1994 or 1995, whenever this was, Conan was watching one of those classic movie channels and they ran that movie. And he came into the writer’s room the next day, and he said, “I was watching this movie, and I was looking down for a second then I heard this voice, and I knew it was Joel’s, so I looked up and there he was on the screen with jet-black hair.” [Laughs.] Conan didn’t know I could act on camera, so he told the writers to write something for me. They wrote some little piece for me, and it went over well. And they wrote another piece or two and those went over well. And then one of the writers named Janine Ditullio wrote something called “Joel is Sad.” The idea was to be saying all these nihilistic things like “I can’t wait for the inviting, cold embrace of the grave” and all this stuff, but saying it with a stupid grin. That’s what the direction was. So I came up with a stupid grin. The writers seemed to like it. We ran a bunch of those “Joel is Sad” things. That ran for a number of years. And they’d do stuff about my fictional wife, and how she was terribly adulterous, and maybe her boyfriend would beat me up at the door when I got home. All the things she was doing for the grocery delivery boys in lieu of a tip got all kinds of laughs. The doorman of our building once asked my real wife, “Mrs. Godard, what do you think about all that?” She said, “I am offended all the way to the bank” – borrowing from Liberace who said something like that 30 years before.
What other bits do you remember?
Well, I had quit cutting my hair and decided to grow a pony tail. I don’t remember why. I had let it grow down to my shoulders many years before – I looked like an Apache cause I stayed in the sun a lot and my hair was almost black. I had kind of an ethnic look anyway, and in fact, when I was in Atlanta before I came to New York, one of the sub agents there told me “You’re too ethnic looking to get much modeling work here in town.” But anyway, I let it grow way below my shoulders at one point in my life. It was after I had been anchoring the television news on a Macon, GA station where they wanted you to look like a 1953 IBM salesman. I just let it all hang out. When I got to New York I had a normal haircut, and then I started letting it grow again, and when it got to my collar I said, “What the hell?” You know? Why spend the money? I’ll just let it grow. Back then I could grow a really good pony tail so I just grew one for the hell of it. I guess the writers picked up on that and decided to make me gay. [Laughs.]
And then that worked into being gay and having a penchant for Asian toy boys. That had pretty good legs and ran for a while. I wound up doing 331 on-camera comedy sketches. That was pretty good exposure.
Yeah, you have your own fanclub. Actually, there are like four or five of them on Facebook.
Yeah, to this day people will stop me and most of them want their picture taken with me. By the way, Conan and I may be the only two people that never missed a show – 2,725 shows. I never missed a single show.
Wow, that’s impressive.
He by definition never missed a show, because if he couldn’t make it, they ran a rerun. But I never missed a show. The sketches I was in were funny. The credit goes to the writers. This is going to be said in my book, “It’s the writers.” It’s always the writers. We have wonderful writers in our union who can deliver good material. You have seen the opening episode of a new series, and even with some good actors, and you knew by the first commercial island that that turkey was going to be cancelled by the third commercial island, didn’t you?
You sure did. And what was the reason? The writing. You’ve seen the first episode of a show that Lawrence Olivier and Meryl Streep could not have saved. Right? It’s the writers. I’m not being coy, and that’s not false modestly, cause I think I was pretty good. [Laughs.]
That was, and still is, one hell of a writing staff.
Yep, best in television.
Were there any sketches you wouldn’t do? Did they ever pitch anything that you felt went too far?
[Laughs.] Never. One time, we did an Oscar Night sketch, and they had me in a gold suit with gold paint on my face.
I remember that vividly.
I’m standing next to Toshi outside the both, and he’s holding a card in front of his dance belt. And I look behind the card and I say, “And the winner is…meeee.” [Laughs.] I was walking up the hall 15 minutes before the show to get makeup and that stuff and Jeff Ross said, “When are you going to say ‘no,’ when are you going to say ‘no?’”
That’s a great story.
Well I just loved it, I really did. It’s funny, you know where I’m from, and I had some history in television/radio in Macon, GA as well as Atlanta, and some of these skits that we would do, as soon as the red light went off, I’d say to the crew, “I can never go back to Georgia.”
They got a little bit different sense of humor down there.
Now when you were out in public, did you ever have to explain to people, “No, no, I’m just playing a character. That’s not how I really am.”
[Laughs.] Most of the kids got it that it was a joke. Once when the show went to Toronto, I think that was in 2005, we were at an after-show party. My wife likes to tell this story. A very nicely attired, high-end looking gentleman, probably 35 to 40, introduced himself and asked me, “Do you have a lover? Are you involved with anyone right now?” I said, “Yes, I do,” and I introduced him to my wife. [Laughs.] That was the only time. Nobody else except for him. And he was a Harvard-level quality gentleman.
Sounds like he was a catch.
He would have been a real catch. [Laughs.]
Did you stay in New York much longer after Conan moved to do the Tonight Show in LA?
Yeah, I was going to try to make a go of it in freelance but I just couldn’t make enough money at it. I did a couple dozen Taco Bell radio spots. I did some for Dunkin Donuts, Crown Royal whiskey, Schick razor blades. But you can’t live on those. We just couldn’t do it anymore, and I couldn’t stand the cold, so we moved to California. We moved out here in June of last year…It’s tough breaking in, but I’m going to keep after trying to get some on-camera stuff.
Well you certainly deserve it. Not many people can say they’ve been in 331 televised sketches.
[Laughs.] Not bad for a boy from Milledgeville, Georgia.
You mentioned earlier something about a book? Are you working on one?
Yeah, I am going to. I’ll tell a lot of these stories, and there are some nice scatological stories I can put in there. Some funny stories, some of them really funny.
In comparison to Joel Godard, Phil Davidson really hasn’t done anything with his life.