Kent Bernhardt: We interrupt this program – with laughter

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 12, 2012

I’m not sure if laughter is really the best medicine, but if it is, I had most of my afflictions cured recently – live on the air.
I was into the first story of a three-minute newscast, one of several I do every day. It was the story of a local church purchasing the former YMCA building in western Rowan County, and the plans they had for the property.
I told listeners how the church planned to offer volleyball, softball, and basketball leagues. Then I mentioned that the church would also offer afternoon tutoring. Only I didn’t say “tutoring.” I said “tooting.”
I quickly repaired my slip of the tongue and marched forward. At least, I tried to.
It’s funny how your mind won’t let you forget a gaffe like that. During the next story, I chuckled. The chuckle turned into a snicker. The snicker became a giggle. The giggle, a titter.
Before I knew it, I had collapsed into a quivering pile of unstoppable laughter. I even lacked the presence of mind to turn my mike off.
A similar thing happened to longtime CBS newscaster Lowell Thomas years ago.
Thomas was relating a story of a circus fat lady, Dolly Dimples, who had lost a tremendous amount of weight after being told by a doctor to diet or die.
He told listeners how Dolly began her diet after “a near-fatal heart attack.” Only Thomas had the misfortune to transpose the opening consonants of the words “fatal” and “heart.” The rest of that newscast is broadcast history.
He, too, tried to continue, but eventually succumbed to his own attack of terminal laughter. A recording exists of that one.
I had a boss who told me long ago that the microphone is a loaded gun, just waiting to go off in your face. And it goes off when you least expect it.
You would think that reading on-air obituaries is pretty safe territory, but I’m here to assure you that the opposite is true. It is a verbal minefield.
The late Curt Little, who worked here in Salisbury for a few years in the late 70s, told me of his experience with one particular obit he had to read at an Albemarle station years ago, and his inability to get through it.
In the old days, we would play soft organ music under our obituary reports, and let the music flow at a louder volume between reports, or while we organized our information.
Curt had to let a lot of organ music flow one day while he attempted to compose himself after announcing the name of a dearly departed member of the community.
Her name? Fannie Mae Leake.
Yes, it looks harmless in print, but gives one a whole new mental image when read aloud. I imagine Albemarle listeners were treated to an organ recital that day while Curt sought to compose himself.
I myself sent a beloved member of the community off to his eternal reward after attempting to announce that “he died after an illness of one year.” I instead said “he died after an illness of one ear.”
More organ music, please.
Broadcasters have no way of knowing when such moments will occur. But rest assured, they will long outlive us in the memories of the fortunate few who happen to intercept them.
Kent Bernhardt lives in Salisbury.