The Greatest Job on TV | Our Town | Chicago Reader

The Greatest Job on TV 

Mike Leonard is not a two-minute kind of guy. To properly answer the questions he thinks up about life, he needs four minutes.

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About 50 people have strolled in to hear Mike Leonard talk about the greatest job on TV. It is 6 PM, and several of them are carrying plates loaded with the hors d'oeuvres provided by the Museum of Broadcast Communications--an enormous piece of chocolate layer cake with huge blossoms of whipped cream and an inordinate number of chocolate curls. There are old ladies, young girls, street bums, young prosperous-looking couples, and old prosperous-looking couples. They nudge each other and whisper things like: "This guy's got the greatest job on TV." "Do you believe the gig this guy's got on television?" "There's no better job today on TV."

Joan, the museum's PR woman, is quite taken with the guy with the greatest job on TV. "At first, I couldn't figure out why no one from the press wanted to cover this," she says. "But I found out that the TV reporters and their editors didn't know who he was. Isn't that strange? Then someone told me that everyone in Chicago watches Good Morning America."

The guy with the greatest job on TV works for Today.

Mike Leonard likes to find out about strange things, and finding out about strange things is the crux of the greatest job on TV. Every Tuesday morning between 7:30 and 8, Leonard files a four-minute report on a topic such as life at a "spotted-ass" ranch, where the cows are so endowed; weatherman tryouts at a local TV station; a gourmet French restaurant in a bowling alley; a racehorse who never wins; the history of Spam; or the people of Waterproof, Louisiana, who have been flooded out three times.

Mike Leonard, the guy with the greatest job on TV, sits straightbacked and stiff in a chair. He is handsome, Irish-looking, and 43. In a black suit, Leonard looks like an uptight corporate executive with a wife and four kids and a house in Winnetka (which he has). Like a comptroller, maybe. He explains that he dresses up like a comptroller sometimes on Halloween and goes tzick-or-treating with his kids; at the moment he is apparently wearing his costume. "A lot of women open the door and ask me who I'm supposed to be, and I tell them, and they say, 'Oh, my husband's a comptroller too.'"

Mike likes to do wacky things. This morning he did a story about a Sears children's photo studio and what it's like to work there. He made sure his questions rhymed with each previous answer so that the piece came out like Homeric verse for the TV generation.

The occasional sound of plastic forks against Chinet punctuates the air as Mike explains his "freelance" relationship with Today. He and his crew cut their own deal with NBC, and he works exclusively for Today. He writes and edits from a two-bedroom apartment converted to a TV production studio over a bookstore in Winnetka. He roller-blades to work. Today gives him carte blanche, and he doesn't like to take story ideas from editors, preferring instead to come up with his own--or to use suggestions from regular guys in the neighborhood. He wants to be home with his kids. He doesnt like office politics, and Today doesn't see his footage until it's ready to roll at the last minute. Because of the commotion at his house in the morning, he never watches the show straight through. He is a family man, not a TV celebrity. And he talks about his wife and kids.

It takes him a week to turn out a story, roughly a day to write, a day to shoot, a day to edit, and so forth. He doesn't want to do the ABC Nightly News because he'd only get two minutes and he wants four. "I'm not a two-minute guy," he says. "I need four minutes to properly answer the questions I think up about life." Questions like "Why do towns have water towers?" "Why do people get goose pimples?" "Why do people like to go on fishing and camping trips and sleep in tents and touch dead fish?" and "Why does my son hate sports?" He says he's not afraid to publicly admit his stupid thoughts.

Leonard says he's always thought about questions like this. He's always wondered about the little things in life. He and his brothers were banished every night during dinner to the family's kitchen in Glencoe while their parents dined alone, and Leonard is convinced he was able to let his sense of wonder roam free because of the lack of adult supervision.

"We dressed like bums," he explains about his family. Leonard tries to dispel the notion that he was a typical North Shore kid. He's proud that when he grew up he turned regular guy--working in construction, in offices, not making money, and "getting to know regular Joes," he says. "It's better that I spent time figuring out what everyone goes through. Instead of going to journalism school. Now I can understand the people I tell stories about."

The production crew reflects Leonard's penchant for regular people. His brother, a former blue-collar worker, is his sound man. Alice, the mother of a friend of his daughter, is his producer.

Leonard, however, was only a regular guy until he was 30, when friends encouraged him to try to parlay his knack for home-movie-making into a job at a local TV station in Phoenix, where he had moved. He landed one at the public TV station, and his assignment was to come up with one wacky story a week for $40. "They were spending their rubber-band and stamp money to pay me," he says. From there he landed a job with a network affiliate. When he expressed an interest in a sports anchor job, the boss told him he was "too fucking ugly." But when he had to fill in once, the audience liked him and he got the job. Then he decided he didn't like it after all because it took him away from his kids at night. In 1980 NBC's Richard Salant spotted him on a motel TV in Phoenix and offered him the greatest job on TV.

"I always thought you had to speak really well to be on TV. And I mumble a lot," he says. "When I talk to Pauley or Brokaw, that's how they really talk--just like they sound on TV. But I have to slow down for TV. And change my rhythm. I've developed a certain cadence--of sound bites, of crumbs of information. TV people tell the story--bang!--right away. It's monotonous. I change the rhythm around and break it up. I can't even read a teleprompter. I have dyslexia or something."

At first, Leonard says he did "standards"--wood-carvers and hubcap collectors. But in the last 11 years (all the time stationed in Winnetka) he has become more reckless, he says. "I've purchased my freedom with good ideas."

He says he is recognized in restaurants, but not enough to make his head swell. "I was mistaken once, when I was wearing a tux, for the catering manager."

When an audience member wonders why he never joins Gumbel et al in person in New York, Leonard says he hates to spoil the illusion of being where he's supposed to be--in his piece that day. "I even hate to spoil the illusions of my neighbors, who see me in the morning and say, 'Hey, I just saw you and you were in Nebraska. What are you doing here?'"

Bending over, he pokes around in a briefcase on the floor next to him--which had added to the tight-assed comptroller look until it became apparent that it was just a canvas tote bag--and pulls out a G.I. Joe figure still in the package--combat information specialist Leonard Michaels. It's his face on the figurine, he tells the crowd, because the manufacturer uses the likenesses of real people for all the dolls. When Leonard did a story about G.I. Joe dolls, they asked if he would like to have his face on one, too. He said he would.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Margaret Warren.

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