Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Oh No

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Theater people know the brief look that was exchanged between new, Face the Nation host John Dickerson and reporter/anchor Nora O’Donnell on CBS This Morning.  Dickerson was talking about Hillary Clinton’s just announced campaign and Ms. O’Donnell was asking him a question.  Suddenly, there it was.  Dickerson and O’Donnell were locked in this momentary glance that can be called the “Oh No” look.

When you’re onstage and you and another actor are sharing a similar thought, it can be a knowing look.  It can also be a shared joke that can cause both people to start laughing.  Or, maybe the laughing starts for absolutely no reason at all.  But if you can’t break eye contact, then you have to pour cold water on the look, which can be really hard to do.  SNL and news blooper tapes are full of examples of what happens when the look takes over; actors and anchors start laughing which in turn, feeds more laughing that becomes uncontrollable.  Episodes of the Carol Burnett Show showing this breakup breakdown between comedians Tim Conway and Harvey Korman are legendary.

In American film, theater and TV, this is called “breaking character“.  On the British stage, it’s called corpsing and actors receive pretty substantial training on how to keep it from happening.  Some actors focus on clenching their fists or biting their tongues.  Others are told by their directors that “they themselves” are not what is funny happening in a scene.  Still other actors say that after they work the scene enough times, they just focus on the work and the lose the urge to laugh.

I knew the Oh No look was in play because the director switched from Ms. O’Donnell’s face to Mr. Dickerson’s, and both were frozen in that sort of bulging eye horror of knowing they were each about to lose control if somebody didn’t do something fast.  The director, Randi Lennon, has probably seen this a lot and quickly went to and held the camera on Charlie Rose long enough for both Mr. Dickerson and Ms. O’Donnell to regain their composure.

I’ve mentioned something like this before, namely the bad marrying of a funny story to a terrible, follow-up story that can twist the anchor up sometimes.  What happened this morning is a reminder to TV people of something theater people know well – the Oh No look is a trap and one of the many hazards on a news set in the handoff between reporter and anchor.

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Written by Interviewer

April 13, 2015 at 22:58

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