McCuddy's fling with the big time looks permanent

July 10, 1995|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff Writer

A full year later and Bill McCuddy, the Baltimore ad writer who beat out some 10,000 would-be professional talkers last June and won his own cable television show, is still being paid to sit in front of a TV camera and gab.

For a stand-up comic whose previous claim to fame was serving as the voice of Jiffy Lube on Baltimore radio, the past year has been a near-continuous high.

"I won the lottery," Mr. McCuddy says over sodas at the Harbor Court Hotel, where he's stopped for a brief chat on his way to Washington and a visit with some friends. "I had a major career change at 37. I sent a tape in, I won a contest, and even after I won, I was thinking, 'Well this will be fun to do for a year. It'll be a unique experience, but I won't sever any of my ties with the Baltimore advertising community.' But all of a sudden, [the people at the network] said, 'We want you to be a part of the family.' "

Not that the circumstances haven't changed some. He's no longer flying solo, but for the past two months has served as co-host of "Wake Up America," the morning show on the America's Talking cable network. And instead of coming on at the very reasonable hour of 2 p.m., his show begins at 7 a.m. every weekday. Meaning he has to be at work by 5 a.m.

"Have you ever tried it?" he asks, pretending the early hours really bother him. "I don't have a personal life, at least during the week, because I have to be in bed by 9 or 9:30."

Yeah, you can tell that really bothers him. Almost as much as it bothers him that he'll have to spend another three years rubbing elbows with famous entertainers, another 36 months adding to the stories he can already tell about dancing with Eartha Kitt, ticking-off "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz or taking a phone call on the air and talking to Jay Leno, another three years as a bona-fide television personality.

Each morning, he and co-host Kai Kim, a former New Haven, Conn., television reporter, captain a ship that's equal parts news report, talk show and forum for viewer call-in. (America's Talking advertises itself as the first "completely interactive" television network.)

Thursday, for example, the two hosts invited viewers to call in and discuss three issues -- should O. J. Simpson testify? How much care should patients exercise to ensure they are being given the right prescription medicine? Should the Unabomber's 30,000-word manifesto be printed in a major newspaper?

Mr. McCuddy and Ms. Kim chatted amicably with the callers and needled each other, she about her bachelor co-host's fear of commitment, he about her beauty-pageant beginnings.

"She's considered the hard news person and I'm considered the sort of everyguy, you know, 'What does Bill think of this?' " says Mr. McCuddy, who cracked up his co-host Thursday morning with imitations of Merv Griffin and Sylvester Stallone. "The challenge is to try and bring as much of my personality as I can to it -- even if some days that's just ad-libbing with Kai -- bringing my sense of humor and my sensibility to an exchange that would normally be very dry."

That's a considerable change from "Break a Leg with Bill McCuddy," the show the folks at America's Talking initially dreamed up for him. Designed to play off the idea that Mr. McCuddy was given his break through the host-a-talk-show contest, "Break a Leg" showcased up-and-coming talent that most people had never seen.

That worked for a few months. Until the programmers realized that Mr. McCuddy's persona as a talk-show rookie, frequently looking into the camera and shrugging off mistakes by reminding viewers how new he was to all this, was wearing thin.

So his bosses decided to de-emphasize the "up-and-coming" schtick and turn Bill McCuddy into a more conventional talk-show host. Over the last six months of his show, guests included Debra Winger and Billy Crystal, Steve Allen, Adam West, "all the Bradys, most of the 'Gilligan's Islands,' two of 'My Three Sons.' " Musical guests included Hootie and the Blowfish in their first television appearance.

He also had on Charles Schulz and learned that not every guest is a joy to have around.

"Charles Schulz was kind of a pill," he says with a laugh. "The guy who writes 'Peanuts' is not the happiest man in the world, at least in the seven minutes he and I spent together. Someone wanted to know how he got the ideas for some of his characters. . . . He said, 'They're all based on me. I would think that would be obvious.' And I said, 'I hope Pigpen isn't. Presumably you take a bath every day.'

"There was a long pause, and then as sarcastically as he possibly could, he said, 'Oh, you're hilarious Bill.' "

Mr. McCuddy insists he's far from famous but acknowledges his story has gotten a lot of publicity. Everybody wants to hear about the guy who made a videotape of himself interviewing strangers and ended up on national TV.

"I might be more famous for winning the contest," he says, "than I would ever be for being on TV."

Although he's renting an apartment in New Jersey and commuting daily to the America's Talking studios just across the George Washington Bridge from New York City, Mr. McCuddy has maintained his ties to Baltimore. He's still making the Jiffy Lube radio commercials he started about two years ago, and earlier this year he played host to the Baltimore advertising community's annual ADDY awards.

Someday, he realizes, he may have to come back to Charm City and get himself a job. But for now, Bill McCuddy is happy where he is -- and hopeful about where he's going.

"I think for now this is great," he says, his wide eyes and boyish face betraying a sort of oh-wow amazement. "What I'll do with the rest of my life, I have no idea. My girlfriend says my life story would be called, "I Never Saw It Coming: The Bill McCuddy Story." I think she's right."

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