Can he go from naughty to nice?

`Stuttering John' moving to `Tonight'

March 05, 2004|By Verne Gay | Verne Gay,NEWSDAY

Think about John Melendez, future announcer of The Tonight Show, and a couple of inconsistencies come to mind.

First one: stuttering. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but the word has been appended to his name - as in "Stuttering John" - for the 16 years he's served as a "reporter" for The Howard Stern Show. Stuttering is not normally considered a qualification for a career in mainstream broadcasting.

Second one: A propensity for asking off-color questions on air. Celebrity responses have included hitting him with chairs (Morton Downey Jr.), rearranging his nose (Raquel Welch) and choking him (Lou Reed).

Reputations in broadcasting are hard to build, but they're especially hard to shake, and so Melendez's appointment at Tonight is the strangest in the show's history. Most observers in the close-knit world of late-night TV use terms like "puzzling" or "bewildering."

And what of Edd Hall, 45, Tonight's longtime announcer who leaves the show later this month? Hall - who admits he, too, is "puzzled" by his replacement - explains that producers "started phasing out [his comedy] sketches, which were my favorite part of the show ... I then kind of thought that I gotta decide. Am I gonna stay in this wonderful job with great money and be content being an announcer, or follow my heart, which was to do more acting?"

(He is starring in two movies that are premiering on DVD.)

Back to the mystery. Why Melendez? Is all this just an elaborate hoax? No comment from Melendez, 38, who is taking "locution lessons" (per NBC), or Leno. But the tale reportedly begins a year ago, when Tonight's veteran producer, Debbie Vickers, was urged by friends to watch ABC's excruciating reality show I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here for a few laughs. She was surprised to see an amusing, charming fellow with the slightest stutter. Who's that? wondered Vickers, who was not a Stern listener.

"Melendez started [at Howard Stern] in his 20s and was doing what Howard expected of him," Vickers said. "In every meeting with us, he is respectful of this place and very much understands that this is The Tonight Show. I think he's grown in his life and is ready to reflect that in his new job."

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