Baltimore's Bill McCuddy wins contest to be the host of a new cable talk show

NEW YORK CITY — In some editions of Wednesday's Today section in The Sun, the outcome of a national competition to select a talk show host for the America's Talking channel was unclear. Bill McCuddy of Baltimore did win a job as host on the new all-talk cable channel, which will debut July 4.

The Sun regrets the errors.


New York City -- Last night, Bill McCuddy, 37, took another step in a journey he hoped would land him the holy grail of talkers.

When he was 15, the Chicago native spent the summer working with summer stock theater in northern Michigan, After a year at Northwestern University, he left school to work at a radio station in Hilton Head, S.C. He's been performing stand-up comedy at clubs throughout the United States for about six years. And for the past several months, he has been the wisecracking interviewer behind those Jiffy Lube radio ads that have been peppering Baltimore's airwaves.


Thanks to an audition tape he threw together over a weekend last month, he was among 20 amateurs from across the country brought to New York with the promise that one of them would be awarded a contract to act as host for his or her own talk show.

At press time his fate was still to be decided. First he had to get past a panel of seven celebrity judges, who would whittle the 20 down to five finalists. The final decision on who would be the host would then be made by former George Bush campaign adviser Roger Ailes and Elizabeth Tilson. But getting as far as he did was no small feat, considering more than 10,000 people had asked for the job.

The as-yet-unnamed talk show will air on America's Talking, a fledgling cable network (from the people responsible for CNBC) that will offer wall-to-wall talk television beginning July 4.

But Mr. McCuddy's fate will be announced on "Guess Who's Talking," a two-hour special hosted by Ed McMahon chronicling the audition process endured by the 20 finalists last night. It airs on CNBC at 8 p.m. tomorrow.

That Mr. McCuddy would be considered to host a talk show shouldn't come as a surprise to people familiar with his work. His Jiffy Lube ads, which he insists are culled from totally unrehearsed interviews, are probably the wittiest ad spots on local radio. He has made a career of stopping men and women on the street and using the resulting interviews to create advertising campaigns and promotional spots for area businesses.

He's pretty funny, too.

"He'll make a fabulous talk show host," says Jeff Millman, senior vice president and creative director for Gray, Kirk, VanSant, a Baltimore advertising agency. "I think he has a very interesting, wry sense of humor. He is incredibly observant, fast as lightning and he comes across as very likable."

Adds Tim Windsor, creative director for Image Dynamics, "In some ways, he out-Lettermans Letterman. He's able to walk up to people on the street and get them to do funny things."


In fact, that's pretty much the sort of talk show Mr. McCuddy would like to see himself host someday: a conventional talk show with a definite twist.

"The show I want to do is not a studio, live-audience kind of a show," Mr. McCuddy says. "It's more of a found humor, extended Dave Letterman kind of bit. The concept was to actually have guests, but to take them out on the street, to go to a construction site and say, 'All right, you've always wanted to ask Gov. Cuomo a question. Well, here he is.' "

Hints of what he envisions were included in the audition tape he sent to America's Talking. Titled "McCuddy on the Street," the five-minute tape features the star asking people whether they think he'd make a good talk show host (not surprisingly, most think he'd make a fine host). There's even a segment where he stands on a street corner and holds a sign that reads, "Honk if you think I should host a talk show." Some do, some don't.

"I want to do something original," he explains. "My fear is that there will be a whole channel of regular kinds of talk shows. To be honest, what I want to do would be a lot more work than going into a studio for an hour with a live audience. I think it would be a little more off-the-wall and a lot more interesting to watch, because it would fail some days miserably. Some days, you'd get out on the street and you'd have a guest and nothing would be happening, it would just kind of lay there. But that would be the excitement of doing it.

Will this play on cable TV? Mr. McCuddy isn't sure, but he's determined to try.

"I have this bad dream," he says, "where they say, 'Oh, we love the idea of "McCuddy on the Street," ' then they take me into a studio and there's a street they've built on the set and the live audience is going to sit there. That isn't exactly what I had in mind."


Which isn't to say that Bill McCuddy wouldn't be able to adapt.

"If I am forced to do a traditional talk show, the key is topics," he says, pulling out a long sheet of cardboard divided into five sections. "You have to have a system. I've developed what I call the 'Bill McCuddy Instant Talk Show Method.' All you do is pick one from each category, and suddenly you've got a talk show."

He offers an example: "Transsexual shepherds who spray graffiti and strip while marrying a cousin. Next McCuddy." Or the pieces could be pulled together to form "Narcoleptic DMV workers who clip coupons and knit while cross dressing. Next McCuddy."

"Some of them would be harder to book than others," he admits. "But that would be the challenge to the staff."

Bill McCuddy's road to talk show immortality began Tuesday evening with a flight to New York from Washington National Airport.

All 20 candidates were provided rooms at the same hotel, where Mr. McCuddy got his first chance to see who he was up against: a Lutheran minister, a college professor, the voice of VH-1, a singer-songwriter who performs in Greenwich Village and an assistant to a New York state senator, among others.


"It was remarkably convivial," he says, "for 20 people who all want the other people dead."

Wednesday the competition began with a mid-morning meeting with Mr. Ailes, president of CNBC and America's Talking. Each of the contestants spent about 15 minutes behind closed doors with their prospective boss and other network representatives. "He asked me why I wanted to host a talk show. The fact that I couldn't tell him was probably very good for me," Mr. McCuddy deadpans over lunch.

By 3 p.m., the talk-show wannabes had been herded into a room at NBC's Rockefeller Center head quarters to prepare for the big show. Particulars of the evening's showdown were explained: Each would be introduced from the audience, asked a question by host Ed McMahon and be featured in a short video clip.

Those talented enough to make it to the finals would be asked to interview one of five celebrities. The winner of that round would be announced at the end of the evening.

Mr. McCuddy has maintained all along that he had little chance of winning, but not everyone agrees.

"I like Bill's chances," says Stephan Reynolds, 28, who works for a Minneapolis talk show when he's not trying out as host for his own. He's definitely moved to the head of the pack. He's got a good personality. And he's got nice hair."