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Bill McCuddy's big 'Break' begins today

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Fort Lee, N.J. -- America's newest talk show host is getting the hang of this stuff just fine, thank you.

Taking a break from the hectic rehearsal schedule leading up to his debut, Bill McCuddy spies a familiar face in the studio. He smiles, points a finger at himself and -- as befits a man who, just three weeks ago, was writing ad copy for Baltimore radio -- scrunches up his face in a look that asks, "Do you believe this?"

Believe it. At 2 p.m. today, "Break a Leg with Bill McCuddy" debuts on America's Talking, the brand-new, all-talk network that's debuting today, as well. It comes from the folks who brought you CNBC.

In Baltimore, cable customers will be able to watch on channel 59. So far, the network is not being carried by cable companies in any of the metropolitan counties.

Bill McCuddy, who just three weeks ago was an occasional stand-up comic in Baltimore known -- if at all -- for creating those "Jiffy Lube" radio ads with people being called on their cellular phones, is primed to be the next big thing in television talk shows.

In many respects, "Break a Leg" is a talk-show version of the old "Amateur Hour," without the gong. The idea is to find performers who need exposure and bring them on the show (the original title, "Up and Coming," was nixed by A-T's legal department when it was discovered someone else had rights to the name).

Viewers can call or fax questions or send them in via Prodigy, an on-line computer service. And if a performer's lucky, maybe there's a nightclub owner or booking agent out there ready to offer a job.

"The premise of the show is that there are people out there who deserve a break just like the one I got," Mr. McCuddy says. For the past two weeks, he's been going through dry runs of the show at A-T's studios in Fort Lee, just across the George Washington Bridge from New York.

Because "Break a Leg" will be broadcast live daily, Monday through Friday, it's important he become as fluent in the language of talk-show television as possible. Thus, the practice shows are being filmed as though they are going out over the air live -- no stopping to correct mistakes, no backing up the tape to erase a gaffe.

Five cameras record the show, including one on a boom and one hand-held. The guests sit on black and red director's chairs atop a raised platform covered in blue carpeting. Off to the side is a large red, gold and blue translucent rendering of the America's Talking logo. And sitting to the guests' right, with a small earpiece so he can hear his director's instructions, is Bill McCuddy.

He appears cool, chatting with his guests during the commercial breaks to prepare them -- and him -- for the next segment. For a man who's been at this for such a short time, he seems pretty much in control.

No control

"The most frightening thing is, there's a tremendous amount I have no control over," Mr. McCuddy confesses later, having just finished a practice show featuring Brooklyn singer Michael Angelo, talent agent Peter Leggity and performance artist Susan Wilbur, appearing as Bozette the Clown.

"In stand-up [comedy], you write it, you produce it, you come out on stage. As long as the mike works and the light's on, you know it's going to be OK. In television, the cameras have to work, the lights have to work, the floor directors have to work, the producer has to work, everybody has to work together. Any one thing can go down -- and in most situations that's OK, because they re-tape it. But here it's live."

Just how live is demonstrated about 15 minutes before the show's end, when Mr. McCuddy mistakenly announces that time's up. Made aware of the flub, Mr. McCuddy lets viewers in on his mistake. "I'm new at this, give me a break," he pleads, before cutting to a commercial.

And while he insists afterward that the show was a near-disaster (A-T President Roger Ailes gently chides him for deciding on-air to cut the show from an hour to 45 minutes), Mr. McCuddy retains his composure.

"We have a schedule every day," the host says, "and being nervous just isn't on it."

Mr. McCuddy's life has been pretty much non-stop since just before 10:30 p.m. June 15, when Mr. Ailes announced he had beaten out more than 10,000 people who had sought the job. ("Guess Who's Talking," a special detailing the selection process -- sort of a "Star Search" for the talk show set, complete with Ed McMahon as host -- aired on CNBC the following Saturday.)

"When they said my name, I just had to laugh," Mr. McCuddy recalls. "I didn't think it would be me."

The next morning, he was interviewed by Katie Couric on the "Today" show, subjected to his first press conference, introduced to his new co-workers and set up in a hotel room (where he's staying while trying to find a place to live in New Jersey). He called his answering machine in Baltimore and found 68 messages on it, some from friends offering congratulations, some from members of the press wanting interviews.

Designed from scratch

Oh, and then there was the small matter of designing a show that would be ready to go on the air in 19 days. The only thing the A-T folks had dreamed up was a process for selecting a host -- they didn't have a name for the show, they didn't have a format, and they didn't really know all that much about the guy to whom they were hitching their wagon.

"I was just the punch line to this three-month joke they had been planning," Mr. McCuddy says, pausing to take a breath between production meetings.

Which is just fine with him. And while the show isn't what he had envisioned going in -- before "Guess Who's Talking," his dream had been for a show called "McCuddy on the Street," filmed entirely outside the studio and featuring off-the-cuff interviews with the famous and not-so-famous -- he's ready to give "Break a Leg" his all.

"That's how I got the job," he says of "McCuddy on the Street," which was featured on his audition tape, "and now this is the job. We're going to be doing some man-on-the-street stuff. We've already shot a fair amount [of street interviews] -- 'Who's Bill McCuddy?' and 'Do you think he'll do well?' "

Elizabeth Tilson, vice president in charge of programming for A-T, was one of the two people -- along with Mr. Ailes -- who picked Mr. McCuddy from the five finalists showcased on "Guess Who's Talking."

The last second

The decision, she says, was made at literally the last second. In fact, when she announced to the world, just before the show's final commercial break, that they had a winner, she was lying.

"When Ed McMahon said to me, 'Have you made your decision?' the truth was we hadn't made our decision," she says, noting the choice was made during that commercial break. "There were two people that we were going back and forth about, and we were talking about it right up until they said, 'We need the name.' And then we decided."

But their decision, she says, has proven to be the right one.

"He has that certain something that we've all been talking about since we started the talent search," Ms. Tilson says. "He has the X-factor. He's charming, he's quick-witted, he's a natural. There's an ease about him. He carries himself, he's got an impish grin, and I think he's clever."

Adds "Break a Leg" producer Gail Frank: "He's just got sort of a twinkle in his eye. He's the kind of guy you feel very comfortable talking with."

Which explains why people may like being on the show. But why should they watch it?

"I would just like people to watch the show and think, 'Maybe I'll see somebody who's going to become famous,' " Mr. McCuddy says. "It probably won't be me, but it could be somebody sitting

to my left."

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