"WAAY Too Late" first aired in February, 1991. For those who aren't familiar with W2L, it began as a way to host movies that were to be shown late on Saturday nights. Really, really BAD movies, for the most part. Program Director Debi Benson had the brilliant (some might call it unfortunate) idea that this might be a good opportunity for some station employees who normally labored behind the cameras to showcase some of their hidden creative urges. Seems the poor woman was under the delusion that there was gold to be mined from some of us poor schleps who pushed the buttons and ran the cameras for our newscasts.
At first there was supposed to be only one host (or pair of hosts) for the entire show. But after a bunch of us turned in audition tapes, the dubious decision was made to allow several of us to act as hosts on a rotating basis. Originally there were five sets of hosts: Kip Cole & Scott McCauley; Chris Homsley & Stan Williams; Jeff Rosado; Priscilla Cowing (who brought along Lisa Waugh as her producer) and Renard Vandross (the self-described host with the most). Later we dropped Priscilla and Renard, added Lisa and Laura Bailey as a host duo and a bit later Mark Bowling, Shawn Jarrett and Tom Barker. At one point Keith Matthews was in the group briefly, then Mike Best and Pierre Kimsey, a one-man film school, who taught us more in a few months about storytelling and editing than any of us ever learned in school.
But for most of the show's run it was the core group of ten of us: Myself, Scott, Tom, Chris, Stan, Lisa, Laura, Jeff, Mark and Shawn. We all became great friends, a family if you will… much like the Addams Family, only more dysfunctional. In spite of the "rotating host" format, most of us were involved in just about all of the shows, even if we weren't hosting that week, acting in or shooting or editing each other's segments. We became a true ensemble in every sense of the word.
WAAY Too Late had no budget and no scheduled production time. All of us had regular jobs at the station, some working news, some WAAY Too Early, a few in commercial production, so we had to work on W2L on our off-hours, which was usually nights and weekends. And by nights, I mean ALL night… I can't count the times a group of us would still be at the station shooting or editing when the WAAY Too Early crew came dragging in at 5:00am. Many times we would still be working on the show (which aired at 1:00am on Saturday nights) AS IT WAS AIRING… i.e. editing one segment of the show while a segment of the movie was on the air. I can still remember the frantic pages from Jeff R. (who switched the show):
"ONE MINUTE OUT!"
Eject the tape.
Sprint down the hall, through the studio (as other members of the crew held doors open).
Slam the tape in the machine.
Hit "PLAY" just as the segment hit air.
The rush of adrenaline followed by cardiac arrest.
The movie "Broadcast News" had nothin' on us.
When we started WAAY Too Late, none of us knew what the hell we were doing. We all had certain skills that we developed in our regular station jobs, directing, editing, shooting, etc., but none of us had much experience with linear storytelling. And in those early days, I gotta admit, it showed. The decision to air W2L was a brave (some may call it foolhardy) one on MD's part. To allow a bunch of kids access to expensive broadcast equipment, shooting what amounted to experimental shorts aimed at an extremely eclectic audience (mainly ourselves), and then to give us AIRTIME… well, no matter how ill-advised, it was a ballsy move.
MD once referred to the show as "an interesting experiment," but for us it was, pure and simply, film school, only without actual instructors and high tuition. The early W2L shows were pretty rough, although there was a glimmer there of something… I don't presume to call it talent, but you could sense the flow of creative juices (which Junior Morris and John Langford had to repeatedly mop up), no matter how far the skit fell from the original concept or how poor the execution. But we did get better. We learned as we went, and our later shows, if falling short of great television, at least did become something that we could be proud of (or at least not be ashamed of telling our children about). The original concept of WAAY Too Late, as laid out by Debi, was to "host" these movies (did I mention how abysmally BAD most of them were?), offering information about the films in a clever and creative manner. Well, we started out that way, but soon grew tired of trying to make movies that made Hammer films look like they were directed by Fellini seem interesting. I mean, there's only so much you can say about a movie called "Die Monster, Die." So we eventually stopped referencing the movies altogether, just doing whatever skits our feverish little imaginations could conceive of. And looking back on some of those shows, the remarkable thing is that no drugs were involved. We should have made that our disclaimer. After two years or so of being a weekly show, W2L evolved into a half-hour, stand-alone sketch comedy show that we aired once a month (or as often as we could get one put together). In those half-hour shows, we had finally come into our own as far as our creative and technical abilities went. Some of the sketches we did then were truly funny and well done (and some… not so much). By then we had Pierre on board to guide us, teaching us comic timing, editing and the importance of brevity. We only did five or six of those shows before we all began to go our separate ways, becoming busy with other projects, but they were the highlight of my time at WAAY-TV, if not all of us. As I said, we became fast friends, most of us still in contact today, wherever we are, be it L.A., Memphis, Rome, GA or Huntsville. It still amazes me that at one brief point in time, at a small TV station in Alabama there could exist that many people possessed of the same mind, the same sick, twisted sense of humor and sensibilities. And, as I've always been fond of saying, it was much cheaper than therapy. So that's the story of WAAY Too Late in a nutshell. But that's not what this story is about. This is about the one, single shining moment in the brief life of W2L, the one night where all of our hard work, long hours and incessant ingestion of nicotine and caffeine finally paid off. The night we were vindicated. The night of the 1992 Addy Awards.
From the very beginning working on WAAY Too Late was an ongoing battle. We were the red-headed stepchild of the station, a rogue group that didn't seem to fit into any previously defined category at Channel 31.
The Sales Department hated us, presumably because the show wasn't prominent enough or aired too late to bring in enough revenue to warrant going after advertisers. The Engineering Department didn't like the fact that we used station resources to produce something they deemed to be frivolous. The News Department tolerated us, containing both supporters and detractors to the efforts of W2L. We got our share of complaints from News; one anchor complained that in the odd hours we spent working on the show, the station was filled with "unfamiliar faces, coming and going at their leisure" (which we promptly ridiculed in one of our skits). But Don, Heather and Gary usually seemed eager to humiliate themselves for us whenever we asked them to be in a sketch.
But as I said, WAAY Too Late was a constant battle. It seemed like we became the station scapegoats, being blamed for anything that might be amiss in the building. From damaged equipment to holes in the walls to bruised egos, the finger of blame inevitably would be pointed in our direction regardless of the crime or the actual perpetrator. I can't count the times I was dragged into Lew's office to account for some incident that had occurred the night before. And to be perfectly honest, there were probably many things that were our fault (and quite a few that will never be uncovered), but to be involved in every damn thing that happened in that building… well, we had neither the time nor the energy to perpetrate all those heinous acts of criminality.
But we did have our supporters. Debi Benson served as the executive producer and Lew Koch as our supervisor, since most of us were in the production department. They stood behind us through all the ups and downs of the show. The numerous times that we were slammed in Department Head Meetings, our collective heads being called for on a platter by other Dept. Heads, Lew would always come to bat for us, defending us to the death. He was Lancelot to our Guinevere. Er… or something.
And of course, MD. Every time someone from sales or engineering called for W2L to be yanked, MD would stand his ground, allowing us the freedom and resources to continue doing this little TV show. Oh, there were the occasions when I'm sure W2L threatened to cause his ulcers to start bleeding, getting the occasional voicemail from some irate caller whose delicate sensibilities we offended, some poor insomniac who tuned us in by mistake when expecting to get some sort of spiritual relief or psyche massage from Jerry Falwell or Robert Tipton, only to be assaulted by visions of Scott in drag or Lethe eating a Vienna Sausage. Even in those awkward moments MD stood fast behind the show and for that I think I can speak for the entire crew by saying thanks.
By the end of 1991 WAAY Too Late had been on the air for almost a year. In that time we had come a long way, learning a lot, honing our craft and eventually producing segments that left the realm of "bad," surpassing "mediocre" and becoming, in some instances what could be considered "pretty damn good." And, we hoped, remotely funny.
So it was with great enthusiasm that we produced a highlight tape to submit to the local Addy Awards that year, in the Potpourri category, hoping against hope that we would at least score a nomination, if not actually win an award.
Shortly after submitting our entry, we were contacted by some folks from the Addys. They liked our tape so much they wanted us to produce segments that introduced the various categories on the presentation tape that would air at the awards ceremony (a hoity toity affair held at the Hilton or someplace that brought together for one night everybody who thought they were somebody in Huntsville broadcasting). It wouldn't be too big of a deal, they said; we just produce, shoot and edit the segments and Channel 48 would take them and put them into the two-hour presentation tape that they were in charge of editing that year.
OK, well, a couple of problems.
The first problem was the "theme" of that year's Addys. Each year the Addy Awards has a theme… one year it had something to do with cavemen and the discovery of fire or something… one year it was cinema related… anyway, you get the picture. The "theme" of the 1992 Addys was "The Addy Dive-In." No, that isn't a typo. It really was called "Addy Dive-In."
Some brilliant bastard in the advertising community came up with a concept that combined two subjects: '50's drive-in diners and swimming.
Yeah, I know… two subjects that immediately go hand-in-hand in my mind.
But the thing is, other brilliant bastards in the advertising community thought this was a great idea. While the concept admittedly made for a cool looking poster (some avant gard piece of artwork that had a guy in a swimming cap coming off a diving board attached to a diner), it presented a bit of a creative challenge for video skits. But somehow we managed to make it work, shooting segments at the Natatorium, Rocket City Diner and a drive-in restaurant. What we came up with, while maybe not comedy genius, was at least fairly clever and creative.
And of course, we managed to have Scott in drag, playing a waitress from hell.
So we got our skits done and were ready to take them to Channel 48 to be edited into the presentation. Since we had worked so hard on the Addys thus far, we were reluctant to just hand the tapes over to some unknown editor. Our stipulation was that some of us would work with the 48 editor in their edit suite to make sure the skits were used the way we intended. WAFF's Production Manager, who was an incredibly nice guy agreed to this, so we set up a couple of overnight editing sessions for us to come over to 48 to work on the show.
Then came problem number two. It seems that Channel 48's GM wasn't too keen on having a group from Channel 31 hanging around his station after hours. At that time, WAFF was the lowest rated newscast in the market. I guess there was some secret to being ranked number three that he was loathe to let spies get their hands on, so he refused to let us in the building. 48's Production Mgr. called me at home one morning to give me this news, sounding a bit embarrassed at the situation.
So we decided, screw 48, we'll edit the thing ourselves. Lew graciously let us use Morrison Martin to help edit the presentation and we spent the next week or so working all night every night to finish it up. Most of us provided the voice overs announcing the nominees and winners, usually in some bizarre character voice we had come up with in the middle of the night while punchy from lack of sleep or wired on caffeine. It was great fun, and as was usual for W2L, we finished up about 8:00 on Saturday morning, the day of the Addys. And, we hoped, making Channel 48 look like a bunch of assholes.
Now here's the thing. The winners of the Addys are supposed to be a closely guarded secret on par with the identity of "Deep Throat" or who really killed JFK, to be revealed ONLY on the night of the actual awards. Well, since we were producing the entire presentation and had to know who the winners were, the Addy people reluctantly informed us that WAAY Too Late had won an Addy in our category. We were, to say the least, quite pleased to learn this and would later use this bit of information to our own insidious advantage.
OK, its Addy night, sometime in January, 1992, almost a year since W2L began its checkered career. We had our own table, a rowdy, unkempt bunch in a room full of stuffed shirts, so brimming with self-importance that you'd have thought it was a meeting of the U.N. But we were the rebels, remember. The red headed stepchildren. We were loud. We were obnoxious. We booed, hissed, belched and hooted. Shawn and Mark swiped an entire roll of drink coupons providing the means for most of our group to get completely shitfaced.
I remember Mark and his then girlfriend Leah (soon to become his wife, then ex-wife) drunkenly shouting some very inappropriate things during the playing of a rather somber and reverent PSA spot.
I remember us having to practically pull Lisa off some hapless video projectionist who mistakenly turned off the projector about thirty seconds too early, cutting off one final joke at the end of the presentation. She had murder in her eyes, booze on her lips and was spewing a stream of obscenities that would have made John Ashcroft's head explode. That poor sap will never know how close he came to death that night. And I remember the surprise of the night, when it was announced that we had won a special award, one created just for us, a "Judges Award for Creativity and Imagination." We almost missed the announcement because of all the drunken shouting coming from our own table. Somehow I managed to hear our name called and staggered to the podium to accept the award, a rather impressive looking gold star-shaped statue with WAAY Too Late emblazoned across the front.
Now, here's the other thing. The way Addy Awards work is like this: whatever project wins in its category receives a single Addy Award the night of the ceremony; whoever was involved in that project can then order duplicate statues after the fact. That night we had girls dressed in waitress costumes deliver the Addys to the winners' tables on a large tray (in conjuction with the diner theme; some of us guys wanted them to be in bathing suits, but that idea didn't fly with the Addy folks for some reason).
Well, since we knew ahead of time that we had won in the Potpourri category, we went ahead and ordered Addy statues for every member of the group. The Addy people, appreciative of all the work we'd done on the program, didn't seem to have a problem with this request. And at the time we didn't think that this might overstep the boundaries of some unwritten rules of etiquette in the realm of advertising awards. We were just proud to have something to show for our year of toil on WAAY Too Late.
So, toward the end of the night, when our name was announced, this table of drunken, unruly kids who had gotten progressively more and more irritating throughout the course of the evening, received not one but TEN Addy statues brought to our table by two of the "waitresses."
It wasn't until much later that we learned how much this one innocent act pissed off so many of the muckety mucks in the Huntsville advertising world.
Not that we really cared, mind you.
Yes, that night we were obnoxious. We were loud. We were irritating. Some were drunk and disorderly. But that night we became something we had never been before, as a group. We were winners.
After a year of constant battles and threats, after a year of being sleep deprived, living off cigarettes and Diet Mt. Dew, we were finally, irrevocably vindicated. WAAY Too Late might not have ever developed a large audience, but that night, most of Huntsville broadcasting and print knew our name (albeit most likely with an attached epithet).
I'm sure that all of us will remember that night. At least those not too intoxicated. And in the years since there have been other awards, other accolades. Some of us have won Emmys, some have written for network television shows and feature films, most have gone on to bigger things. But for me, at least, no matter how much I accomplish, what awards I may win or amount of recognition I receive… they will forever be measured against that night.
The Huntsville Addy Awards, 1992. Kip Cole Memphis, TN July 20, 2003