Going Off Script: Public Figures & Unplanned Words

In Stephen Belber’s The Power of Duff, newscaster Charlie Duff delivers a polished send-off nightly: “Have a safe and happy night.” Like Edward R. Murrow’s “Good night and good luck” or Walter Cronkite’s “And that’s the way it is,” Charlie’s final phrase reassures his audience that, even if the news of the day is disasterous, they can depend on some things staying the same. But, one night after his father dies, Charlie ad-libs a spontaneous prayer instead, sending his boss, his co-workers, and his audience into a range of responses from outraged to affirmed.

The strength of the reaction grows out of the expectation that public life is commonly scripted and rehearsed — from the nightly news to a presidential address to a commencement speech — and when someone deviates from this norm, the novelty, directness, or honesty of that action becomes news itself. The clip is replayed over and over, while commentators speculate whether a remark was planned or actually “rogue.”

Thanks to YouTube, these moments are archived and can be played back over and over.Russell Brand’s castigation of the “Morning Joe” crew at MSNBC for asking him frivolous questions went viral earlier this year and was ultimately seen by far more people than watched the original broadcast.

Of course, one of the most popular of these clips plays more like America’s Funniest Home Videos than a call to arms. A compilation of news anchors flubbing — everything from saying bad words to walking headlong into a light post — has nearly 100 million views.

But some stories of famous figures speaking off-the-cuff persist because the moment becomes historic. Clarence Jones, a close confidante of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., claimed that Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech was extemporaneous. Reportedly, he stayed up late the night before writing a different speech, but when gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted out, “Tell them about the dream,” he dropped his notes and responded with the phrase that would become the most famous words he ever spoke. Clarence Jones told POLITICO (an American political journalism organization), “It was completely extemporaneous — of the moment. I read his body language, then I turned to the person next to me and said, ‘These people don’t know it, but they’re about ready to go to church.’”

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