It’s January 6, 1992. The internet is in its dial-up infancy and high definition television is fifteen years in the future. At 2:00am IST (Insomniac Standard Time) a news program debuts on the ABC Television Network. Based in New York City, it features gleefully sardonic wit and life-size cardboard cutouts filling in for vacationing anchors. An audience of shift workers, criminals, and new mothers takes notice.
It’s World News Now, and my accordion and I have been part of the on-air family for almost the entire ride.
“The affiliates for all three networks were clamoring for an overnight program,” recalls World News Now creator and original executive producer David Bohrman. In 1991 Bohrman was heading ABC’s New Media Group when network news president Roone Arledge approached him about the wee hours project. Bohrman signed on, sensing an opportunity to make an impact in “the last land grab” of TV time periods.
“Roone encouraged me to throw out the rules,” Bohrman told me in a recent phone conversation. “We had the freedom to really experiment and try to figure out a program that would be appropriate overnight — different than what the other guys were doing and what we might do at other times of the day.” The secret of his “overnight” success? “Basically, you need total disregard from management.”
Founding anchors Aaron Brown and Lisa McRee set the irreverent tone; Brown’s droll humor clicked with McRee’s bawdiness. “We had this idea that the program should take the news seriously but not itself seriously,” Brown said. “We were really funny.”
And inventive. When it became standard practice for networks to brand their programs with a digitally-generated logo or “bug”, Bohrman had a desk assistant crouch next to Aaron and hold up an ABC logo glued to a stick. Above, a dotted circle was electronically superimposed containing the words “Your Logo Here.”
Dead air is the bane of broadcasters — usually. Coming out of a taped segment, Lisa was late getting back to her anchor chair. Rather than cover for her and toss to commercial, Aaron just sat there staring at her empty seat, to gales of crew laughter. Lisa finally stuck her head into the shot, holding a paper plate with a bagel. “You’re watching World News Now,” she said.
I knew I had to be part of this show.
I got my chance when World News Now solicited home video editorials from viewers, a clever way of helping to fill three hours, five days a week. (Four consecutive half hour shows, an hour’s break, then two more half hours live to the west coast.) In exchange, contributors received a World New Now “coffee, tea or soup mug.”
That summer of ‘92, I peppered the show with sketches and topical song parodies, some from my standup comedy act. They aired each and every one, resulting in a note from Bohrman: “I’m not sending you any more mugs!”
Before long I was the resident in-studio court jester, beaming out shtick while the ABC brass were sound asleep. I decided I needed backup singers, so I brought in some talented friends and dubbed them The Mitchellettes. TV critic Justin Smallbridge wrote “Barry Mitchell… sings his own musical satire of current events. His comic strategy is no less pointed for its apparent whimsy.”
We produced fake infomercials, like my version of the Nutrisystem diet plan: “Hi, I’m Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, inviting you to try Newtrisystem, for leaner government that leans to the right.”
Then there’s The World News Polka, which I wrote at Bohrman’s request. It was supposed to be a one-off gag to irritate polka-hating Lisa McRee; instead, it became our Friday theme song and the feature still most identified with the show (“It’s late at night, you’re wide awake, and you’re not wearing pants/So grab your World News Now mug and everybody dance!”)
On air, McRee took her defeat gracefully.
LISA: A woman who was pregnant and in labor got through it by singing the World News Now Polka.
AARON: It’s that alternative pain thing. If you focus on one pain, the other isn’t so bad.
LISA: Exactly. When I think Barry Mitchell, I think episiotomy.
Every Friday, veteran video editor and polka curator Michael Murphy selects a performance from the extensive World News Polka library. It could be the Las Vegas Elvis impersonator, or musical saw player from the 34th Street subway. Weird Al Yankovic joined me for an accordion duet, while The Dixie Chicks backed me up at the Texas State Fair — we even hijacked William Shatner as he was leaving Live With Regis & Kathie Lee. Lately I’ve been inviting popular YouTube artists to record their own cover versions. Google “World News Polka” and see for yourself.
But World News Now is notable for more than wacky polkas. The show made high-tech history on November 23, 1995 as the first network TV news program to simulcast on the internet. The remarkable six month experiment was the work of broadcast producer Victor Dorff, who asked me a short time later if I was interested in creating exclusive content for the web. Visionary that I am, I said, “Nah, who’d watch comedy on a computer.”
Several World News Now anchors have gone on to become household names. Anderson Cooper’s hair was only salt-and-pepper gray when he anchored with JuJu Chang, and later, Alison Stewart. But Anderson’s hair turned completely white the night we ambushed him on air with his Mom, Gloria Vanderbilt. She was auditioning to be one of my backup singers.
When David Muir joined the show, there was already someone with the same name in the company’s email system — an employee of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Naturally, I was dispatched to Orlando to welcome our “new anchor” with a World News Now mug. And former federal prosecutor Sunny Hostin was a fill-in anchor who so impressed Barbara Walters that she signed Sunny as a co-host on The View. Today, Sunny is also Chief Legal Correspondent and Analyst for ABC News.
By 1993, World News Now was an established hit and David Bohrman went on to seek new challenges. He held executive positions at NBC News, CBS News and Tech TV. As CNN’s Senior Vice President and Washington Bureau Chief, he specialized in election night coverge. He now operates The Bohrman Group, LLC, a media and innovation consulting firm.
In September 2020, New York City, Los Angeles and other ABC owned-and-operated stations dropped World News Now in favor of daytime talk show reruns. Since then, the network has been producing a slimmed-down World News Now: two, thirty minute back-to-back shows every weeknight. According to long-time senior producer Greig Todd, approximately two hundred ABC affiliates nationwide still carry all or part of the program (shout-out to my brother who watches on WPLG in Miami, Florida.) Night owls anywhere can log onto abcnews.com and catch the live stream at 2:00am.
Under Greig Todd’s stewardship, departing anchor Kenneth Moton donned a Tina Turner wig and lip-synced “Proud Mary” for his farewell broadcast in 2021. Current anchors Mona Kosar Abdi and Andrew Dymburt proved their bona fides by accompanying me on kazoo for a Friday polka.
And David Bohrman proudly states, “There is a clear sense of DNA still in the program.”
Happy Big 3-0, World News Now. Let’s Polka!
Barry Mitchell is a segment producer and the host of Simply Science on CUNY-TV in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @barrybarryfunny.