Slick Rick

Why won't those mean, old, sniping critics just quiet down?

Wake Up and Smile!

That's the name of the imaginary early-morning news show in one of the funniest Saturday Night Live skits ever. Former cast members Will Ferrell and Nancy Walls play anchors who are full of cheer until, "Good God no!" their teleprompter breaks. After Ferrell repeats the last line on the prompter -- "I understand you have some cooking tips for us, Diane" -- several times, the pair is forced to improvise.

"Diane... I had a notion the other day."

"Uh... well... uh...notions make... uh... this country happen."

"I... I was thinking someone should get a group together... uh... with guns to sweep out those ghettos."

"I... drive a red car."

"Make sure those poor people stay away from it... they've got sores."

Even as he's uttering the words, Ferrell is looking around helplessly, mortified at the unexpected peek into his buried consciousness. The panic level rises, and ultimately Ferrell decapitates the weatherman and gnaws on his bloody skull.

I love the skit because it confirms the natural suspicion that psychosis, social isolation, and homicidal violence lurk behind the smiles on many happy morning news shows. These days, one of the happiest airs from 9 a.m. to noon daily on MSNBC and stars none other than South Florida's own favorite son, Rick Sanchez, who was, of course, anchorman for the local Fox affiliate (WSVN-TV, Channel 7) before taking a job with the cable network 20 months ago. While here, his trademark was an uncanny ability to make a fatality on Interstate 95 seem as important and dramatic as a rogue state's nuclear attack on America.

Now Sanchez chums it up on national cable television every weekday morning with other not-ready-for-prime-time players. His regular cohort is a rather severe brunette named Christy Musumeci, but sometimes a rather severe blond, Alex "Not a Hint Of" Witt, takes her place. And there's usually a redheaded, bespectacled guy named John Elliott standing around with them in the studio trying to inject a kind of geekish humanity into the somewhat saccharine proceedings.

Sanchez, thank goodness, hasn't changed much since he left Channel 7. His talk is still happier than everyone else's, and like a good company man, he plugs his station at every turn, as in "More on the death and destruction in Bali, here on MSNBC," or "We'll return to the sensational story about the AIDS epidemic in Africa, here on MSNBC." He hasn't lost that signature assertiveness either. Sanchez doesn't interview; he interrupts.

Most important, he still shares his politics, which run just to the right of Pinochet, every eight seconds or so. As a Cuban-born refugee who came to South Florida as a child, he still burns with expatriate passion -- something that corporate cable news apparently can't steal away.

All these little quirks make him a perfect fit for the Bill Gates/General Electric news channel. He also seems an apt underling for the reigning Jabba the Hutt of cable news, "Editor-in-Chief" Jerry Nachman. A former editor of the New York Post, Big Jer brings an Everyman's common sense to an exciting mix of television journalism that runs the spectrum from generic to shallow. On a station with plenty of anti-Iraq war voices (Buchanan, Donahue, Matthews), Sanchez is Nachman's unquestioning bulldog when it comes to taking out Saddam Hussein. I hear, though this is only a rumor, that Nachman is about to change the name of the daily hourlong show Countdown: Iraq to C'mon: Invade Iraq Already!

So how, after completing his first calendar year on the job, is Sanchez really faring on the national stage? Starting with good news: He was nominated in 2002 for a national Alma Award for Hispanic journalists. The bad news is that he didn't win it, and some of his stiffest competition was Geraldo Rivera. (The winner was Elizabeth Vargas of 20/20.) Sanchez did take home a prize recently, though, something called the "Ted Baxter Award for Phoniest Voice," which was presented by TVNow.com, a website that provides entertainment news.

On another positive note, he helped host the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication convention this past August in Miami. Fittingly, he was a panelist for a workshop titled "Crime May Not Pay, But It Sells." Among the questions tackled: "Why do car chases garner such good ratings?"

As if that weren't distinction enough, he gave the commencement speech at Ramapo College, a small school in New Jersey. Unfortunately, most of the graduates left early to commence partying, according to a May 23 article in the Bergen County Record. Also on a down note, Sanchez said during the speech that his first-grade teacher labeled him mentally retarded. "I swear to God, it's right there in my transcript," he told the depleted crowd.

That revelation provides great intrigue, since we're left to wonder if the teacher was right. Rick's wild success as a news-reader would indicate that his IQ is on the sunny side of 70, but that heavy voice, large Cro-Magnon skull, and seemingly endless amazement at the most banal of facts... I don't know, toss a coin.

Whatever the answer, his commencement confession helps to explain an exchange on MSNBC a year ago. While Sanchez was busy interrupting a grief expert, he offered that his wife had a deep fear of intimacy. He hinted that her distance was the result of psychological problems, when, of course, it proves only that the woman is perfectly sane. Later, the expert (I don't recall her name) said that many children who lose parents wind up trying to fill the void of loss by overachieving. To this, Sanchez exclaimed -- with that smiling, wide-eyed amazement he should patent -- something to the effect of, "So it can actually be a goodthing." Had the expert known about that first-grade diagnosis, she might have patted the poor anchor on the head, given him a little hug, and said, "No, honey, it's a badthing." As it was, she just seemed taken aback and told Sanchez that she wouldn't really put it that way. Then she muttered something about irreparable lifelong traumas.

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