Ken Rice, anchorman and funny man

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Is the funniest guy in Pittsburgh an anchorman?

Ken Rice, "the news guy with the eyebrows," as he has been called since the first day he went in front of a TV camera, wowed the crowd again at the Byham Theater Thursday night.

It was the 10th annual "Off the Record," a skewering of local politicians and reporters that has raised about $250,000 for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank in the past decade.

Two unions -- the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists, and the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh/CWA -- put on the put-ons. For the past seven shows, Mr. Rice, the KDKA anchor, has kicked things off with a 10-minute monologue -- and he kills.

From his fake feud with WPXI anchor David Johnson to the sad state of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Mr. Rice has fun with both the conventions of the news business and this town. My favorite bit, from last year's show, concerned his two children, now 10 and 12.

He says he tries to keep them from watching stories on crime and mayhem, but suspects they've been sneaking peeks at the news. Consider the way they answer him when he asks, "How was school?"

"Dad, good evening. Imagine being in sixth grade and wetting yourself in homeroom. It happened to a local student today. More on that and a look at my report card, still to come."

When he warns that the news can be scary for a kid, his daughter replies:

"YOU scare me, Dad. How scared? The answer to that might surprise you."

I'm not sure that plays as well in print as it does on stage. It could need more eyebrow.

Mr. Rice, 47, grew up in suburban Chicago and began a career in TV news while still a student at the University of Wisconsin. He left the Madison, Wis., station as evening anchor in 1988 to work here as a reporter for WTAE-TV.

He's been with KDKA since 1994, and he stumbled into this "Off the Record" gig after his colleague Paul Martino approached him and said, "Hey, we heard you're funny."

Mr. Rice had never seen "Off the Record," and he agreed to host before he realized he'd have to come up with a monologue. That unnerved him, and he says he still gets nervous each year, though he now has a full 12 months to glean and twist the stuff around us.

He's never short of material because Pittsburgh's "small-town nature makes it so ripe for parody." Sophie Masloff, the late Myron Cope, Cyril Wecht -- they've all been tapped for a joke or seven.

He always checks in with his fellow anchors, Mr. Johnson and Sally Wiggin, to warn them he'll be having some fun at their expense. They invariably tell him to go for it, though Mr. Rice said he heard some hisses after his Wiggin joke this year.

"Everyone loves Sally," he said.

Stu Samuels, the former KDKA managing editor who has been a friend since the day Mr. Rice arrived in Pittsburgh, collaborates with him on the material. They exchange e-mail all year and, a couple of weeks before the show, they get together to hone the script.

Mostly, he spends the last days cutting out good jokes to leave the very good ones.

When we got together for coffee near his Mt. Lebanon home, I had to ask about the eyebrows. Truth be told, they're not all that awesome in person.

Mr. Rice said he never knew he had thick eyebrows until the first day he went on TV in Wisconsin. He returned to the apartment he shared with a couple of other guys, one of whom said, "Good job but, dude, your eyebrows."

"There's something about TV that exaggerates their effect," Mr. Rice said.

As for whether his parodies made him question his regular job, there are times when the paying gig is tougher than the charity event.

"There's only so many ways to report the house of 100 cats."

Brian O'Neill: or 412-263-1947.


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