Health

11.07.13

Al Roker on His Live ‘Today’ Prostate Exam

Co-hosts Matt Lauer and Al Roker had their prostates probed live on the air. Al Roker explains how they got the idea—and why it wasn’t about ratings.

If Matt Lauer’s and Al Roker’s live on-air prostate exams Thursday don’t win the morning for the second-place Today show, what other procedures are they prepared to undergo in the ratings battle against Good Morning America?

“Here’s the deal—the reason we did this was not for ratings,” Today’s meteorologist and resident cutup told me after he and Lauer went behind closed doors to receive a rectal probe from Dr. David Samadi, chief of urology and robotic surgery at Lennox Hill Hospital Prostate Cancer Center and Lauer’s personal physician. “Matt has a history of prostate cancer in his family … and a lot of guys are less likely to go to the doctor to get these kinds of exams. This is not about ratings. This is about helping people.”

NBC’s Today, which after a 16-year reign at No. 1 has been trailing ABC’s Good Morning America for the past 62 weeks—a reversal of fortune that began with the controversy surrounding the defenestration of Lauer’s co-anchor Ann Curry—is entering the second week of “No Shave November,” a campaign to raise awareness of men’s health issues. If not a stunt—and indeed there’s no reason to doubt that Thursday’s segment will persuade many men to get checkups—Today’s prostate play is a throwback to the program’s glory days in 2001 when Katie Couric famously submitted to an on-air colonoscopy.

“Katie certainly saved lives by doing that colonoscopy,” Roker said, “and I think we have a history at the Today show of being able to take a topic that people don’t like to talk about, and turn it around and use it for good—to be able to get people to take action.” He added that Thursday’s prostate screening was not some hard-charging producer’s idea, it was Lauer’s.  “He asked me if I’d do it with him and I said, ‘Absolutely.’ It was something I was going to do anyway, so I thought, why not do it and get it for free?”

There was, predictably, a fair amount of in-studio giggling and sniggering in the runup to the moment of truth, which included a long-shot of Matt and Al striding toward their appointment with destiny to the accompaniment of a cheesy disco beat. Monitoring the morning’s social media, Tamron Hall read a tweet from former Today co-host Meredith Vieira: “Good luck today Matt and Al … two of my favorite pains in the butt!”  (It’s possible that Curry, for other reasons, might have liked still to be hosting the show.) Roker crooned a refrain from “Moon River,” an homage to Chevy Chase’s prostate exam in Fletch. Co-host Savannah Guthrie and news reader Natalie Morales donned latex gloves in celebration of the procedure.

“What are we gonna do to top that?” Morales wondered, speaking for the Today women.

“Don’t even ask,” Guthrie retorted.

After Katie Couric’s colonoscopy, there was a notable increase in men and women seeking to undergo the exam, a phenomenon known in medicine as “the Couric effect.”

In due course Kathy Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb, the ditzy stars of Today’s 10 a.m. hour,  invaded the set, wearing smocks and curlers and toting boxes of popcorn and glasses filled with what looked like red wine. “We came to see the prostate movie,” Kotb explained.

Even the good doctor tried out his standup material.  “What he doesn’t know,” Samadi said, referring to Lauer’s examination, “is I had to lose five pounds in order to make my finger slimmer.”

Over near-universal groans, Roker shouted: “He’s here till Thursday! Try the veal!”

Which didn’t prevent Samadi from previewing Roker’s exam: “For a second opinion we’re gonna use two fingers.”

“Could have done without the finger humor,” Guthrie noted afterward, speaking for millions.

“Look, the idea is if you treat this with gravitas—‘OH MY GOD!’—I think you can put people off,” Roker told me. “So you give the right information” but leaven it with laughs. As for crooning “Moon River,” “Any guy who thinks of a rectal exam and doesn’t think about Chevy Chase’s Fletch, he’s not telling the truth.”

Viewers who thought they were going to get a peek at Matt and Al entering the digital age—or, rather, the reverse—were sorely disappointed. Each submitted to his exam out of camera range. Samadi reported that Lauer, 55, had a PSA reading 0.9 and a smooth prostate indicating a healthy gland. The 59-year-old Roker’s reading was 3 and will require regular monitoring but his prostate was otherwise in decent shape—“no cause for concern,” Al told me. As Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBC’s medical correspondent, pointed out, African-Americans statistically suffer a higher incidence and more aggressive forms of the disease.

It goes without saying that prostate cancer and the screening to detect it are serious business. Snyderman was present outside the exam room to offer some sobering statistics: This year, 238,000 cases of prostate cancer will be diagnosed in men whose average age is 67, and 29,000 victims will die of the disease. After Katie’s colonoscopy a decade ago, there was a notable increase in men and women seeking to undergo the exam, a phenomenon known in medicine as “the Couric effect.” I asked Roker: if the same thing happens with prostate exams, what should it be called?

“It can be called ‘the Lauer effect’—it was his idea,” he said. “If people want to associate Matt with that, I’m all for it.”