Craig O'Neill tells all 

When the voice of God prank called Texas.

click to enlarge Best of Arkansas 2011: Craig O'Neill image

As told to Lindsey Millar

› I started in radio when I was 19 in 1969 at KBTN in Jonesboro. The most popular show was a 15-minute newscast at 9:30 p.m. that included five minutes of obituaries. You've heard of the top 20 hits? We did the top 20 obits.

›I did a black gospel show, I did play-by-play, I did news, I covered parades, I even played a clown. In those two and a half years, I learned more about life and people than I could ever have hoped to in college.

› Johnny Carson was the blueprint. Johnny Carson started in radio, went to TV, had a little local TV show, picked up and went out to California, got on an afternoon game show and the rest is history. So, I thought, there's my blueprint. The trouble is you get married, you have kids, you have great ratings, the station gives you a car, you're fat and happy and you forget all about the blueprint.

› I was Randy Hankins until 1972, and then in 1972 my program director at KARN thought that Randy Hankins sounded too country. He had worked with a guy in Seattle named Craig O'Neill and thought that was a cool name, so he gave it to me.

I've never heard from him, but I have heard from people who say, "Didn't you used to work Seattle?" I also get, "Didn't you used to work at Cincinnati?" And, "Didn't you used to work in Atlanta?" So I'm thinking the other Craig O'Neill, the real one, he got around a lot.

› We called Texas and said, "It was twilight, a young UA student was sleep deprived when he put the lettering in the end zone and he accidentally put an extra 's' on Texas. We can't take it off there. What do you want us to do about it?" And the guy goes, "Well we can't have Tex-ass, now can we?"

› I wrote a skit for Lou Holtz to use on "The Tonight Show" in 1981. He called me and said, "Craig, my child's in the hospital, and I don't feel funny. But they still want me on. Can you write me some material?" So what I wrote him was, him saying, "I've always wanted to be the host of 'The Tonight Show.' Johnny, if you'd let me sit behind the desk just for a minute, I'll let you draw up a Razorback play that we will actually use during the year." So they would switch places. Lou Holtz would sit behind the desk. "Oh, this is nice." Johnny would have fun drawing up the play. The punchline was, Lou looking at the play saying, "I'm not sure if we're going to use this. If it's a Johnny Carson play, you know it's only going to work three days out of the week."

When I ran it by the head writer, he loved it. But when you watch the tape, you'll see Johnny Carson ask Lou Holtz three times, "what're some of the things you've always wanted to do?" trying to set Lou up to do the bit. But Lou was so nervous and so anxious, he never did it.

› Around 1996 or 1997, when I was 45 years old, I started looking around and going, "What else can I try?" I thought, "Why not TV?" I had a friend who was general manager over here, and she said, "Why don't you come over and do wacky sports?"

› There are times when I break all decorum and slip into Bozo.

› At 4 p.m., one of my favorite things is to stand back and watch these creative clusters in the KTHV newsroom working on stories they want to tell. I just eat that up.

› I love comedians and that process of saying something and getting a response. There's so much truth in comedy. My mentor now is Jon Stewart. I think he's the greatest interviewer in America. Because he's looking for the comic opening. To do that, you have to listen.

› I grew up with my mother saying, "Tone it down."

› The story I've heard is that a little girl leaned over to her mother at my church and goes, "Are we gonna go to Sunday school after God gets through?" When I read the Bible, I'm James Earl Jones.

› I've never had a drink in my life. My first communion at Trinity Episcopal, I was so anxious that when the wine came at me, I took a gulp, held it in my mouth, walked out the chancel outside and hurled. Now, booze has such a psychological aversion in me, that I can't stomach it. I don't mind you drinking; I just can't do it.

› I'm the best dancing 60-year-old white man in America. I'm a walking dancing museum. I can do every dance from 1955 until now. With the exception of breakdancing, because I'm 60, and I would break a hip.

› My favorite fluffy news story? I can almost do it word for word: A woman in Conway last night came downstairs to find a man asleep in her recliner. She tried to wake the man, but he wouldn't move. So she called the Conway police, who came and arrested the man for intoxication. When he came to, he said he thought he was in Cabot.

› After 39 years of having a fake name, it's easier to remove your ego. It's like a doctor putting on a white coat or a priest putting on a collar. When you get booed or when you bombed or when you stumble on air, it's easier to let those things go.

› When you become a bobblehead, I think you've arrived.


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