That off-air comment, captured by cameras in 2006, is one of the uncomfortable moments in what amounts to an excruciatingly awkward highlight reel that’s been circulating over social media since Lauer’s sudden downfall on Wednesday, when NBC fired him for inappropriate sexual behavior.
Some of the clips are merely a little cringe-worthy given the hindsight of subsequent events; others more disturbing. In the latter category is Lauer’s less-than-tasteful — some would say nasty and patronizing — questioning of actress Anne Hathaway in 2012 after paparazzi had taken a revealing photo up her skirt as she exited a car. “Seen a lot of you lately,” Lauer wisecracked. Then, saying “Let’s just get it out of the way,” he forced her to respond to the tawdry incident and tell him what “lesson” she’d learned. Hathaway was lauded for her restrained answer, in which she found a way to segue smoothly to her character in “Les Miserables,” the film she was there to promote.
In a much more high-stakes encounter in 2016, during the election, Lauer was roundly criticized for interrupting candidate Hillary Clinton repeatedly and grilling her endlessly on her personal email issue — asking her if it was a disqualifying factor in her presidential quest — while he was much less challenging of her opponent, Donald Trump. Lauer was accused not only of a lack of preparation but, by some, of sexism. “I was almost physically sick,” Clinton would write in her memoir, “What Happened.”
Then there was Lauer’s 2014 interview with the first female CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra . After mentioning her significant qualifications for the job, he then asked: “There are some people who are speculating that you also got this job as a woman, and as a mom, because people within General Motors knew this company was in for a very tough time, and as a woman and a mom you could present a softer face and softer image for this company as it goes through this horrible episode. Does it make sense or does it make you bristle?” Barra responded firmly that she was “selected for this job based on my qualifications.”
Lauer wasn’t finished: He then mentioned Barra’s children, and asked her if she could handle the dual pressures of motherhood and being a CEO. “Can you do both well?” he asked — a question, many noted, that is never asked of a male CEO. (Lauer said later that she had previously raised the issue, so it was fair game.)
Lauer’s relationship with co-host Ann Curry, rumored to have been strained at best, seemed on display the morning she bade a tearful goodbye to “Today” fans after being forced out of her position beside Lauer — whom many viewers blamed for her departure. As she wept and said her farewells, Lauer leaned in to kiss her, but she appears in the video to move away — resulting in an awkward kiss on the side of her head.
Also circulating have been several comedy bits on “Today” that now seem, well, somewhat ill-advised. In one — an installment of “Today! The Musical” — a staffer spills a drink onto Lauer’s designer pants. He removes them, and stands in his boxer shorts as his female co-hosts enter the room. “Drink it in, ladies!” he says, turning to them. “Get it while it lasts!”
And then there’s the comic sketch the show did in 2012, unearthed Wednesday by The Daily Show, which seems to many to mock sexual harassment. In the sketch , Lauer is apparently “smacked on the tush” by Willie Geist. “It has everyone around here talking and accusing,” notes Savannah Guthrie. Lauer pretends to be traumatized. Asked whether he provoked it, he replies, “I didn’t do anything differently. I wasn’t wearing a different cologne.” Then, he says the worst thing of all is that since the alleged smack on the bum, “he hasn’t called, he hasn’t written.”
“This kind of thing happens all the time,” notes investigative correspondent Jeff Rossen. “But is it really appropriate for the workplace?”