These days, Matt Lauer ought to be on top of the world.
He's the co-host of NBC's "Today Show," which is enjoying more success than ever in its 46 years on the air. Its ratings are higher than ABC's "Good Morning America" and CBS's "This Morning - combined.And Lauer is being amply rewarded for that success, with a seven-figure contract. Not to mention all those gushing female fans, many of whom were heartbroken when the 40-year-old morning host announced his engagement to 32-year-old model Annette Roque.
But Lauer isn't altogether comfortable with his success.
"It's very difficult for me to get comfortable," he said recently. "I don't find it very easy to relax with any element of success, because I had times in the past when people were saying, `This is great and you're doing wonderfully' and then four months later, I was canceled. I know we're not going to cancel the `Today Show' . . . "
"No, you're doing wonderfully," interjected Jeff Zucker, the show's executive producer, with a laugh.
It's not hard to understand Lauer's feelings, given that he went through some decidedly less successful periods in his career. Like most of the 1980s, for example.
"I moved around a lot," he said with a laugh. "I supported various moving companies around the country."
After graduating from college in 1979, he went to work as a news producer in Huntington, W.Va., and eventually became an on-air reporter. He went on to host various local versions of the "P.M. Magazine" franchise in Richmond, Va., Providence, R.I., and New York City.
He went on to host talk shows in New York, Philadelphia and Boston - all of which were canceled. And then he was "basically unemployed for about a year and a half." And only part of that was voluntary.
"The last program I did, in my opinion, was a horrible program. . . . And I almost felt that there had to be about a four- or five- or six-month period where I had to just do nothing to get away from the reputation of that show," Lauer said. "I thought that it was almost like trying to let an odor wear off."
But he never expected to spend a year-and-a-half waiting for another job.
"I developed a very close relationship with my golden retriever," Lauer said. "I gave up my apartment in the city and moved to a little cottage in the country and basically sat there and waited for the phone to ring. And it didn't ring all that much.
"When it did ring, it was with offers of things that, luckily, my agent at the time was very good at convincing me would end my career rather than enhance my career."
He was offered a few syndicated talk-show or news/information pilots. He was offered infomercials. He was even offered a job as the host of a game show. But he turned all those down.
"At a time when I believed in myself the least, this (agent) said to me, `I promise you things will get better,' " Lauer said. "And, as it turned out, it worked out. But we were aggressively looking for work - there were no takers."
His name was often bandied about for a variety of job openings in the New York television market, but still nothing happened.
"I was the guy everybody talked about but no one wanted to hire," Lauer said. "Or when they did hire me, (they) didn't keep me for very long.
"I mean, it's easy to sit here and laugh about it now, especially because things are going so well and I've been given this great opportunity, but it was a crummy, crummy time."
And it wasn't easy to sit and wait for the right thing to come along. Lauer admits he considered getting out of television altogether.
"You have to be a bit of a fool if you don't look at four canceled shows in a row that you happened to have been the host of and you don't start to think that perhaps this is not just bad producing," he said. "So I start to think, `Well, this is possibly never going to work out.'
"I am not from a rich family. I did sit there. I did run out of money."
And, at that point, the Matt Lauer Story takes on the aspects of a real-life storybook tale. It's become almost legendary - a story Lauer himself said, "I'm almost sick of myself."
It seems that when the money had run out, Lauer was driving down a street when he noticed a tree-trimming truck on the side of the road with a "help wanted" sign in the back and a telephone number. So he called and left a message on the answering machine.
"I left a number and said, `Call me back. I'm available starting tomorrow.' And that was about noon," Lauer said. "At 3 the phone rang. And I put on my best lumberjack voice and answered the phone."
But it turned out to be a representative of station WNBC in New York asking Lauer to come in and interview for a job as a morning news anchor. And that job, of course, led to him moving to "Today," first as the news anchor and then as the co-host. And don't think he doesn't appreciate his relatively recent success.
"When you've had really bad times and you've struggled to make ends meet and someone makes you a part of the most storied show on television, you have to kind of pinch yourself," Lauer said.
And his earlier struggles make it easier for him to take the fame and adulation that have been heaped upon him with a grain of salt. Like the "We love you, Matt" signs that pop up outside "Today's" street-level studio.
"You have to keep in mind the overall picture here," he said. "You have people who wake up at 4 in the morning - they're from Omaha, they're in town for two days, it's cold. They come down to the studio, they fight for a position in front, and they have a choice in the hotel the night before of what to write on the sign. They could write, `Matt has a huge nose' or they could write `We love you Katie, Al or Matt.' "
And he also pointed out that the "Today" directors make the choices of which signs make it on the air.
"My director is not going to start coming out of a commercial pulling up a sign that says, `Matt has a profile like an aardvark,' " Lauer said. "And we do not go home at night and say, `Man, there were 14 signs for me out there. What a great day!' "
As a matter of fact, Lauer seems determined not to ever let himself feel too full of himself.
"I don't find it very easy to relax and say, `OK, I've got it made for the next three or four years.' I just don't," Lauer said. "I wish I could stop and enjoy this a little bit more. But I do tend to have bit of a look-over-my-shoulder mentality, which maybe makes it not quite as enjoyable."