Thursday, September 11, 2008

Tony Kornheiser Revisited

Let's just say I'm already regretting this observation:
Morrissey... probably appeals to only four groups of NFL players... [including] white quarterbacks (especially backups). That said, I am absolutely 100% certain that Tom Brady unironically loves the crap out of Morrissey and The Smiths.
After a rush and a push, Tom Brady might be out for the season, which suggests that invoking Morrissey might well be as powerful a curse as getting on the new Madden game cover. At this point he probably feels like the boy with the thorn in his side or half a person, wondering "what difference does it make?" if he even wakes up in the morning and hating the chance that his friend Matt Cassel might become successful.

I sincerely didn't mean anything by it. I just figured, you know, Brady's from the San Francisco Bay Area, and almost everyone knows that. So, really, he's the one NFL player who you could claim listens to Morrissey and get most people to believe it. If I had any expectation of his winding up out for the season, I probably wouldn't have elected to associate him with the sort of music everyone listens to when they just get out of a relationship.

I wasn't alone at the time Brady left the game injured. If I had been, I might have put The Queen Is Dead in the player and tried to ignore the fact that bandwagon Pats haters would find the album title oddly appropriate for the quarterback of the "New England Gaytriots." Thankfully, I had several friends over to hang out and ring in the new season. Somewhere in the midst of the happy haze of beer, grilled chicken wings, The Wife's homemade salsa and guacamole and the (we're-having-people-over-so-we-might-as-well-use-the) olive trays filled with olives and pickles, I forgot to be all that upset. Make no mistake: I knew at that second the season was over. Everything else was just so nice that the disappointment or heartache never really had a chance to register.

Something similar happened the next night for the opposite emotional reasons. I was excited to see the debut of Monday Night Football, because ESPN announced that it had revamped the broadcast. Evidently, focus groups across the nation had startled ESPN executives with the radical notion that people watching football just want to watch the fucking game. Gone, suddenly, were the days of grilling Christian Slater about his new TV show for ten consecutive minutes while the Seahawks quietly put the game away in the "background." Gone, too, were the sideline reporters. As much as this robs the world of potentially another moment like a totally tanked Joe Namath telling Suzy Kolber, "I want to kiss you," it also relieves fans of the burden of listening to Michelle Tafoya revealing
Backup offensive lineman Smoot Hawley may be distracted during the game, provided he even gets to play. Recently, Hawley's uncle has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and gone into a rapid and troubling decline, which has obviously caused Hawley a lot of pain. This led the team to some concerns that — if the starting offensive lineman were to be injured — his performance could decline even from its current state of Not Playing In The Game. To figure out if these concerns were valid, I spoke to Hawley's uncle before the game, and he said, "Blouuggghhhaaaaaaa shitfuckballs, Guineabitch!" Back to you, Mike.
Even better, former quarterback, compulsive game-film watcher and all around great analyst Ron "Jaws" Jaworski supposedly would carry a lot more of the announcing load, encouraged to indulge in more egghead moments when breaking down plays.

Tony Kornheiser attempted to undo all of this, personally. I actually checked out four different sports message boards to see if I was the only person who wanted to wind an industrial roll of duct tape around his goddamned head. (Not by a long shot.) Tony's great on Pardon the Interruption, but in the broadcast booth, he's caught ESPN Disease. Here's a brief definition:

When you decide what is the story and who is the star before a game and hype that story or star to the exclusion of all others. Then, because you essentially control the 24-hour sports news cycle and crowd out every other possible story, you then disingenuously cover the predetermined story or star because "that's what people are talking about." The end product is a kind of meta-creation whereby you manufacture a subject and thrust it into the public consciousness, leaving people discussing it because that's the only subject they have to discuss, then pretend to respond to public demand — which is actually your demand. Legitimately responding to public demand would involve reporting on dozens of topics and then waiting to see which one people liked, rather than forcefeeding whatever is most convenient or most likely to get ratings (e.g. almost always any topic about New York or Boston and almost never any story about a team from the midwest not named The Cubs. Seriously. Like, a couple years ago I actually forgot that the Cincinnati Reds existed*).

* — If you only watch baseball in the post-season, they don't.

PTI's a great show. It's obvious that Tony and Michael Wilbon genuinely like each other, and it's fun to see two guys having arguments you know they've been over at least a dozen times with each other. Tony still exudes an enthusiasm just to be there. I suspect the show still has this goofy, happy feel because ESPN didn't expect it to be so popular. Neither Kornheiser nor Wilbon went through ESPN's meat-processing formula, because what would be the point if the show was going off the air in six weeks anyway? Instead, fans loved it, and suddenly ESPN's hands were tied: they couldn't leach the show of all color without screwing up a winning formula. They'd just sanitize all the other columnists they quickly enlisted for the dozen PTI ripoffs they planned to roll out within weeks. (And they did.)

But when it came time to put Tony in the Monday Night booth, they must have decided that they couldn't risk his displaying the exact same characteristics that gave them a hit show just hours earlier in the broadcast schedule. That might entertain even more people. Instead, they converted him to so much balding, Jewish bologna. Keep it dumb. Try not to have more than five opinions total, all game. Better yet, stick to three. Repeat them as often as possible. Instead of making role players famous by talking about them when they do a good job, try to talk only about people who are already famous.

Tony's tendency to process ideas through a narrative formula only exacerbated things. Since he was already prone to explicating his thoughts in the sort of A-leads-to-B-leads to...M column format, it made his returning to the same simplistic topics all the more noticeable and enervating. You can see the inevitable conclusion a mile away, but you still have to slog through "in the beginning" and "then came" and "then finally" before you hear the two words you guessed at the beginning of the parable: Peyton Manning Tom Brady Brett Favre.

Which brings us to Monday night and Brett Favre and two announcers doing everything short of telling their colleague to shut up. I happily defer to King Kaufman, who transcribed this:
"That is exactly the kind of pass that Brett Favre would have thrown," Kornheiser gushed, "and look at the way the crowd responds right now! It's Aaron Rodgers, and he's waking the echoes of No. 4 with a play like that."

[Later], Rodgers did make a Favre-like play, avoiding the rush and making an off-balance touchdown throw to Korey Hall. There was a pregnant pause.

"OK, let me state the obvious," Kornheiser finally said... "You saw Rodgers on that play almost get hit, make one move, basically falling down, make that kind of play."

"I know what you're going to say," Jaworski offered.

"Well does it? Does it remind you of him at all?" Kornheiser said.

"Yeah," Jaworski said, "it was Favre-like. Are you happy now?"

"Are all the people in here ecstatic?" Kornheiser continued rhetorically.

"Yeah," Jaworski said. "The Packers scored. You've got to let it go, Tony."

"And the game is joined at this point," Kornheiser intoned. "The game is joined. That's a Favre-like play."

Meanwhile, the guys in the truck, gamely following the new mandate, were offering up replay after replay of the touchdown. Jaworski finally noticed and said, "All right, I'll go into the football," and began describing the actual play.
At one point, play-by-play guy Mike Tirico basically told Tony he had a quota. I wish I could remember how he phrased it, but he sounded exactly like a parent who, sick of hearing about pokemans on a long car trip, gives his child only five more opportunities to use that word for the rest of the day. It was unbearable to watch and probably humiliating to Kornheiser. It should be.

ESPN's trying to recreate Howard Cosell, but they've somehow decided to reverse engineer the Cosell phenomenon by engineering their show in reverse. Cosell got irritated when Dandy Don Meredith and Frank Gifford weren't smart enough to keep up with him as he went from subject to subject. Kornheiser digs in his heels like a child and leans back at a 45ยบ angle, forcing Dad and Other Dad to drag him bodily to the next topic. Cosell offended and annoyed people because he unapologetically refused to dumb down his comments and had difficulty hiding his contempt for people who couldn't understand them (as well he probably should have: he was talking about football, after all). Kornheiser annoys because he dumbs down his own sports intelligence to play the role of Interested Everyman, then only shows interest in one or two things, as if the average person is too stupid to be able to manage more than a handful of thoughts per game. He's the anti-Cosell. The process of recreating a smart guy by making another smart guy a moron is like trying to recreate a Mercedes by blowing up a BMW. There isn't a single hint of logic to the entire strategy.

If Kornheiser wants to play dumb, he should stick to asking Jaws leading questions. Jaws' analysis on Monday was nothing short of great. After he himself criticized a lineman for drawing a penalty for being downfield on a pass play, which led to a touchdown being called back, he corrected himself. Rather than pigheadedly reiterate his original opinion in the face of mounting contradictory evidence, as is par for the course with announcers, Jaws went to some effort to reveal his own error. Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers had called an audible intended for only the wide receiver and himself. The rest of the offense couldn't know it was a pass play — they weren't meant to — and thus couldn't be blamed for being out of position. The audience learned something, and there are probably fewer people ready to send hate mail to a Packers lineman.

Most of the rest of the night followed the Jaworski formula of "saying not-stupid things about football," and Kornheiser not only stopped mentioning Favre every five minutes but also, when he did mention him, seemed chastened and uncertain whether his words would bring another deserved eruption from his colleagues. Unfortunately, he kept bringing him up to indicate that Aaron Rodgers had Favre-like qualities and may almost be as good as Favre, which is itself stupid. Rodgers is a good quarterback. His skills strongly resemble Aaron Rodgers'. In fact, Aaron Rodger's style of play is identical to Aaron Rodgers'. Eventually alking about what exactly that is would be refreshing. But that's a whole other argument.

See? For at least an hour there, I totally forgot my football season's already over.

Week One pictures coming tomorrow.