Friday, October 17, 2008

'The Big Show,' Dan & Keith & NBC

I remember one summer day ages ago, idly thumbing through magazines and books in what passed for the Literature Aisle of a K&B Drugstore. I had 20 minutes to kill and had already smoked a cigarette, negating using the "I'll smoke a cigarette to pass the time" option again and thought I'd give reading anything a shot.

I won't pretend K&B Drugstores went out of business due to a lack of reading selection, but I can't imagine that'd surprise anyone if you told them it was the cause. It was abysmal precisely because it managed to have things on the shelf that somehow weren't even there. If you were the sort of person who loved trash novels, you'd probably still put your hands on your hips, blow some hair out of your face and say, inwardly, "There isn't anything here!" Even now, nothing stands out. Not a single title.

I can remember being stranded in a shopping center 12 years ago, with only $4 to my name and an hour to kill, desperately flipping through a Books-a-Christian discount bin and finding only Louis L'Amour novels within my price range. I can remember forgetting my book on my way to pulling a double-shift at work, finding $7 in my pocket when I ran into a bookstore I passed along the way and buying an anthology of classic English detective stories from The Strand. But I can't remember anything about the K&B selection. Except for what I bought. The Hanson book.

You might remember Hanson: a midwestern trio of two moppets and one ex-moppet thin-facing and stern-jawing his way into awkward adolescence, all of whom played pop music indistinguishable from early Jackson 5. "MMMBop" (I checked the number and capitalization on the Ms, I will have you know) was, at the time, one of those songs that, if you hated teen pop, followed you everywhere like a kind of Sicilian curse.

K&B Drugstore had a copy of Hanson's AUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY!!! I bought it.

At the time, I had a friend who liked to play ironic hair-metal and/or blues-rock covers of pop songs and accompany them with long cock-rock/blues-rock solos. He routinely did this with mockery and a sense of artistic distance from the original, but he also routinely knew every note and lyric of the original within one week of its appearing anywhere on anybody's pop-cultural horizon, which belied his disinterest. It took me little more than a month of our friendship to peg him as a kind of hipness coward: every time he played me a song that was "driving everyone crazy," it was the first I'd even heard of it. If he'd had the balls, he'd have been trying to get a career as the next Matthew Sweet instead of pretending to accidentally know the whole of Matthew Sweet's discography and thinking it itself lacked balls.

Much was the case with Hanson. I think I'd accidentally heard "MMMBop" twice and deliberately never, but the first time I saw my friend after that, he knew all the chords, lyrics and harmonies and was already allegedly more "sick" of hearing it than anyone could be without personally shepherding it through production and distribution. I saw the book in the store, thought of him and bought it because I knew he'd love it. Years later, I would read a story in the Onion, "Ironic Porn Purchase Leads to Unironic Ejaculation," and think, "This story is about my friend. Only if it were about 15-, 12- and 10-year-old boys and pop music and not sexual."

I bought the book for him because I'm one of those people who just buys things for friends for no reason. But I'd be lying if I didn't plan to read it for the next 15 minutes, outside on a bench, for however long it took me to get out of there. In the span of 20 minutes (my friends ran late), I read half of it. At 200 pages of aired-out, T.G.I. Fridays-menu-sized type and absolute drivel for content, I blasted through without a single novel idea, fact or opinion to arrest me. Even if I'd wanted one, there wasn't a single detail in it about Hanson that I didn't already know from radio chatter, Letterman monologues, an Entertainment Weekly article read in a doctor's waiting room or other pop culture effluvia.

Barring a few chapters, The Big Show isn't much different.

Written at the height of SportsCenter's (and, arguably, Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann's) popularity, The Big Show initially reads like little more than a fan-club biography with some input from the subjects thrown in. Obviously, someone involved in production intended to cash in on a pop-culture phenomenon. Any doubt in the reader's mind about the book's motives — which is not to say Patrick and Olbermann's motives — vanishes after the first thirty pages of definitions of then-current and then-hip references. As cool as Patrick and Olbermann were,* it's hard not to see large portions of the book as basically fan-club trivia. This isn't the Dark Side of ESPN or even the guys involved. It's what you already saw nightly, just in print.

* — Here's the thing: Olbermann and Patrick still are cool. Their "Mini Big Show" on NBC's Football Night in America is so far and away the best part of that program that it makes the rest of it seem like a cruel joke. There's a reason they once ruled the sports roost, and that's because they're almost effortlessly a pleasure to listen to. In contradistinction, you have former-fatass Peter King explaining things like, "Tom Brady's season-ending injury will really dampen the Patriots' playoff chances," as if every ounce that vanished from his midsection got transfered to his brain to not only stop blood flow but also inflate his ego. Meanwhile, meretricious sports midget Bob Costas gazes meaningfully at the camera and brow-furrows more pabulum against anything that isn't honoring the game — whatever the game is that he's whimpering reverently about at the moment.

On the players' side, you have the under-critical and all-around niceguy Jerome Bettis, whose amiable enthusiasm doesn't overcome the fan-level quality of his comments. Perhaps The Bus is obliged or encouraged to voice those kind of fan reactions. It's a pity, because it seems like he can become an insightful and well-prepared guy if given any impetus to study harder and impart more. But he won't get that chance, because he's the chosen glass-half-full counterpoint to the nattily dressed, narcissistic, terminal bore Tiki Barber, who's never met a vanity he wasn't seemingly instantly at home in. Even a generous New Yorker profile about his forays into journalism portrayed him ineluctably as a tedious dilettante. He should go back to his gigs at FOX News, if not just to seamlessly fit in, then at least to spare himself further embarrassment. Since he's cast himself as the NBC Contrarian Athlete, he's proved himself a fool time and again. Most notably, he threw his former coach and team totally under the bus, then watched from the NBC studios as they won their first Super Bowl in nearly 20 years. Without him. In spite of expectations that his retirement would "cripple" the team.

Barber is obviously trying hard to become the next Cris Collinsworth — the only other member of the booth worth a tinker's damn, and one of the best and least appreciated live commentators in football — but he's skipping to the end of a long progression. Like a disaffected teenager who meets a cynical forty-year-old college professor, he recognizes the same snark and cynicism and thinks that that's all anyone needs. He's polishing the attitude without bothering with the education. Ironically, Bettis will probably be the far superior commentator in a decade, as he tempers his enthusiasm and positivity with a greater grasp of analysis. In the meantime, anyone who isn't Bettis, Collinsworth, Patrick or Olbermann should be blown out of the booth with grapeshot.

Still, despite the Hanson comparisons, some parts of the book make for a fun current read. Patrick and Olbermann recount interview horror stories, a kind of gag reel of sports TV journalism, which every fan of journalism can enjoy. They argue about their favorite games in sports, which is interesting in spite of its tremendous fan-club atmosphere. (This also is probably less dated now, as at the height of their running The Big Show, these preferences would have been more apparent.) They militate against the "collector" culture of sports and the decline of the "fan" culture. It's hard to argue with that. They give each other grief, and that's always fun.

The book features two absolute evergreens, though.

1. Although dated, Olbermann's protracted rant about the unfairness of the Baseball Hall of Fame and the 100 players who he feels should be included provides a welcome respite from TV-era-oriented anecdotes and a fun insight into the kind of guy he is. Olbermann was one of the Sabermetrics Guys before sabermetrics really hit the mainstream. Using the tools and metrics people understood at the time, he makes persuasive cases for a lot of players maligned by baseball historians. He'd doubtless change his approach to his arguments today, given that his audience is now steeped in concepts like OBP, OPS and K/BB ratios, but even the clunky and less scientific effort seems charming and fresh.

2. Patrick and Olbermann devote a wonderful chapter (and several extraneous passages) to the painful and sometimes unrewarding hardship required to become a success in sports broadcasting. Even at the apex of the sportscasting world, they go to sincere effort to demythologize how they got there, highlighting luck, friends, God knows what. To be sure, they also point out immense and unpleasant workloads on their parts, but at no point do they evince any sense that they belonged to a destiny or any undeniable upward trajectory. They have jobs they do well: they have done well just to have them, too. This chapter alone makes the book indispensable to anyone who dreams of breaking into sports commentary, especially in radio or television.

Though it's by no means a bad book, the rest of it is much like the Hanson book. It clues you in to all the hip things you should know at the time. The protagonists riff off of then-famous jokes and exchanges you're expected to know. Biographical details wander in and out of chapters, not necessarily going anywhere, but you don't need them to go anywhere: these are the details of the current It Guys, Dan and Keith.

At the time, it was probably pretty great: here are the guys you know and love, and here are just a few more details about them to make you happy. However, with the passage of time, the guide to hip references and little details represents a time capsule at best. This is an early biography; with the passage of time, it's best to ignore it and wait for the next biographies.

Rating: 2
Strongly recommended to anyone attempting to break into sportscasting or to anyone with real hero worship of Dan and Keith. Mildly recommended to anyone who really digs TV, sports history, Patrick or Olbermann. Strongly discouraged for anyone looking for huge biographical insights into either of the two main players or a story about the dark history of ESPN.