Smash-mouth Sarcasm

Why so glum, sport? It's 'Monday Night Football,' not midnight Mass, as Dennis Miller summons the ghost of Cosell and slaps the toupee off its head for grins.

September 04, 2000|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

The ghost floating above the television this evening will be familiar enough: the bad hairpiece, the face of a dyspeptic Bela Lugosi and the voice like a guy behind a Brooklyn delicatessen counter reciting Leviticus.

It's Howard Cosell, of course, drifting through the living room as "Monday Night Football" begins a new season, the Cosell chair in the play-by-play booth changing occupants once more, ABC-TV calling upon comedian Dennis Miller to jack up ratings for a former prime-time hit.

With a few ex-jocks in between, we've gone from Howard the Humble to Dennis the Droll. What a transition. No Happy Hour could explain that attitude adjustment. It's Johnny to Dave, Sam Peckinpah to Quentin Tarantino, George Jetson to Homer Simpson. It's bombastic reporter assuming the mantel of Truth and Justice to comedian armored in sneering sarcasm.

In other words, one Man of the Hour to another.

Miller is the only non-athlete commentator to become a member of the Monday Night Football broadcast team since Cosell, and Cosell was there when the show debuted in 1970. The experiment was considered nuts. As if the idea of prime-time football wasn't weird enough, they throw in a "color" man like Cosell, who never played the game and was a caustic SOB known to think American sports was so much overblown, sentimental hooey.

That's perfect, said then ABC Sports president Roone Arledge, telling Sports Illustrated why he hired Cosell, who had a reputation for asking tough questions about economics and race while doing sports reporting and commentary for ABC radio since the late 1950s. "I'm tired of football being treated like a religion," Arledge said. "The games aren't played in Westminster Abbey."

Funny thing about that Westminster Abbey remark. Thirty years later, along comes Miller, who steps into the booth and in his first pre-season game broadcast says he understands some folks take their football quite seriously, but, hey, "it's not the Vatican."

No, it's much bigger than that, Pigskin Lad. Not to get off on a rant here, but on any given Sunday or Monday, Americans do not collectively have millions in wagers riding on what happens in the Holy See. Nobody's losing this month's car payment if the pontiff fumbles a homily. Get serious, cha-cha, there's more going on here than numbskull hero worship. It not just the players, owners, advertisers and TV network executives who measure their football passion in dollars, it's also many fans.

You won't hear Miller argue with the pursuit of money. He's not some sanctimonious Cosellian crusader running around trying to straighten out the world. He went through the whole college-kid-inspired-by-"All the President's Men" bit, got a degree in journalism and soon decided there was more money in mocking pols than indicting them. He's post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-Woodward and Bernstein, post-hippie, post-modern and largely post-pretense.

In between performing comedy and social commentary he's found time to advertise beer, discount long-distance phone service and restaurants. As he said in a rant on his HBO show, "Dennis Miller Live": "I like money. It's neat and tidy and clean. It's fun to fold and stack and smell and look at ... It's just plain fun to count money, and I often do it in a loud falsetto while wearing nothing but a captain's hat and a coin changer."

Nothing too threatening there, eh? Nothing to rattle the stemware in ABC's corporate skybox. The man is hilarious, but about as subversive as a stadium construction bond issue.

Fine, it's the 00's in America. Who needs subversive? Get into the SUV, run out and buy nacho chips and brewskis, get on the laptop quickly to check the mutual funds one more time, maybe order a Rolling Stones CD from Amazon.com. Then switch on Monday Night Football, hear Dennis settle into play-by-play sanctum with Al Michaels and Dan Fouts.

"As 3-nothing games go, this has been the running of the bulls at Pamplona," Miller said during the last pre-season game between Miami and Green Bay.

Cosell, who died at 77 in 1995, was a little different. He had a way of asking questions that bordered on sadistic. Once he asked badly scarred former welterweight and middleweight champion Carmen Basilio: "But Carmen, what about your face?" He once said to aging quarterback Johnny Unitas: "People want to know if you can still throw the long ball."

Fun and games

A labor lawyer turned broadcaster, Cosell never lost the lawyerly yen for advocacy. He was always pushing a case. Before free agency in baseball, he railed against the reserve clause. He ripped boxing for corruption and brutality. He criticized college sports for abuses of academic standards and accused the Olympic movement of flagrant commercialism and hypocrisy. Most famously, he supported Muhammad Ali when the heavyweight champ's title was revoked in 1967 after Ali claimed conscientious objector draft status because of his Muslim religious convictions.

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