Sports goes for the laughs

August 08, 2002|By Roger Catlin | Roger Catlin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

HOLLYWOOD - It's just about an hour before TV's unlikeliest sports host starts his nightly show, and Tom Arnold is trying to explain the boastfully named The Best Damn Sports Show Period.

"Comedy writers hired for a sports show - it's never been done before!" he says enthusiastically. "It's sports meeting entertainment, sports meeting comedy. But we have serious stuff to talk about, too."

Sure, it appeals mostly to guys, Arnold says. "But it's a little bit different than a locker room."

At that, former pro basketball player John Salley throws an empty plastic bottle at him. Former pro baseball player John Kruk lobs a balled-up chip bag.

If there were a towel to snap - here in the show's "avocado" room" - it would have been snapped.

This was off-camera, but all part of the good-natured guy-talk razzing that's invaded sports cable networks and come to be a big part of several sports network shows.

Fox Sports network's two-hour Best Damn Sports Show combines yukking on the couch with heated debates on sports developments, guest stars from sports and entertainment, score updates by a former star of Sunset Beach and lots of highlight footage - all with former Mr. Roseanne Arnold as the host.

On ESPN, Mohr Sports comedian Jay Mohr opens his show with a monologue that drops sports figures' names the way Jay Leno drops political ones. Then Mohr brings on guests or goes out to the fields for reports meant more to amuse than enlighten.

ESPN also lists its nightly Pardon the Interruption as part of the comedy/sports invasion, though hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon argue so passionately over every sports topic (listed on the screen as they talk, with a time limit marked by a bell) that it overwhelms any pop-culture commentary.

"We like to say at ESPN that we take sports seriously, we take our fans seriously. But we don't take ourselves seriously," says Mark Shapiro, senior vice president and general manager of programming at ESPN.

"A lot of the things that happen in sports are funny," Shapiro says. "We get a kick out of sports because, for a lot of viewers, sports is a major escape."

On both networks, the comedy/sports shows are meant to lure more casual sports fans - not those who would be watching anyway, obsessing over every box score.

Not coincidentally, the hybrid shows are popular with younger viewers, so there are more references to extreme wrestling, skateboarding and surfing than you'd find in more traditional sports talk. But there is a line to be drawn over the invasion of comedy into sports content, Shapiro says. "You can't dilute your overall brand."

That may have been the lesson learned at ABC, where comedy was not ready for prime-time sports. After two seasons, comedian Dennis Miller is leaving the Monday Night Football announcers' booth.

"I think that was a noble experiment," says Al Michaels, teamed with John Madden for this year's games. "I think there's room for comedy in sports television. But I think there is a delineation that a lot of people don't really understand.

"I know we're going to have a lot of laughs this year," Michaels says of the new Monday night lineup. "But we're also going to concentrate on the game."

Fox Sports has found a rhythm with The Best Damn Sports Show Period, with its rec room set, goofing around, rowdy studio audience and occasional interviews. Lisa Guerrero, the only female in sight (except for the prize in the "Date a Cheerleader" contest), keeps it fresh with constant score updates.

"Sports is entertainment," Arnold says. "In the right circumstances, they go hand in hand."

After 250 shows and 400 hours, The Best Damn Sports Show Period has just marked its first anniversary.

"It's the first time I've had a second year on a show where I wasn't sleeping with the star," Arnold says.

Arnold may have the biggest marquee name entertainmentwise, but he's just one of the guys on the show, where Salley and Kruk, along with football's Michael Irvin, are giants in their own fields and bring expertise and experience to the opinionated commentary.

Mostly, Kruk says, he'll take the fun of sports talk shows over the grind of daily baseball anytime. "I don't miss playing. I don't miss the travel, the daily grind and the Astroturf, the sliding, running into the catcher. I'd had enough.

"They don't tell me what to say, I don't have to pay attention to numbers and I can say what I want. I'm very opinionated."

Roger Catlin is a TV critic for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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