Looking Back at Peyton Manning's Evolution as a TV and Pop Culture Star

Peyton Manning's earliest commercial appearances were understated, but he eventually grew into the omnipresent TV character we know today.
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It's Peyton Manning Week at Sports Illustrated. Peter King joined The Record podcast to discuss his SI story on Manning's free agency tour in 2012, so all week we are sharing some of our favorite Manning stories from the Vault and writing some new ones too.

Whenever a TV network is looking to hire an NFL analyst, there’s a reason why Peyton Manning’s name is always among the first to come up. Manning has already proven himself to be one of the most telegenic NFL stars in recent memory.

Even people who didn’t know of Manning’s football exploits came to recognize him from his many commercials. His ads for Nationwide, Gatorade, Buick, DirecTV, Papa John’s and more made him a household name. Even as Tom Brady widened the gap between himself and Manning in the GOAT discussion, Peyton landed more high-profile endorsements.

Why? Because he doesn’t act like a robot. Seriously, look at this commercial Brady made in 2016 for a $5,000 mattress.

Manning, on the other hand, is the everyman. Well, he’s as close as a 6' 5", son of an NFL player, top five all-time quarterback can be to the everyman. He’s personable, self aware and has an innate sense of comedic timing. He’s not going to get a standup special on Netflix or star in a Hollywood comedy, but no NFL player has made as big an impact on pop culture in the past 20 years as Peyton Manning.

And yet, Manning was far from an overnight sensation in the pop culture realm. His earliest off-field forays were commercials in which he wasn’t asked to do much. His appearances in advertisements in the first decade of the new millennium were memorable not because of his performances, but because he was the centerpiece of cleverly written spots.

People of a certain age will definitely recall the Gatorade ad that features CGI action figure versions of Manning, Derek Jeter, Mia Hamm and Vince Carter, even though Manning has just a single line.

In another Gatorade ad from the same era, Manning plays a life-sized action figure of himself and doesn’t speak a single word.

Other noteworthy ads, like “This is SportsCenter” with his brother Eli and “Manning’s mind" for Sprint didn’t require Manning to flex his acting chops in any significant way. But ads filmed in the latter half of that decade allowed Manning to show that he could deliver a punchline as well as a five-yard out. There was the Sprint ad with the line about his “laser rocket arm,” as well as the series with MasterCard where he acted like a superfan of everyday folks that gave us the classic “cut that meat” chant.

The “Priceless Pep Talks” campaign (also for MasterCard) put a little more pressure on Manning. Whereas the “Peyton the fan” spots succeeded because Manning was placed in a variety of humorous scenes, the pep talk concept left Manning to sink or swim. It was just him, talking to the camera. It was 100% reliant upon his delivery of the material. And he nailed it.

It was around this same time that Manning, fresh off winning his first Super Bowl, was tapped to host Saturday Night Live. His turn as host is fondly remembered by sports fans, but rewatching it this week with the benefit of hindsight shows how far Manning’s stage presence has come since then.

Everyone remembers the pre-taped United Way spoof—and even 13 years later, it still stands up.

But the rest of Manning’s performance was just above average at best. His monologue was brief and at times stilted, stepping on the toes of his own jokes. In the live sketches, he played his role aptly but never stole the scene. He was a good sport, never taking himself too seriously—like in the sketch where he danced like an idiot with Will Forte—which made his performance memorable, even if it didn’t scream “future TV star.”

Compare his SNL performance to his turn as host of the ESPYs 10 years later, though, and it’s night and day. It’s a testament to the progress he made as a pitchman in the late stages of his career, working with companies like Nationwide and DirecTV in ads that were centered more on his personality.

Manning’s 10-minute monologue to open the show was a lot like the last couple years of his football career: He made the most of what was given to him. No one is under the assumption that Manning wrote all the jokes himself, but his delivery was top-notch. What’s more, he even improvised plenty. He was great.

The ESPYs also featured Manning in pre-taped comedy sketches, where, unlike his SNL appearance, he was the star.

If there’s anything the past several years of Monday Night Football have taught us it’s how important a strong broadcast booth can be. While Tony Romo’s work for CBS has earned rave reviews, the much-maligned Joe Tessitore-Booger McFarland-Jason Witten pairing on ESPN can be a distraction from the game on the field. After successfully transitioning from low-effort pitchman to natural variety show host, there’s no doubt that Peyton Manning would be a Romo-level broadcaster. It’s just too bad he turned down ESPN’s MNF offer.