"Well, Ken," we'll say to the interviewer someday, "I've worked 10 years on this backhand, and by God I think it'll beat Connors today." And Ken will say, "That's the way it is from courtside, and now back to the booth."
TV is such a part of our lives that most of us harbor a secret media fantasy. Alone on the back nine, we practice facial expressions for network closeups. Or jogging lazily around the block, we imagine the tape at the finish line, the camera lights, the upthrust microphone. Artist and self-proclaimed celebrity Andy Warhol has predicted that each of us will be famous for 15 minutes. Well, NBC may make big strides toward turning that prophecy into a prime-time reality with a new show called (for the moment) The Sunday Games.
Bruce Jenner, apparently with nothing better to do now that NBC has canceled its Moscow Olympics coverage, hosted the recent two-hour Games pilot. The show, Jenner proclaimed, was dedicated "to the people who have fun, everyday folks who love to compete and go for it." But wait, don't run out and buy a can of pancake makeup and a new warmup suit just yet. It may be a while before Games gets to your neck of the woods and your level of competition.
In 11 uneven segments, hyped by the voice of former Laugh-In announcer Gary Owens, the Games pilot lurched through stints with professional bouncers, professional stuntmen cracking up cars in the Astrodome, the running of the bulls in Pamplona and the inexplicable antics of Royal Navy sailors galloping over obstacles while dismantling and reassembling a 19th-century field gun. Just everyday folks and taurines going for it.
June 1, 1980
The show is slotted for the fall season as The Thursday Games. Because we seem to be stuck with it, we can only hope that future installments, which will run for only an hour, will be more streamlined than the pilot.
In the opening segment, six professional nightclub bouncers, looking for all the world like a herd of crazed Beefalo, vaulted bars, ran around tables, crashed through doors and gave the bum's rush to a stuntman fitted with a special harness that allowed the bouncers to easily pick him up and toss him out the door.
NBC provided a measure of fun by parodying straight sports programming—filling segments with stop-action and slow-motion replays, post-event interviews and "expert" commentary. In "The World Belly Flop Championship" from Vancouver, a stop-action shot held a 325-pounder in mid-flop while comedian Arte Johnson pointed out that the man failed to "disiduate" and thereby lost points. But when sports-caster Charlie Jones invaded a pre-teen girls gymnastics meet in Los Angeles, the kind of event that occurs each weekend, and asked a panting 11-year-old why she was competing, well, that wasn't parody. It was simply stupidity.
The winner of the bouncers event was a certain Mr. T., a giant with a Mohawk haircut who is not only a pro bouncer but also a former bodyguard for Leon Spinks. If Mr. T. is just one of us ordinary folks going for it, then Bill Rodgers is just a guy out for a jog.
But, then, NBC hardly stuck to a just-folks approach in the "events." It trotted out Joe Namath, O.J. Simpson and Donna DeVarona to enliven a collegiate beer "chug-off," and got two-time Olympic weightlifter Bruce Wilhelm to lend his bulk to a tug-of-war between Hoboken, N.J. teamsters and longshoremen.
That's too bad, because the only people who gave Games any charm were us "real" folks. The best moments of the program were the balletic and electric performances of the New York City girls who skipped rope "double Dutch," using two ropes swinging in opposite directions. Shown to the music of Dancing in the Streets and shot against the gritty background of Harlem, the sequence let the human spirit soar across the screen, without benefit of commentary, slo-mo or points awarded. Every once in a while somebody at NBC knows when to shut up.
A segment on the Special Olympics, a competition for the mentally retarded, was also handled with a dry-eyed and understated clarity that gave it grace. But these scenes were far too few. Replace the unknowns with celebs, and the Games pilot could have been any one of those trash-sports shows that always seem to be shot with a singles apartment complex in the background and the participants pinching each other on the arm and saying how much fun they're having.
Also, Warhol's prediction has its dangerous side: most of us don't deserve 15 minutes of celebrity. We're boring. Commentators relentlessly overstated the point that the union members in the Hoboken tug-of-war were emotionally involved, but it was rather obvious that these guys were turned on mostly by the presence of the TV cameras. Teamsters and longshoremen these days are just about as media-hip as presidential candidates, which they prove every time they're on strike and are interviewed by local newsmen.
Games may offer to stroke our TV fantasies, but do we really want Bruce Jenner, or even Donna DeVarona, in there for the "Singing in the Shower" contest? There should be a place in our recreation where microphones don't sprout like electronic celery, where a guy can throw a baseball straight up in the air and catch it and dream he's Fred Lynn without a camera intruding. A New York businessman, asked why he was running before the bulls in Pamplona, replied, "I just have to get away. I'm too hemmed in by technology."
We all feel that way sometimes. And the guy almost made it. But he just couldn't get away from being interviewed. Saddest of all, he appeared to enjoy his time on the air.