For three decades Hollywood largely overlooked sportscasters as possible subjects for situation comedies, which is why TV Land doesn't air late-night reruns of Welcome Back, Kiper, followed by old episodes of Tirico and the Man.
But that's about to change because suddenly—and without warning—there are not just one but three such sitcoms in development, each based on the life of an ESPN pundit. If the shows—modeled on Colin Cowherd, Mark Schlereth and Mike Greenberg—make the fall schedule, Americans will soon be spoiled for choice, watching Mark & Mindy one night, I Dream of Greenie the next.
Done well, these sitcoms will update a grand television tradition. Among the timeless sitcom archetypes—Henpecked Husband, Wacky Neighbor, Wisecracking Kid—is the Rumpled Sportswriter, whose TV history has been like Oscar Madison's blazer: spotty and checkered, yes, but capable of giving warmth.
As recently as 2005, Jason Alexander played a version of Washington Post scribe (and ESPN broadcaster) Tony Kornheiser in a sitcom called Listen Up! Yes, the laughter was canned. And, after one season, so were the cast and crew. It wasn't the first show inspired by ESPN—that would be the groundbreaking Sports Night, the much-missed Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk modeled on the Dan Patrick--Keith Olbermann era SportsCenter—but it was the first traditional sitcom, setting the table for Kornheiser's current colleagues.
May 22, 2011
Nobody set a better table than Lynn Belvedere, the English butler employed by Pittsburgh sportswriter George Owens in the 1980s sitcom Mr. Belvedere. Bob Uecker, the catcher turned sportscaster, played Owens, who also hosted a call-in radio show—but only briefly, because nobody called in. It's a plotline unlikely to feature on the ESPN "laffers," as Variety calls sitcoms. Owens also was terrified of public speaking, a phobia that will never afflict our laffer law firm of Cowherd, Schlereth and Greenberg.
Mr. Belvedere never explained how a sportswriter afforded a live-in manservant, yet the show's implausibility was somehow exceeded by its applausibility. That's because—to borrow a phrase from another sitcom with a sportswriter at its center—everybody loved Uecker.
In Everybody Loves Raymond, comedian Ray Romano played New York Newsday sports columnist Ray Barone, who never seemed to write, though he did once take his brother, Robert, to a reunion of the 1969 Mets, where they met Tug McGraw, Tommie Agee and Art Shamsky, for whom Robert named his dog. But on The Odd Couple, Oscar Madison covered those Mets, and wore his Mets cap to dinner, and two-finger typed in the hunt-and-peck tradition of so many real sportswriters. As Oscar knew, press row at deadline looks like a first-grade piano recital, all furrowed brows and jabbing index fingers.
And so every sitcom sportswriter or sportscaster still lives in the shadow of the great Madison, who was wholly inhabited by Jack Klugman, an actor so careworn in real life that Paramount bought his personal wardrobe of sweatshirts and stained blazers for $360 to use on The Odd Couple. At the time he was shooting the series in the early '70s, Klugman generally lived the life of a rumpled 20th-century sportswriter, hanging at the racetrack when not in conversation with Angelo Dundee or Tommy Lasorda.
The difficulty in depicting sports reporting on TV is that the most glamorous part of the job—game coverage—consists principally of sitting. An authentic sportswriter sitcom would be a sitcom in the truest sense. Belvedere, Raymond and The Odd Couple are less sitcoms than domcoms, domestic comedies set largely at home. The Sportswriter Patriarch remains a smart domcom paradigm because it keeps the father around the house during the day, the better to serve as an indolent vessel for cartoon masculinity.
I know this from happy experience. In 2005, I sold a network sitcom pilot based on my life as a sportswriter who marries a professional athlete. In a few dizzying months I took a lunch at the Friars Club in New York City, sitting one table over from an ascot-wearing Abe Vigoda; I lazed poolside at the Sunset Strip Hyatt; and most enjoyably, I got to write on the same Paramount lot where The Odd Couple was shot, in an office down the hall from a poster of Felix Unger and my muse, Oscar Madison.
Of course, that was so six years ago. It makes sense, in this electronic age, that the Sitcom Sportswriter is now a Sportscaster. At ESPN, Mike Greenberg does a fervently followed radio show that is also televised, so that his sitcom, presumably, will be a TV show that features a radio show that is also a TV show.
Greenberg's radio show, Mike and Mike in the Morning, is essentially The Odd Couple, with Greenie as the fastidious Felix and cohost Mike Golic as the slovenly Oscar. And so I'm rooting for its sitcom version, and half-hoping it opens the door to ESPN police procedurals (PTI: Miami, anyone?) and prime-time soaps (Barry Melrose Place?).
All that is a long way off. The most we can do now is wish these sitcom aspirants—one sports journalist to another—the best of luck. It won't be easy creating the next Oscar Madison. But then every aspiring clown has big shoes to fill.
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Done well, these shows will update a sitcom archetype—the RUMPLED SPORTSWRITER.