Paging Dan and Casey!
A silly question, perhaps, but-- am I the only one who remembers when ESPN had a sense of humor about itself?
Many years ago, before "Boomer" Chris Berman boomed once too often, before Stuart Scott drifted off into the ether of his own hipness, and before god-awful Jay Mariotti had a daily television forum for his bloviating, ESPN seemed to offer the best of both worlds: top-flight, round-the-clock sports coverage spun just enough to wink at their audience, and let them know we shouldn't take any of this too seriously. It helped that their public face was a Sportscenter anchored by Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann, the best reporting tag-team the network could offer. Olbermann and Patrick balanced each other beautifully, with Patrick's smooth, slightly oily charm bouncing off of Olbermann's curmudgeonly smart-assness ("He's day-to-day...We're ALL day-to-day!") like James Brown bouncing off Maceo Parker's horn. Even Aaron Sorkin took notice, and crafted his first television show as a fictionalized version of their success. They were smart, fast, and very funny, and nearly every ESPN anchor that's followed has captured only the oily, curmudgeonly, assy parts of the equation in their attempts to replicate the pair's dynamic.
The network also had very funny ads, which branded them as the Saturday Night Live of sports as much as any of their programs:
And now? Now it's the Poochie of television networks, so desperate to remain hep that it's lost all sense of what made it fun in the first place (gee, maybe it really is the SNL of sports news!). Turning on ESPN now, I find that I have to hit the mute button just as the channel's changing over, for fear I might hear Bob Ryan or Lee Corso or Mike Ditka or (God help us) the nearly somnabulant Bill Parcells droning on and repackaging the dopiest conventional wisdoms as cutting edge. In his wonderfully scalding and scary history of the network, journalist Michael Freeman documents the network's rise from scruffy cable joke (a sports network in Connecticut??) to 500-pound gorilla (a rise expedited by Disney's purchase of both ESPN and sister network ABC in 1995), and all the dark problems that arose along the way: rampant drug abuse, widespread sexual harrassment, chronic gambling, raging egos and many a reporter-subject conflict of interest. These days, Patrick is gone, and Olbermann's doing sports coverage for NBC's Sunday night football game (gamely trying to recreate the old tag-team magic with new partner Bob Costas, who's great but just too squeaky-clean earnest to make the verbal jam sessions work).
That there's any network at all, 30 years later, is a minor miracle. And I don't begrude the network their success-- lefty myths of "staying pure" and "not selling out" have always struck me as so much reactionary, authoritarian silliness. But does broadcasting football mean you can't let Jimmy Kimmel crack jokes about Joe Theismann in the booth (Theismann's firing, by the way, is one of the few smart things the network's done lately)? When did the normally self-effacing Tony Kornheiser get so self-serious about his image? Was Mike Tirico nervous that JImmy Kimmel might spill the beans on Tirico's past? Given the network's recent history with football commentators (and commentators in general), is Kimmel really the worst thing they can think of? Isn't this just the network's obnoxiously overt synergy (Kimmel has a talk show on sister network ABC) finally blowing up in its face?
(It's come to this: ESPN has actually convinced me that Jimmy Kimmel-- Jimmy Kimmel!-- was the sane person in the room. Good Lord).
Then again, neither Rush nor the onomatopoetically-named Woody dissed the brand, which these days seems to be the one thing ESPN can't find humor in. Perhaps Kimmel should've heeded the advice of writer Harlan Ellison, who famously described his brief experience of working at Disney thusly: "At Disney, never f**k with the Mouse."