By Drue Aman
(Writer’s preface: PTI surpassed 10 years on air on October 22. The goal was to present a post to this blog project topically. This somewhat failed. But the NBA should have started already, so we all have greater things to worry about.)
I claim to remember the first time I watched Pardon the Interruption.
I was 12, a seventh grader and summarily just finished through a brief time as a football player. I remember what I do at nearly every moment of life during the first two hours post-school. For sake of time, all brackets contain television, sports and miscellaneous exertions of horseplay, video games and poor excuses for food. But on the first show that day, I had two eyes on the screen. And I was hooked.
And that marks PTI for me: after school, shoes removed, some form of packaged food, drowsiness. A sedentary, virtually illiterate youngster before the days of creating capital for the orthodontic industry because of my crooked teeth.
This show rundown attempts to quantify the impact of PTI in contextual situations pertaining to its relation to other shows in television, its lexical items now in sports culture, and the show’s formation providing contemporaneous alteration to how my brain operates and forms opinion. That is, how it changed sports to me in the now 10 years on air.
Flashback to fall, 2001 to the first time I watch PTI, a stripped-down format light on effects, light on variance and all personality. Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon seemed in an extended dialogue with each other, the middle parts of a never one-sided, labored talk. The ultimate dichotomy of dyspepsia and affability. An extension of their banter from the newsroom of the Washington Post, sans profanity. Like Siskel and Ebert for sports.
I knew it would work.
PTI was not created from a focus group. According to “Those Guys Have All the Fun,” the oral history* of ESPN written by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales, PTI came together without much more than a few phone calls. Eventually, Kornheiser** reluctantly accepted to air the show.
First, PTI’s chief innovation comes in its presentation, an inclusion of a right-hand side topic menu, un-interactive but at least appearing that way. Of the trivial aspects of its conception, the debate on a subject sidebar remains the show’s most resonant. Some felt it would allow viewers to leave the show, come back in time for the subject of their interest, then leave again. But the implementation did the reverse – viewers stayed on, comforted in knowing durations of talking points. The real reason follows below:
Kornheiser and Wilbon seemed to take the honesty, humor, hubris and brotherhood from their years in the same newsroom as seamlessly as any in ESPN history***. They achieve humor with insight, argument with frivolity, opinionated but unprovocative. A rapport analogous to jazz musicians. They do not say things just to say things. It’s perhaps of no coincidence that ESPN’s late afternoon programming following PTI contain residue of the show. It’s lead-in, Around the Horn, uses a similar subject bar, adding a quantitative debate counter. ATH began about a year after PTI, though the show’s being contains some sputtering – its main contributors lack equivalent charm. PTI’s influence shows in First and 10**** and Jim Rome is Burning. First and 10 contains to “contributors” and Jim Rome’s show***** has a similar tete e tete segment with scribes or athletes. Most importantly, the segments contain a “talking heads” format, an idea crafted long before PTI, but experiencing a renaissance upon the show’s popularity.******
But PTI separates itself from imitators in its colloquialisms, the slang phrases involved with sport. Below contain some examples:
- Your boy – A response by either host after specific athletes enter conversation. It traces to the beginning of the show. Contains a slightly pejorative intonation, with a raised inflection in “boy.” In text, it reads “ya BOY.”
- Strugg-a-ling – A derivation from a Suzy Kolber – Joe Namath interview during an ESPN telecast of a Jets game in 2003*****. The line has since entered American vernacular, perpetrated by Kornheiser and Wilbon, who referred to the Namath blubbering for several years afterward.
- Let me axe you something – Spoken by Wilbon, occasionally mocked by Kornheiser.
- Junk – A Wilbonism that, in its context, seems to substitute profanity. “This whole thing involving X player is just JUNK,” for example.
- Who ya got? – Used by both hosts in X vs. X discussions.
- Dap – Substitute for “Props.” This may rank as the longest-running idiom from the show.
- Goodnight, Canada – The frequent Kornheiser sign-off.
But the true synergy of the show comes from its meta elements. PTI’s bright moments are unscripted, the confluence of two personalities with enough whimsy to drive a dry format forward with juvenile humor, spotted insight and the trademark vernacular. A highlight video of the show’s intro exists here (notice the Uranus reference as referral to the “juvenile humor” characteristic).
To that end, Kornheiser and Wilbon show a proper, if not totally civilized, rendition of sports banter in the 21st century. They took sports and trivialized them, in turn making it more accessible and more fun to discuss.
And that’s been tough to duplicate.
*The book’s release made headlines over its content explaining some interoffice dalliances, of which no specific names made final print. Opinion: the book solidifies my notions regarding Chris Berman, Mark Shapiro and the network’s growing vapidity and role as a fulcrum for the NFL. In other words, a persistently growing conflict of interest. You never heard me say that though, OK?
**Society’s current temperament on Kornheiser may describe him as curmudgeonly, gruff, with a given disdain for, well, anything. But Kornheiser happens to boast a noteworthy assortment of acclaimed sports writing. Two heralded examples include: There’s A Voice Crying in the Wilderness, the story of an apologetic, still socially abrasive Rick Barry, and Bringing it All Back Home, the magazine-opening piece for Inside Sports on Nolan Ryan. For further context, a recent interview with Kornheiser more greatly describes his general disposition here.
***ESPN’s hallmark pair of Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann remain the network’s edgiest. This is a key distinction from “most popular,” in which case Kornheiser-Wilbon have an advantage. But Patrick-Olbermann possessed a certain wit and synergy in a more difficult setting to deliver wit and synergy. You never see Kornheiser-Wilbon sorting through papers of stat sheets while simultaneously calling highlights. The duumvirate also lay claim to several sport-isms in the American lexicon. Patrick-Olbermann’s include: Puts the biscuit in the basket, Nothing but the bottom of the net, the whiff, and so on. Kornheiser-Wilbon’s possibly most indelible mark could be their sport-isms, which I will soon detail.
****A show that says things just to say things.
***** This interview began a flurry of Namath-related news items, subsequently leading to Namath addressing problems with alcohol abuse. The original interview is here.
****** The talking heads style of television crosses over into newscasts, but did not contain the frequency of style at ESPN. This changed following PTI, into something of a sea of talking heads segments on Sportscenter, ATH, JRIB, First and 10, and so on.
About the author: Aman is the editor of the Collegian, the student newspaper at South Dakota State University. This is the one and only time that he’ll be allowed to write the word, ‘duumvirate.’