We watch... so you don't have to.

Pigskin Plugfest

Every man, woman and child in America gathered in front of their TV set a week ago Sunday to watch history unfold. Riveted by the drama, swept up in the hype, they sat to watch a spectacle that began in early autumn's chill build its way into a climatic denouement in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans. They watched the pageantry, witnessed the bone-crushing action, clawed their way through the nail-biting suspense... all to see for themselves one thing and one thing only.

Just exactly what would happen to those wacky Budweiser frogs?

Oh, and wedged somewhere between the ads for Pepsi and Lexus and Lay's deli-style potato chips, the Denver Broncos and Green Bay Packers took part in some sort of athletic competition.

Because when you really get down to brass tacks, the football game that chooses to identify itself as the Super Bowl has proven to be anything but. They've played 31 of these things up through last Sunday. Maybe half a dozen were good games. The rest have been devoid of drama, emotion and long, lingering shots of the cheerleading squads. The game is usually long decided before the over-produced halftime show that stars "Up With People" and features Nell Carter bursting into a rockin' version of "Proud Mary." By the fourth quarter, the only people foolish enough to watch are the hardcore gamblers who hope against hope that the San Diego Chargers of the world can stay within 17-and-a-half points of San Francisco 49ers-style dynasties.

The Super Bowl is, more often than not, a lousy football game. We know this. We expect it to happen. We make jokes about it throughout the year.

And yet, every fourth Sunday in January, the English-speaking world yanks on the emergency brake of life and brings this country to a screeching halt so that we might spend four hours or so watching one group of over-sized men beat the holy crap out another group of over-sized men. Something keeps bringing us back year after year, and I don't think it's the pasta salad I serve at the annual Super Bowl party.

So my theory is, it's the commercials.

Think about it. Which do you remember better? Richard Dent pounding Tony Eason's head into the unforgiving Astroturf of the Louisiana Superdome in Super Bowl XX? Or that creepy "1984"-style commercial that Ridley Scott directed for Apple's Macintosh? Hell, the casual football fan probably has more vivid memories of the various Bud Bowls than of the athletic contests they're supposed to parody.

Sadly, this year my theory about the Super Bowl -- much like my theories about finance, the Clinton administration and my attractiveness to women -- proved to be incorrect. The game itself was a classic, a nail-biter, a dramatic fight to the finish worthy of a big budget Hollywood movie starring Warren Beatty, Jack Warden and Buck Henry as a bumbling angel.

And there was an added poignancy this year -- the game marked NBC's final football broadcast after 30-plus years of covering the sport. For those of you who missed it, CBS -- tired of airing sports coverage of dog shows and NCAA cheerleader/dance squad competitions on Sunday afternoons -- spirited away with NBC's football contract by agreeing to pay the eye-popping sum of $500 million a year for the next eight years. That's $4 billion between friends -- or to put that number in perspective, $3,999,999,983 more than I have in my wallet right now.

NBC at least went out on a high note. Oh sure, I have no use for Paul Maguire, and the computer graphics Randy Cross used to illustrate plays looked like a glorified version of the electric football game I used to play with... but these are just niggling criticisms. It's pretty hard to screw up football telecasts, though Fox has tried its level best. NBC gave us the replays we needed to see, the analysis we needed to hear, and Dick Enberg didn't once mess up his trademark "Oh my!" call by inadvertently blurting out "Christ on a crutch!"

Though that would have been pretty poignant.

So the game was great, NBC's coverage was superb and -- save for the presence of John Lithgow -- tasteful. As for the commercials... Well, they stumbled, floundered and ultimately fell flat like Garo Yepremian trying to throw a forward pass.1

It's been more than a week since the Super Bowl, and here I sit in my palatial Playa Del Rey estate, totally unmoved to trade my hard-earned bread for goods and services. I have not bought any caseloads of Pepsi. I feel no urge to start hoarding Pentium II Processors. I have not been seen running down the streets seized by some wild-eyed frenzy to get my hands on every last can of the new Hormel chili.

If the purpose of the advertising is to convince us that -- regardless of our objections, regardless of our protests to the contrary, regardless of even order and reason itself -- we cannot possibly live another moment without shelling out the dinero to buy more useless crap, then this year's Super Bowl ads were an unqualified failure.

Still, what are you going to do... go live in some sort of hippie commune outside Medford, Oregon? Good or bad, commercials are here to stay. In the end, all that we can do is have some carping, hyper-critical jackass pour himself another shot of Bushmills and tear through the Super Bowl advertisements, separating the mildly entertaining ones from the dross.

And, folks, believe me when I tell you, I'm just the jackass you're looking for.

Worst Use Of a Celebrity Spokesman (Deceased): Last year, it was the late Fred Astaire dancing with a Hoover vacuum cleaner. You know, just like he did in "Top Hat." This year, Pizza Hut spliced in footage of Elvis Presley singing to teenyboppers about the merits of their crustless, tasteless pizza.

This is an affront to Elvis fans everywhere, who know in their hearts that if the King were still with us, the only food product he would endorse would be big, greasy bacon cheeseburgers. Though he might also cut a spot on behalf of the butter industry.

Worst Use Of a Celebrity Spokesman (Living): In what has to be a case of galactically bad timing, President Clinton took the airwaves on behalf of his "Initiative on Race" smoke-and-mirrors show, pointing out to impressionable young Americans the importance of "playing by the rules."

No word from the Chief Executive on where schtupping an intern fits into the equation.

"Why shouldn't President Clinton appear at the Super Bowl?" quipped one wag at our Super Bowl party. "Who knows more about scoring than him?"

At which point, we hurled cans of beer at his head.

Best Reason To Take Up a New Hobby This Year: If the Super Bowl commercials are anything to go by, the big blockbuster films winging their way to a theater near you include a "Lost in Space" remake, a "Zorro" remake and two movies starring Bruce Willis.

Which offers the final bit of proof for even the most skeptical observer -- Hollywood has officially run out of ideas. Brace yourselves for "She's the Sheriff: The Movie" or "Fantasy Island 2000," which are probably in pre- production now.

Most Poignant Commercial: AT&T's paean to the wonders of e-mail, pagers and cell phones. The spot featured junior high school girls talking about who they wanted to take to the big dance Friday night -- which frankly brought up painful, unresolved issues from my adolescence that I'm not comfortable discussing.

Best Gratuitous Use Of Sex: I'm not a big fan of chips in general nor Doritos in particular. But the ad featuring a leggy woman seductively eating chips whilst doing the splits awoke feelings in me that haven't stirred since that ad a few years back when Kathy Ireland woofed down a bag of Lay's potato chips.

Worst Gratuitous Use Of Sex: Nike -- it's not just a shoe, it's a way of life -- aired an ad for a new line of athletic clothing that featured many, many naked males. And quite frankly, this, too, brought up painful, unresolved issues from my adolescence that I'm not comfortable discussing.

The John Elway Memorial "Fourth Time's a Charm Award: Say this about Pepsi -- they're a persistent bunch of buggers when it comes to the ad game. Whereas Coke bets the whole enchilada on one spot -- a bunch of unpleasant looking red-heads espousing the virtues of their carbonated beverage -- Pepsi churns out ad after eye-glazingly awful ad in the hopes that one will eventually stick.

This year was no exception. At $1.3 million a pop, Pepsi gave us a guy ski-surfing with a computer-animated goose, an insect cavorting about to the melodious strains of "Brown Sugar," and NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon fumbling about his stock car to find his Pepsi. Only the ad featuring Gordon didn't make my temples throb. And while a .333 batting average may be outstanding if you're Omar Vizquel, it's not all that hot when you're a major soft drink manufacturer.

On the bright side, though, Pepsi is introducing a new can, thus answering the prayers of a grieving nation.

Most Incomprehensible Commercial: (tie) If I understand the commercial for Oracle correctly -- and after more than a week of reviewing the tape, I think I do -- then the Silicon Valley giant is switching its strategic focus from computers and software to instead sell bright red furniture. And the ad seems to suggest that if only Oracle were around in the 1960s, then the Viet Cong would have settled their problems peacefully, sparing the world a terrible war and even more terrible Oliver Stone movies.

Then there's the ongoing series for the Lexus GS -- the one with the dark cinematography and the scratchy voiced-old woman warning the puzzled viewer about something wicked this way coming.

The implication is as clear as it is troubling -- the Lexus GS is pure Evil. Drive the car and prepare yourself for Plague, Pestilence, Famine and War. It's the automobile of choice for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the reliable ground transportation for Satan's own minions, the courtesy car for the Ninth Circle of Hell.

Though I hear it gets great gas mileage.

Best NBC Promo: The Working parody of Nike's "I Can" ads was sharp and clever. Too bad the actual show isn't.

Worst NBC Promo: "Hey, everybody... Sure, we lost football. But we still have the Olympics... um... starting two years from now. That's pretty exciting, right guys? Guys? Hey, guys? Anyone wanna go watch Profiler? Hello?"

Best Commercial: When I was a young lad growing up on the wrong side of the tracks in Danville, California, one of my uncles -- I forget which one -- pulled me aside.

"You like to make with the jokes, don't you, Phil?" my uncle asked me.

"I certainly do, sir," I replied.

"Well, then listen up, and listen up good," he said, thumping me in the chest with a stubby index finger. "When it comes to comedy, there ain't nothing funnier than a sociopathic lizard."

It's a lesson Budweiser learned well.

All season long, Louie the Lizard had been plotting his vengeance against the thrice-damned Budweiser frogs. And on Super Bowl Sunday, Louie finally carried out his deadly plan -- he conspired with a ferret to drop the Budweiser sign on top of the frogs. The plot fizzled, the frogs survived and the lizard uttered what may have been the single greatest line of dialogue to emanate from my TV in a good six months -- "Never send a ferret to do a weasel's job."

If cruel, unadulterated violence to frogs at the hands of a deranged lizard can make me think warm thoughts about Budweiser -- and keep in mind, in a blind taste test, I wouldn't be able to distinguish between their fine product and watered-down bat piss -- then corporate America's course of action should be clear. I want to see the lizard doing more commercials. I want to see the lizard do a book tour and cut a pop album. I want NBC to sign the lizard to a development deal for a sitcom to take over the Thursday night Seinfeld slot.

Because even a computer animated lizard is twice as lively as Ally Walker can ever hope to be.

Worst Commercial: Let me see if I understand this concept correctly. Intel shells out millions of dollars for an ad where one of those faceless, smock-wearing drones that look like the Dustin Hoffman character from "Outbreak" ostensibly steals a Pentium II processor. The vast North American viewing audience is expected to log on to Intel's Web site and vote on who the culprit is. And more importantly, I'm supposed to give a rat's ass.

Right. Suggestion noted, Intel.

The tension was just a shade less thicker than air. Would the audience cast their vote for faceless Intel employee A or faceless Intel employee B? Heads or tails? Beans or franks? Extra crispy or original recipe? Oh, would that the Super Bowl end quickly so that we might solve this paralyzing dilemma!

I mean, the least Intel could have done was to blow up a frog or something...

1 For readers who have no earthly clue what Michaels is yammering about, Garo Yepremian was the field goal kicker for the Miami Dolphins of the 1970s. At a key moment in Super Bowl VII against the Washington Redskins, Yepremian bungled a field goal and tried to cover for his crass mistake by picking the ball up and throwing it in the general direction of a teammate, any teammate. But Yepremian threw like a limp-armed sissy, the ball was intercepted and the Redskins' Larry Bass ran it all the way back for Washington's only touchdown of the game. Hence, the appropriateness of the metaphor. And we don't think the fact that it took us more than 100 words to explain a single sentence in any way detracts from the brilliant crispness and scintillating wit you've come to expect from TeeVee.

Now let us never mention Garo Yepremian again...

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