Are You Ready For Some Banter?
The NHL All-Star weekend shoot-out? I watch that. A late season cablecast of the Minnesota Twins and the Oakland Athletics playing out the string? That too. The Micron PC Bowl? Saw it. Loved it.
Of course, to paraphrase noted WNBA enthusiast George Orwell, some sports are more equal than others. Baseball is a joy. Hockey is a passion. And football... well, my interest in football is largely a financial one.
(Just wanted to point out to any government agents out there who might have come across this article while surfing the Web on the lookout for troublemakers that the preceding paragraph should be read in the spirit of good-natured parody in which it was written. And if you should happen to wonder about any chunks of undeclared income that may or may not find their way on to my tax returns this year, well, let's just say I found the extra scratch in my couch, OK? Thanks, boys! We here at TeeVee salute you and your diligent pursuit of the real evildoers out there in cyberspace -- those crumbs at Microsoft. Yeah. Go charge them with something.)
Every now and again, though, I'll sit down and watch a game of football on the ol' TV for reasons other than monetary gain, a disturbing excess of free time or the twisted desire to see millionaires risk crippling injury all for my amusement. Sometimes I'll watch just because I think it's going to be a good game. And what better time to watch than during America's night of gridiron overload, Monday Night Football?
Back in the late '70s and extending on into the early '80s, no male lifeform on this planet worth his weight in testosterone dared miss Monday Night Football. The week, it seemed, couldn't begin until we heard those familiar, jarring chords while the nasally stentorian voice of Howard Cosell breathed life into even the most uninspired of match-ups.
"Jim Zorn and the Seattle Seahawks come to the Oakland Coliseum looking for redemption," the disembodied voice of Howard would thunder over grainy footage of Zorn dragging his half-beaten carcass across the Astroturf while a gang of monstrous linebackers tried to completely sever his right arm. "But Jim Plunkett, the gritty Stanford graduate, has other plans in mind. On Monday. Night. Football."
Da da da dum! DUM DUM DUM! Da da da da da-dum! DUM DUM DUM!
I mean, how can you not get excited hearing that? Sure, Jim Zorn would probably throw a couple of picks and Plunkett spent most of the game handing off to Mark van Eeghen and the goddamn Raiders would win another game, but for a moment -- just a moment -- Howard and the boys had you convinced you were going to witness something not unlike a war.
Like a lot of things since the early '80s -- popular music, clothing, the career trajectory of John Travolta -- Monday Night Football has changed dramatically. And like a lot of things since the early '80s -- popular music, clothing, the career trajectory of Ron Palillo -- not all of that change has been for the better.
The Monday Night Football crew has undergone a dramatic facelift. Gone are Howard and Dandy Don Meredith, replaced by the competent Al Michaels and dreadful windbag Dan Dierdorf. Even Frank Gifford, the longest-reigning member of the Monday Night Football team, was finally given the bum's rush this year, relegated to pre-game duties after a substantial portion of America threatened to take hostages should the one-time New York Giant regale us with yet another tale of his blissed-out existence with Kathie Lee and Cody and Cassidy.
OK, some of the changes have been for the better.
The almost-lifelike Gifford was replaced in the booth by Boomer Esiason, the greatest quarterback in Cincinnati Bengal history, assuming you went back in time and made sure the birth of Ken Anderson never happened. As a novice, Boomer brings a fresh perspective to calling a game, which is to say that he stammers a lot and points out the obvious and fills up the air with an empty stream of words. So he should blend right in with most of the other color commentators on sports broadcasts these days.
But Boomer brings something else to the Monday Night Football party, something not entirely welcome. Teaming with Dierdorf, who, we must remember, is a dreadful windbag, Boomer supplies us with a steady stream of awkward schtick and locker-room joshing that would make even the most stalwart viewer feel uncomfortable.
Tune in to a typical evening of Monday Night Football this past season and you're likely to hear the comedy team of Esiason and Dierdorf make with the wisecracks and repartee.
MICHAELS: Bledsoe to back to pass, looks deep, sees Jefferson, throws... oooh, the pass falls incomplete. Fourth down.
ESIASON: That's Bledsoe's fourth straight incompletion, Al, and you know, a quarterback can't keep throwing those if he expects to win in this league.
DIERDORF: And you would know a lot about throwing incomplete passes, wouldn't you, Boomer?
ESIASON: Why, you!
Close game or blowout, early in the first half or late in the fourth quarter, our Danny and our Boomer are going at it hammer and tong while Al hangs in the background, chuckling good-naturedly. And somewhere, almost hidden from the human eye, an athletic contest takes place.
ESIASON: The Eagles' offense sure is having trouble scoring tonight.
DIERDORF: That's not what your wife was saying the other day, Boomer.
ESIASON: You want a piece of me, Tubby?
DIERDORF: Bring it on, kid. I'll cut you a new grin.
MICHAELS: Hee, hee. Calm down, you two.
ESIASON: Make him stop, Al!
DIERDORF: Funny. Your wife said that the other day, too.
ESIASON: You dreadful windbag! Curse you to Hades!
MICHAELS: And Young connects on a 90-yard pass to Rice for a go-ahead touchdown. We'll never see a play that wild again.
There's a reason for all this stilted banter, this forced jocularity, these toothless barbs that wouldn't even make the grade in any of ABC's crop of dreary new sitcoms. It's because the network wants to cast its net wider, to lure in more people than just the hardcore football fans and the unimaginative dullards like myself. By allowing Al and Dan and Boomer to let fly with the zingers, so the thinking goes, we'll draw in the casual fan. The viewers who wouldn't normally think of wasting three hours of their life watching a football game will flock to Monday Night Football because they'll be so taken with the sharp-witted camaraderie on display in the broadcast booth each week. And if that doesn't work, well, we thaw out Frank Gifford and have him talk about the time he and Cody baked Kathie Lee an omelette.
Each Monday Night Football telecast begins with the inexplicably popular Hank Williams Jr. bellowing "Are you ready for some football?" The question couldn't be more ironic. As it's currently constituted, Monday Night Football is all about the chumminess of Al and Dan and Boomer, Chris Berman barking out halftime highlights to a live audience of drunken oafs and Shania Twain videos featuring clips of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The show itself has precious little to do with football.
Howard Cosell wouldn't have stood for any of this crap. If Dan or Boomer ever got out of line, he would have beaten them to death with his industrial-strength toupee. If Hank Williams Jr. ever showed up to ask if anyone was ready for some football, Howard would have hunted him down to the ends of the earth and taken bloody revenge on him, his children and his children's children. And it's little coincidence that a few months after Monday Night Football aired a video of Amy Grant crooning "Baby, Baby" while small children danced in Bear and Packer outfits, Howard Cosell gave up the ghost. Surely a world that would allow such an atrocity to occur was a world Howard no longer wanted to be a part of.
I bring this up not because of any great love for football or any nostalgia for what Monday Night Football used to be. I bring this up because I fear that next season, when Monday Night Football returns, there's going to be bloodshed.
One night -- maybe not in Atlanta, maybe not in Green Bay, but somewhere, sometime -- Dan's going to cross the line with one of his little gibes at Boomer's expense. And Boomer, being a proud man, is going to react how any of us would in his situation: by hurling Dan Dierdorf out of the press box and to his death.
And that would be a tragedy. Particularly if Dierdorf were to land on top of Hank Williams Jr.
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