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Football is Easy -- Comedy is Hard

Well... at least it wasn't O.J.

That's always a risk when Don Ohlmeyer -- friend to the downtrodden, defender of the legally liable -- is doing the hiring. Factor in that Ohlmeyer signed on with ABC to bring some spice back to the venerable Monday Night Football franchise, and it's especially fortunate Ohlmeyer didn't turn to his good pal O.J. for a favor. Honestly, what better way to goose the ratings than giving a prime-time platform to O.J. Simpson, gridiron star, one-time MNF commentator, and all-around lady-killer? After all, it worked for Court TV.

But Ohlmeyer resisted, O.J. didn't get the gig, and Al Michaels won't have to keep one eye on the exit while he's trying to do play-by-play. Instead, Ohlmeyer went a different route to restore Monday Night Football to its former glory, to rekindle the good ol' days when a nation watched transfixed as Howard Cosell and Dandy Don Meredith locked horns and Frank Gifford prattled on about pro-set sweep formations, blissfully unaware of the cruel Kathie Lee-tinted card that fate would one day deal him. Now our deliverance from the tedium of meaningless Monday mismatches between the Falcons and the 49ers will take a new -- and completely unexpected -- form. Ladies and Gentlemen, joining our man Al in the booth this fall will be Dennis Miller, the noted funnyman with the heretofore untapped expertise in the intricacies of pro football.

Like I said, at least it wasn't O.J. Though it might as well have been.

I don't mean that as any shot at Dennis Miller. Oh, I worry that in the third quarter of a Seahawks-Raiders blowout, he'll start riffing about how he hasn't seen an end-run like that in Seattle since Bill Gates was served with a federal consent decree. And poor Al Michaels will have no idea how to shut him up, save for vainly signaling the producer to turn off Miller's microphone. Or, even worse, Miller tones down his act for prime time and becomes a dull "football-is-a-kind-of-war" cliche-spouting drone. After all, that's the role of MNF's other new hire, the oatmeal-bland, almost lifelike Dan Fouts.

But, aside from the risk of obscure references to Garo Ypremian anytime someone lines up for a field goal, I think Miller will be a fine addition to the Monday Night Football booth. He's bright, he's articulate, he's quick-witted. And unlike his predecessor, Boomer Esiason, he's able to put together a complex sentence without dislocating his tongue.

No, you'll have to surf elsewhere for righteous indignation about Dennis Miller's new adventure in broadcasting. And if you do, you won't have to listen too hard to hear the hue and cry of media critics who've decided that hiring Miller -- a common wiseacre! -- to fill the commentator role handled so ably by the likes of Alex Karras, Joe Namath, and Dan Dierdorf constitutes an affront to the hallowed temple of sports journalism.

Yeah. Whatever happened to standards and dignity, for chrissake? Call me old-fashioned, but why couldn't ABC have followed the fine examples and time-honored traditions of broadcasters past? Like letting an ex-beauty queen and Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder co-host The NFL Today. Or having Howard Cosell leer at Randi Oakes during the dunk tank competition on Battle of the Network Stars. Or, at the very least, use Fox's glowing hockey puck technology in some way or another. Or... or...

I'm sorry. I lost my train of thought. Where was I?

Oh, yes... standards! Dignity!

If adding Dennis Miller to the Monday Night Football mix causes this much grumbling, imagine the wailing and rending of garments that would have transpired had ABC gone with another leading contender, Rush Limbaugh. Even the news that ABC had merely considered Limbaugh was enough to send TV critics into paroxysms of outrage normally reserved for paroled child molesters, particularly bloodthirsty dictators, and Fox reality specials.

Salon.com took a break from its normal routine -- running stories that work the word "penis" into the headline and watching its stock price plummet to Marianas Trench-like depths -- to bewail the evils of the radio talk show host. Al Franken -- last funny and relevant during the Ford administration -- vowed that if Limbaugh were hired, he'd never watch Monday Night Football again, no doubt putting the fear of God in ABC executives worried about erosion in the valuable hack comic demographic. And TV critics across the land flexed their analytical muscles by scouring their thesauri for different ways to call Limbaugh "fat."

The kind of mass hysteria generated by a simple job interview would be comical -- if it came from the plot of a 1950s B-Movie. "Attack of the Conservative Football Announcer!" or some such nonsense. Sadly, the hysteria comes from reporters, a group of people who should be able to look at things critically rather than produce articles based on groupthink. But apparently newsrooms are such tolerant, open-minded places, that to merely suggest something as neutral as "Rush Limbaugh is a competent broadcaster who would be an intriguing addition to Monday Night Football" is to invite untold guff from your hippie-trippy colleagues. Either that, or TV critics are so devoid of original ideas that they've taken to parroting each other's works. Which explains the widespread and inexplicable acclaim enjoyed by David Kelley, come to think of it.

And so Limbaugh gets the ol' raspberry from the fair-minded fourth estate. Which is a shame, actually. Because just as Miller will bring a new and welcome voice to MNF, Limbaugh would have added a distinct -- and interesting -- personality of his own. If nothing else, any show where the play-by-play announcer and color commentator could come to blows at any moment is a show worth watching. Dandy Don and Howard proved that time and again, lo those many years ago.

At the root of the Sturm und Drang surrounding Miller and Limbaugh is the belief that hiring either one renders Monday Night Football's credibility as wobbly as a Ryan Leaf spiral, that sports coverage is treated by TV networks with the same care they give a news event. Well, it doesn't, and it isn't. Sportscasts divorced themselves from the bonds of journalism long ago. Or haven't you been watching?

Take the halftime show on NBC during the NBA playoffs -- Net.Zero at the Half, for those of you who pay attention to such things. Most of the feature stories and interviews during halftime were thinly disguised promos for upcoming games, all broadcast on NBC of course. Then, there's the fine interview work of Ahmad Rashad, a man whose withering line of inquiry usually falls along the lines of "Shaq, that was some basketball game," and "Were you feeling as good as you played out there, Penny?" It says a lot about Rashad the journalist that the most informative piece work he's ever done is his voice-over on the current ad campaign for Coors.

Yes, beer commercials. Just like Edward Murrow used to do, I believe.

Or consider the upcoming Summer Olympics. Last month, about the same time that pundits were frothing at the mouth about the odd couple of Rush Limbaugh and pro football, NBC announced that its Olympic coverage would be live for a grand total of zero hours. The network plans to tape-delay the whole enchilada, a curious decision since the Olympics are ostensibly news and news is ideally reported in a timely fashion.

But to NBC and Don Ohlmeyer's evil disciple, Dick Ebersol, the Olympics are not news. Rather, they are a dramatic event. And there's no better way to heighten the drama then by editing out the dead spots and adding a few inspiring profiles about the swimmer who overcame rickets and the gymnast who's battling a Pop Rocks addiction.

The folks who worked themselves into a dither about Monday Night Football, they haven't had too much to say about NBC's Olympics shell game. Perhaps they're still too busy coming up with clever ways to ridicule Rush Limbaugh's weight.

Well, not me. Give me Dennis Miller on Monday Night Football. Hell, give me Rush Limbaugh and Regis Philbin and Soupy Sales while you're at it. Because in a world where the Olympics get turned into a pre-packaged highlight show, where Jim Gray asks Pete Rose a legitimate question about his gambling habit and gets pilloried for it, where Ahmad Rashad can still draw a paycheck, trying to make Monday Night Football more entertaining by adding Dennis Miller is the least of my worries.

Just keep the references to the Marianas Trench and Garo Ypremian to a bare minimum. OK, Dennis?


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