Sunday, February 26, 2006

ESPN is the New Nickelodeon
By Blogger

I don't have the numbers in front of me, but subjective observation tells me the kids' television network Nickelodeon reached the peak of its cultural relevance just after I grew out of it, and has been in a steady, Disney Channel Noggin Cartoon Network related decline ever since. Around 1996, it seemed as if the network's head honcho, Geraldine Laybourne, was listed on every single Most Powerful People list, but Nick hasn't been mentioned in Newsweek since, let alone Time (save for SpongeBob). As with any other cultural movement, whether it's gangsta rap or flash mobs or whatever, those who were fully on the bandwagon just before the peak claim that their era was the true Golden Age, and I'm no exception. In my memory, the quality of the Nickelodeon programs I watched regularly is inversely related to how recently I last saw an episode, with a little bit of actual quality assessment mixed in.

What interests me at the moment, though, is that Nickelodeon was the media entity most successful at creating a Celebrity Bubble. What do I mean by that? Back in the 80s, MTV sort of kind of created "MTV Celebrities"--mostly their VJs, but also a few of the actors on the shows--that were only famous in the sense that they were on MTV a lot and treated like celebrities by MTV, within the MTV Bubble. Nowhere else would they be treated like celebrities. The thing is, MTV got so big and relevant that the VJs and a few others actually did become celebrities in the conventional sense. The MTV Celebrity Bubble lives on with the Real World and Road Rules franchises.

Nickelodeon took the Celebrity Bubble concept to new heights in the early and mid-90s. TV shows such as Figure It Out featured Nick Celebrities as "guest stars", while all sorts of other weird cross-pollination was going on with the Kids Choice Awards and, eventually, movie promotion. The reason this worked was because, like MTV a generation before, Nickelodeon had a captive audience that, at the time, didn't have anywhere else to go for the type of entertainment Nick was providing. The Disney Channel was a premium commercial-free cable network, and Noggin and TCN didn't exist or were in their infancies. In other words, there was no real competition.

So it goes with ESPN. The Entertainment and Sports Network has, apparently, created a hell of a Celebrity Bubble. There is no real competition for what they're doing. The various Fox Sports Nets aim more for local audiences, and then... there's no one else. Is Kenny Mayne a real celebrity? Of course not, but he gets A-list treatment at the ESPYs, which are ESPN's Kids' Choice Awards; a self-fellating charade disguised as an awards show. Is Skip Bayless a celebrity? What about Stat Boy? Outside of Dancing With The Stars (a debacle that I won't touch here), ESPN Celebrities don't get any attention outside of that lavished upon them by ESPN's various forms and its captive audience.

The following parallels don't exactly illustrate the point, but they do show how the rises and declines of the networks' cultural relevance follows similar patterns.

Keith Olbermann=Older Pete
Dan Patrick=Younger Pete
Back in the day, Patrick-Olbermann on SportsCenter was the best sports anchor team money could buy. Irreverant, incisive, intelligent, their shows were everything sports fans want from SportsCenter. Unfortunately, all good things must end, and the impossibly high bar set by that duo doomed every subsequent SportsCenter pairing to failure in comparison.

On Nickelodeon, The Adventures of Pete & Pete set a bar that has since been occasionally approached, but never surpassed. It had just the right mix of surreal quirkiness and unabashed sentimentality as it told the story of two brothers named Pete, their mom with a plate in her head, their superhero friend, Artie, their emasculated dad, and a whole host of other characters, including Pit Stain, Paper Cut, Ellen, Nona, et al. The show was so good that it even attracted guest stars such as Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, Ellen Cleghorne, Adam West, and Art Donovan. Excellent times.

The parallel extends even to the show's stars. Long after Mike Maronna/Olbermann left the network, Danny Tamberelli/Patrick stayed on, losing much of his dignity in the process of dealing with weaker partners. Meanwhile, Maronna/Olbermann maintained their street cred by, in Maronna's case, appearing in hilarious commercials and the odd movie, or, in Olbermann's case, anchoring the best news show on TV.

Michael Wilbon=Kel
Tony Kornheiser=Kenan
Kenan and Kel were The Two Black Guys on the TV show, All That, and later, the stars of a spinoff movie called Good Burger. While Kenan Thompson was already a bit of a cult figure from his role as The KnucklePuck Guy in Mighty Ducks 2, on All That he may as well have been Eddie Murphy on SNL circa 1983. I mean, who else could be funny playing a lactose intolerant Superman ripoff? His most popular character though, was one of the dudes behind the counter at Good Burger, a generic fast food joint. He played Brain to Kel's Pinky, Lucy to Kel's Ethel, Lloyd to Kel's Harry. Kel Mitchell would go on to have a small role in Mystery Men, but Good Burger was the height of his career. Meanwhile, Kenan has, somehow, become an actual cast member of SNL.

Of course, this analogy isn't fair to Kornheiser and Wilbon's writing careers, but the fact is that Pardon The Interruption has become a tired parody of itself that has spawned other tired parodies such as Around The Horn (even CNN's Crossfire played around with a timer before biting the dust), just as All That and Good Burger were tired parodies of themselves that collapsed into self-conscious mediocrity. Also, just as All That was the result of combining Roundhouse with the Mickey Mouse Club and then removing all the musical elements, PTI was the result of combining the standard morning talk radio show with a cable news sense of argument and adding the timer gimmick.

Linda Cohn=Lori Beth Denberg
Lori Beth Denberg was a cast member of All That who, inexplicably, gained star status. Just as Linda Cohn seems to have stayed on with ESPN for years and years by riding the "I could be your mom, but I like sports" schtick, so, too, did Denberg ride the All That segment titled Vital Information to Nick Celebrity. Basically, it consisted of Denberg sitting behind a desk, getting introduced Weekend Update style, and then for three to five minutes she would spout bizarre one liners, such as: "If there was an animal called a yabba-dabba, and you kept one in your backyard, you might accidentally step in yabba-dabba doo." Actually, that one makes more sense than most of the other one-liners. I seem to recall something along the lines of, "If your mother comes into the house and finds you beating up your little sister, don't try to say you're baking cookies." Amazingly, Denberg is now thirty years old. Seriously.

Ron Jaworski=Marc Summers
If you watched Nick back in the day, you loved Double Dare (or its spinoffs, Super Sloppy Double Dare and Family Double Dare). How could you not? Basically, two pairs of kids would compete against each other, trying to earn points by answering trivia questions. Through an unnecessarily complicated series of parliamentary maneuvers, one of the teams would invariably end up taking a Physical Challenge instead of trying to answer a question. A challenge might involve tossing eggs into a bucket perched on your partner's head twenty feet away, or something similarly messy. The whole thing culminated with the winning team getting a chance to go through the Double Dare obstacle course, which consisted of a number of obstacles of increasing difficulty and messiness, with better and better prizes awarded for each completed obstacle. It was impossible to look cool if you were a contestant on the show, wearing goggles, kneepads, and ugly blue or red t-shirts and sweats while crawling through a tunnel filled with pudding and orange peels.

Marc Summers hosted the show and was the consummate professional. He was, by far, the best game show host Nick ever employed, which isn't saying much when you consider his competition was some guy who dressed up like he was on safari for Legends of the Hidden Temple, and Mike O'Malley, who screamed every word he said on Guts (a show that might best be described as a mesmerizing combination of American Gladiators and the X-Games), but he was still excellent.

In the same way that Summers has no equal in Nickelodeon's history, Ron Jaworski has no equal among all of ESPN's football commentators. He is the complete package. As an ex-player, he is insulated from the anti-intellectual, jocks uber alles, crowd. However, he's earned the respect of more scientifically minded football fans for his attention to detail and his fascinating work on NFL Matchup. About that attention to detail, Summers was also a detail fanatic, though no one knew it at the time. In fact, he was afflicted with a severe case of OCD. Can you imagine what he went through when somebody spilled shredded lettuce everywhere?

Baseball Tonight=Salute Your Shorts
If Pete & Pete was the best live action show on Nickelodeon, Salute Your Shorts was next best. In the same way, just as the Patrick-Olbermann SportsCenter was The Big Show, Baseball Tonight was consistently excellent. With both shows, there was no obvious reason why it was particularly good. On Baseball Tonight, Karl Ravech and Brian Kenny (THE BEST anchor in ESPN's entire stable, easily) led the proceedings, but neither was the star. In the same way, Ug the camp counselor was the guiding force of SYS without ever taking star status away from the kids. Sure, Peter Gammons is an infinitely interesting guy and a tremendous writer, but onscreen he stammers a lot, turns his body away from the camera, and allows Harold Reynolds to shout him down. Sure, Donkey Lips might just be the best character name this side of Big Pussy, but the show's writers seemed to have a thing for subsuming his character in favor of Budnick, Michael, Pinsky... everyone but Sponge.

The premise of SYS was tremendous: follow the wacky adventures and schemes of a group of kids at summer camp, but upon further review, the various child stars of the show were mediocre actors at best (John Kruk? Larry Bowa?). Finally, both shows have the best theme songs of their respective networks. You can get similar responses when you loudly hum the Baseball Tonight theme at a spring training practice as when you start singing "Camp Anawanna, we hold you in our hearts," around people in their early twenties.

Omar Gooding=Omar Gooding
Cuba Gooding, Jr.'s younger brother was the breakout star of ESPN's one-season dynamo, Playmakers. As the DeShaun Foster analogue to Russell Hornsby's Stephen Davis-esque character, Gooding completely redefined the Insane MoFo With A World of Talent, blowing up Nuke LaLoosh and rebuilding it as a crack smoking, stripper banging, let's get a fix from Snoop Dogg at halftime, monstrosity. And it was brilliant.

On Nickelodeon, he was one of the hosts of Wild & Crazy Kids, which took Seinfeld's "rooting for laundry" joke to its logical conclusion. Groups of random kids, separated into teams identified by garish blue, yellow, red, and occasionally green or pink t-shirts, would compete against each other in bizarre "athletic" events. Think of it as the forerunner of the Real World/Road Rules Challenge, only with no prizes and without knowing who the competitors were. I seem to recall that they once held races down a grassy hillside, with the kids riding blocks of ice down. Anyway, Gooding was, by far, the least wooden of the hosts. Donnie Jeffcoat couldn't hold his jock. Just as he would ten years later for the IMFWAWT, Gooding set a new bar for a teen actor hosting a weird game show.

Chris Berman=Green Slime
Boomer has been at ESPN from the start, and he will probably always be there. He will never retire, because even after he stops working regularly, the network will cart him out and parade him around as a symbol of the glory days, and he'll play along, kind of like how John Wooden is treated by UCLA. Green Slime holds the same status at Nick. From the moment I first saw someone on You Can't Do That On Television utter the dreaded, "I don't know," and subsequently get a Green Slime shower, I knew I was seeing something revolutionary. That may have been someone's reaction when they first heard Berman calling a home run on SportsCenter in 1980, "Back back backbackback... Gone!" or a touchdown, "He. Could. Go. All. The. Way!" Either way, you say the words "Chris Berman" and people think of ESPN. You say "Green Slime" and people think of Nickelodeon (or Ghostbusters, I suppose, depending on your age).

Photos from:
www.jimpoz.com, www.sportscardpedia.org, www.angelfire.com/nc/witchbaby/pete/pictures.html, www.espn.com, www.masterpiecepumpkins.com, www.sitcomsonline.com, www.extrahip.com, www.nationwidespeakers.com, www.kepplerspeakers.com, www.dyslexicpenguin.com, www.johnnorrisbrown.com, www.wgbh.org, www.nick.com, www.answers.com, www.ycdtotv.de

5 Comments:

Anonymous steelyjack said...

Love the post. But...

C'mon. Brian Kenny? I agree that ESPN, et al., become a mere shadow of what it was the bigger that it gets. But, ew, Brian Kenny? I'm more of a John Buccigross fan, myself. His enthusiasm and love of sports is natural and infectious and he is the ONLY ESPN anchor that I have never seen be condescending.

9:53 PM  
Blogger David Arnott said...

To each his own:) I just think it's funny you mention Buccigross because a close friend and I often share the joke that Steve Berthaume is the poor man's John Buccigross.

5:26 AM  
Blogger Dan McGowan said...

I love this piece.

As soon as I read Donkey Lips, I thought of Rick Majerus.

1:34 PM  
Blogger Jeremy said...

Absolutely brilliant stuff.

Well done.

5:25 PM  
Anonymous ExplorerD said...

nice post!

2:59 PM  

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