If you don’t watch ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” I probably won’t be able to explain this one to you. And if you do watch ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” this placement will be such a no-brainer — too low, perhaps even — that no explanation will be necessary.
TV’s Best of the Decade: No. 14 — ‘Pardon the Interruption’
It boils down to this: Are you a fan of “The Daily Show”? If “Yes,” continue on. If “No,” you may not be reading the right Best of the Decade list.
You know how if you’re a “Daily Show” fan, when you see or read that something ridiculous happened in the world, you instantly look at your watch and start a countdown until 11 p.m. to see what Jon Stewart’s take on that event is going to be? That’s what “Pardon the Interruption” is like for sports fans, only with an added risk: You never know when you’re going to tune in and see that Tony Kornheiser or Michael Wilbon has been replaced by Dan Le Batard for the day. [For non-sports fans, that would be the equivalent of flipping on “The Daily Show” and seeing guest host Carrot Top.]
For the majority of the decade, “Pardon the Interruption” has been informative, funny, thoughtful and relevant five days a week.
Few shows in my day-to-day life are actually indispensable. I don’t have an accurate count on the show’s total number of episodes since its 2001 premiere, but we’re looking at over 1500+.
Even if you acknowledge the risk of actually sitting through an episode co-hosted by Jay Mariotti or Rick Reilly, I am pleased to place “Pardon the Interruption” at No. 14 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade.
[Click through for the justifications…]
The formula for “Pardon the Interruption” — “PTI” for those who need to save time or sometimes forget to type the second “r” in “Interruption” — is simple. Former Washington Post colleagues Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon sit across a table from each other and they fight about sports. They work through the day’s headlines, spend Five Good Minutes with a guest (assuming the producer was able to book somebody) and then they play a daily game. The games, variations on classic improv exercises, include “Over/Under,” “Odds Makers,” “Role Play,” “Mail Time,” “Toss Up” and several newer games that I haven’t warmed up to yet, like “Report Card.” Fans of the show have favorite games just like fans of “The Price Is Right” root for “Plinko” or “Stack the Deck” or “Gas Money.” The show ends with a speedy loop through some secondary headlines and a quick fact-check courtesy of Tony “Stat Boy” Reali, who has managed to parlay a gig as an ESPN researcher into two key on-air roles in the network’s afternoon programming block (he also hosts “Around the Horn,” but more on that in a minute).
“PTI” is a no-frill zone. The set is cheap and limited, decorated with memorabilia and previously used props. There appear to be a maximum of two or three camera set-ups and other than the occasional pan down the cluttered main desk, the camera almost never moves. There’s a theme song, an announcer (or a “producer over the loud speaker”) and an amusing sound gag or two.
The formula isn’t all that different from ESPN’s venerable “The Sports Reporters,” another entirely self-explanatory concept wherein a group of four people — three sports reporters and a moderator — sit in an oval and talk sports. That show premiered in 1988 and continues to this day. It’s interesting and engaging, but not on the same level as “Pardon the Interruption.”
The essence of “PTI” is in its very title, in the word “interruption,” but also the word “pardon.” The entire show hinges on the unique dynamic between Kornheiser and Wilbon, a dynamic honed over their years of arguing and kinship in a newsroom. The “interruption” part implies the confrontational aspect of their relationship, while the “pardon” implies the geniality and respect the two men obviously share. In this way, “Pardon the Interruption” isn’t the same thing as “The Sports Reporters” or even the oft-referenced and paralleled “Siskel & Ebert.” In the latter two instances, the people on the panel are colleagues first and sparring partners second and if there’s friendship, it was an afterthought, or maybe an added bonus.
With Tony and Mike, it’s the chemistry that steers the show and that propels the conversation between this modern Odd Couple, whose commonalities sometimes seem to end at knowledge, humor and baldness. Wilbon is a consummate reporter, still pounding the beat today, working live events around the country and doing the things that a reporter does. Kornheiser has always been more of a personality, more of a pure columnist with his writing driven by opinion and anecdotes. Wilbon steers conversations towards his love of all things Chicago, plus his buddy and writing partner Charles Barkley. Kornheiser steers conversations toward “American Idol” and “24.” Neither man gives much credence to the existence of “soccer” or “hockey” as sports.
In a recent episode of “30 Rock,” the show lampooned ESPN’s Blowhards Yelling At Each Other About Sports genre of programming with a show called “Sports Shout,” a pretty clear parody of “Around the Horn,” which leads into “PTI” most weekdays. The failings of “Around the Horn” accentuate the reasons “PTI” works so beautifully.
On “Around the Horn,” four sports reporters from around the country appear via satellite and are placed on four screens. Then, with limited prodding from the host, they go around in circles screaming their opinions on various topics and trying to earn arbitrarily assigned points. There’s almost no interaction between the panelists both because they aren’t in the same room and because nobody seems to be listening to anybody else. It’s an intellectual battle royal in which the person who’s the most belligerent wins. Several of the regulars on the show have cultivated personalities almost solely built around their absence of substance and their reticence to play well with others. It’s telling that even if Kornheiser is prone to wear pointy caps and elf-ears around Christmas, he still retains his dignity more than Denver Post columnist Woody Paige of “Around the Horn,” who sacrificed apparently legitimate reportorial bona fides to become an afternoon TV buffoon for ESPN.
If “Around the Horn” is about competitive clowning, “Pardon the Interruption” is about spirited debate, with either host willing to play Devil’s Advocate if required. In its perfect form, Kornheiser and Wilbon share the same set, so both men are forced to look at each other when they say stupid things about each other, as opposed to the repercussion-free isolation of “Around the Horn.” Kornheiser and Wilbon look at each other, listen to each other and respond directly to each other, so it’s possible for conversations to progress and evolve and for interaction to be productive, rather than toxic. Oh and they aren’t sexist morons, so they come across better than the gang on Fox Sports’ mostly-deceased “Best Damn Sports Show Period,” which premiered several months before “PTI,” but went through a revolving door of hosts, seemingly based on which personalities were facing sexual harassment charges at any given moment.
Tony and Mike are also able to remove the silly costumes and just be serious if the topic mandates. They’re equally credible mocking an ex-jock about their “Dancing with the Stars” performances as they are with discussing steroids in baseball or mourning the death of promising young athlete like a Chris Henry or a Nick Adenhart. This returns me to my initial point: Whether it’s a point guard posterizing a lumbering center, a Cinderella team advancing to the Sweet 16, an idiotic piece of officiating in the SEC or young star putting his career on hold to face cancer treatments, I know that Tony and Mike will have something to say on the subject and that they’ll give the subject its due respect, whether that “due” happens to be “substantial” or “none at all.”
“PTI” doesn’t always work. The balance is tenuous and can be thrown off sometimes by something as simple as shoddy satellite feed. Both men have also taken time off for medical reasons, leaving the other at the mercy of a guest host like Bob Ryan or J.A. Adande or a Stephen A. Smith. Occasionally the remaining regular is able to overcome the liability of the guest host and deliver an OK show, but no alternative combo is even close to a placebo for Tony/Mike. And yes, I’ll just turn off an episode whenever I see that Le Batard is on.
Also, I’d be remiss in not mentioning CBS’ “Listen Up,” a sitcom dud featuring Jason Alexander and Malcolm-Jamal Warner as not-especially-fictionalized versions of Tony and Mike. The comedy was effectively CBS’ version of “Emeril!,” made worse by fact that Tony had to plug new episodes during “PTI.” For reasons I couldn’t begin to justify, “Listen Up” survived for a full 22 episodes on CBS and failed to yield as many laughs as an average week of “Pardon the Interruption.”
Many shows in the Aughts may have advanced the artistry of the form more than “Pardon the Interruption” has. Heck, all of them probably have. But if we’re talking about the sheer amount of generated entertainment and information distributed over the majority of a decade? “Pardon the Interruption” may rank at the very top.
So I have no problems at all with placing “PTI” at No. 14 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade.
Coming up this weekend (this will probably be way too easy): Two shows featuring people who share the same name.