Blake Griffin is one of the few athletes as comfortable on a stand-up stage as he is on the court. More and more athletes these days are giving comedy a try, but it’s just not easy to mix sports and comedy. Mockumentaries are often the most successful route because there’s established territory in serious filmmaking about sports.
Poking fun at a sport as a whole, like Seven Days in Hell does for tennis and Tour de Pharmacy does to cycling, is one of the more successful ways of bringing athletes and comedy together. And The 5th Quarter is certainly a show that tries to bridge that gap using many of the same methods.
The brainchild of Michael D. Ratner, the show debuted its second season on go90, a Verizon-supported video platform on Thursday. Ratner managed to get some big sports stars involved in the show’s sophomore effort and already has a third season lined up. But the creator and director has serious production chops in sports filmmaking to fall back on as he tries to add a sense of humor to what’s often a too-serious aspect of film.
“I think there was a gap where no one was exploring the sports entertainment comedy space the way that they should,” Ratner said in a phone interview with Uproxx before The 5th Quarter‘s second season was released.
In 2015, Ratner directed Gonzo at the Derby, a short in ESPN’s acclaimed 30 For 30 documentary series. The piece chronicled Hunter S. Thompson’s coverage of the 1970 Kentucky Derby for Scanlan’s Monthly. Though he’s also worked on a documentary about Dwight Howard and In Football We Trust with Dwyane “The Rock” Johnson, it was researching for ESPN where he came up with the idea for The 5th Quarter.
“During that experience I had studied a lot of the 30 For 30s and I was just thinking about how seriously we take sports and about a lot of these storylines and moments in time,” Ratner said. “I was just thinking if we flipped them on their head a little bit, how funny it could be.”
The result was The 5th Quarter, which premiered in 2016. The show often borrowed headlines in the sports world and brought them to life in a much funnier way. In other words, it aims to tell “the greatest untold and untrue stories in sports history.”
“I think if you look at any The 5th Quarter episode, it’s either arm’s length away or a direct parody of something that actually happened,” Ratner said. “Season one, episode one was staring Blake Griffin. It was the Danny Almonte story, but it was in basketball.”
The episode, “But I’m Just A Little Boy”, gave Griffin essentially a non-speaking role filled with lots of physical comedy. Donnell Rawlings, famous for his work on Chappelle’s Show, played Griffin’s uncle, who convinced a 27-year-old Griffin to pose as a 13-year-old foreign basketball player so he could dominate in AAU under-14 tournaments.
“The idea here was to really sell the show we wanted to play it pretty straight, and I think that’s where a lot of the humor comes from,” Ratner said. “It’s not over the top. If you tune in at any point, you’d think you’re watching a real sports doc.”
Griffin, despite being mostly non-verbal, was great in the role. And he came back for the second season to play a much bigger role. In the season two premier, “Born to Walk,” he plays competitive race walker Sheldon King as he does battle with his rival, Jimmy Kong, played by Jimmy O. Yang of Silicon Valley fame.
Ratner said that the Los Angeles Clippers star “kills his role,” and his enthusiasm for acting and comedy made it easy for the basketball star to transition to an on-screen star. He even played a big part in forming the character itself.
“I just read the script and I was like, ‘Oh, this guy has to wear old-people clothing. He needs to be young, but he needs to feel old, like an old soul,’” Griffin told The Ringer in September.
Not every athlete is as prepared to work in camera with charisma like Griffin, especially after years of media training. But Ratner said the athletes he’s encountered making The 5th Quarter have done well to make the most of their time on set.
“I think you need to just know the athlete you’re working with and set them up for success,” he said. “Athletes aren’t actors, so we always have to think through ‘What’s the storyline? What position are we putting them in?’”
One notable duo appearing in season two are LaVar Ball and Lonzo Ball. Their relationship is successfully skewered, though the Lakers rookie and his father do much of the skewering themselves. Ratner worked with the Balls in the past and convinced them to appear in an episode where Marlon Wayans plays an overbearing father who tries to develop his son, Fetus Jones, into an NBA superstar long before he even exits the womb.
“LaVar plays himself, but in the storyline he’s condemning Marlon Wayans, who plays this overbearing father who’s trying to build the next big sports brand,” Ratner explained. “It’s just totally reversing it and I think that’s the really cool thing about this series: A lot of athletes, especially after season one, have bought into ‘Well, what can I do? What sort of way can I poke fun at myself or connect with my fans in a way that’s not on the court or with a mic in my face in the locker room after a game?'”
And yes, despite all the bravado and bombast the Ball family has created over the last year, Ratner was adamant that LaVar Ball can take a joke.
“I think LaVar and Lonzo, in many ways, they’re in on the joke,” Ratner said. “They don’t take themselves too serious.”
Other athletes like Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton, New Orleans Pelicans star DeMarcus Cousins and even basketball legend Julius Irving are scheduled to appear in the show’s second season. And though the showrunner said ‘Born To Walk’ might be his favorite episode, Griffin might not even be his favorite NBA player to appear on the show at this point. He was shocked to see how quickly Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid took to being on camera. Mr. Process himself will star in the Season Three premier when the show returns in 2018.
Ratner met him doing another series for Vice during his second major injury last season, but knew Embiid from his social media shenanigans and knew he would be perfect for comedy.
“He came in and he just blew everybody away. He’s just a natural, so funny,” Ratner said of Embiid. “And it was really his first time acting. I just couldn’t believe it because he was awesome.”
Another favorite episode comes thanks to Kenny Mayne, who’s an executive producer on the show. Mayne stars in an episode called “Hotlanta,” the second episode of the show’s second season. In it, the icon of many of the ‘This Is SportsCenter’ commercials investigates whether or not an orgy took place at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta.
But Mayne’s involvement in the show isn’t because they can’t get big names interested. In fact, Ratner said many sports stars have seen the benefits of showing off their comedy chops and giving fans a new side to their personalities. Now, they come to him.
“It’s not a tough pitch anymore,” Ratner said. “Rather, I’ll run into guys that are like ‘What am I doing in The 5th Quarter next year?’ And I think that’s pretty cool.”