There’s probably not a comedian on earth I’d rather have on the Fox NFL pregame show than Rob Riggle. He has legitimate comedy bona fides -- most probably know him from “The Hangover,” but he has also worked with the beloved comedy troupe “Human Giant” and, lest we forget, was the guy desperately trying to save Baby Buster on “Arrested Development” -- and he knows his sports (a University of Kansas graduate, he’s a diehard Royals and Chiefs fan; he does a yearly charity event at a Royals-Cardinals game with Paul Rudd and Jason Sudeikis). He has a brawny, alpha-male-without-being-a-jerk-about-it persona -- anytime he shows up on “The Daily Show,” where he worked for a few years, the joke is that all the other cast members are afraid he’ll beat them up -- that will jibe well with an audience that had begun to reach for the shotgun every time Frank Caliendo revved up his Andy Rooney impersonation, a joke that was moldy around the time Caliendo was born. To cap it all off, Riggle is a Marine and a war veteran. It’ll be nice that, when Fox does its weekly “this pregame show is more patriotic than your pregame show” shtick, there will be someone who really knows what it means to “support the troops.”
You probably couldn’t come up with a better comedian to be on the Fox NFL pregame show. Which doesn’t change the fundamental question: Why in the hell does the Fox NFL pregame show need a comedian?
It’s bizarre, really, how much space the casting of pregame shows takes up in our sports consciousness. We really do seem to care about who is yakking on our television sets before football games. (By the way, it’s absolutely insane, in retrospect, that Rush Limbaugh was ever on ESPN’s “Sunday NFL Countdown.” Sometimes I think I dreamt it. Not that the “Rush Challenge” is all that different from what Skip Bayless is doing over there.)
The lineup for our pregame shows is almost like a rundown of whose career is going well and whose isn’t, like a TV show with an endless number of guest stars and new cast members. (Who’s going to pick up Michael Irvin? Do Deion Sanders and Steve Mariucci get along? What wild outfit will Sterling Sharpe shock us with this week?) “Sunday NFL Countdown” currently has 15 different on-camera personalities. CBS’ “The NFL Today,” which started all this mess, has six. “Fox NFL Sunday” has 10, counting Riggle.
All this for a program in which absolutely nothing happens.
I mean it: It’s a smattering of people talking about nothing. ESPN’s show is the best one, but only because it’s longer and, therefore, some actual football can’t help but sneak in accidentally. (I’ve always felt that Chris Berman is at his most acceptable on the NFL pregame and postgame shows. Compared to the histrionics around him, he seems comparatively restrained.) Though it is worth noting that I live in New York City and, thanks to the now-decade-long Time Warner/NFL Network standoff, I have to this day never seen a second of the NFL Network pregame show. I hear that one’s better. I don’t see how it couldn’t be.
It’s a little shocking, when you sit down to watch the pregame shows outside the context of “Hey, sweet, football’s starting in an hour,” just how empty and vapid they really are. They are the CliffsNotes of the CliffsNotes of an analysis program. If there were a political equivalent, it would be the pre-debate breakdown that features Chris Matthews and Shepard Smith shaking their keys at babies, while Anderson Cooper and Mike Murphy fling cow dung at each other from opposites sides of the room.
No one expects NFL pregame shows to feature some Socratic debate about the moral equivalency of violence, or even to name an actual football play, but even by the low standards of the genre, they’re shockingly vacuous. Sometimes I wonder if they’re just some social experiment to see what happens when you put six former football players in a room and tell them to ad-lib.
That’s not to say these shows don’t have production values, or that the people who work on them don’t take them seriously. (Though it sure seems that way sometimes.) But they are not sports; they are the worst part of sports, the piffle and flat empty air that we’re all constantly trying to wade through to get to the actual sports. Grantland’s Bill Simmons has pointed out in the past how many of these shows are filled with people who are not professionally amusing pretending to laugh at each other’s unfunny jokes. This goes on for an hour, or two, or even five, if the game they’re ostensibly previewing is big enough. There are times I wonder if they should just have someone like Ryan Seacrest host, as if he were doing an Oscars preshow. Sure, he doesn’t know much about football, but at least he knows how to hold a microphone.
And that is the strangest thing about these shows: They seem to have nothing to do with football at all. They are about football the way that Martha Quinn was about playing the guitar, the way Siskel & Ebert were about cinematography, or the way Wolf Blitzer is about democracy. The “analysts” on these shows are essentially VJs; their presence lets you know that football is about to start … and that’s pretty much it.
But blaming the shows for this is a fallacy. This is our fault. If we wanted our NFL pregame shows to be about football, well, “NFL Matchup,” the game-film-driven clip show that features real NFL play information, stuff that might legitimately expand our knowledge of the game, wouldn’t be relegated to 3:30 every Sunday morning. What we collectively seem to want from our pregame shows is not a discussion of football; we want morning television. We want the simplest, most content-free programming, given to us by big stars whose names we recognize, even if they have nothing to say. We want our shows to be painless piffle. Our Nielsen ratings, as always, do the talking.
It’s why Michael Strahan was such a logical person to take over “Live With Regis and Kelly.” How is he going to do a show in which he isn’t talking about football? Please. That’s exactly what he was already doing.
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For the record: I couldn’t break down an NFL play either, and I’m lousy on television. And nobody recognizes my name.
Thoughts, concerns, grousing, future column ideas? Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you’re yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you’re pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I’ll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email, or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.