Johnny Weir did something totally unexpected, bordering on radical, in the NBC Sports broadcast booth this week. He made a statement that trumped his most audacious style choices -- a hot-pink Chanel blazer here, a lace top there, some unfathomably bouffant confection surfacing from his scalp. Paid to deliver commentary on the morning's live figure skating action from Russia, he sat through the winning free skate for the pairs competition in silence.
For more than four minutes, Weir said not a word. His partners, 1998 gold medalist Tara Lipinski and sportscaster Terry Gannon, chirped a couple of times during the routine, but Weir just watched Russia's Maxim Trankov and Tatiana Volosozhar spin gold from the sounds of Jesus Christ Superstar. He waited several beats after they had finished to say, "Of course, they were nervous. They were a little stiffer than we're used to seeing, but it doesn't matter."
Who knew that Weir could be such a minimalist? If you do a Google search of his name and then do another using his name and the word "flamboyant," you'll get the same number of results. Before Weir's autobiography confirmed that he was gay, reporters routinely leaned on the word as code. Afterward, they kept on using it, because it was comfortable and a lot simpler than trying to come up with succinct language to explain Weir.
As it turns out, they should have asked him to craft the description. His commentary for NBC's cable and satellite-dish network, NBCSN, is remarkably vivid, concise and informative. Listen to him describe a failed quadruple jump from the men's short program: "He broke out of the revolutions too soon. For a quad, you need to hold until you feel your foot hit the ice."
In two brief sentences, he put the viewer inside a skater's mind and body. Very few commentators can pull that off. Scott Hamilton, Weir's prime-time counterpart, will use three times as many words to convey less than half as much insight.
Weir's wit was presumed to be his resume topper for this gig, and it has turned up often. But it's his rapport with Lipinski that has defined the broadcast, and spawned a hilarious Instagram account.
Their reality-show pitch is shaping up thusly: "It's Nick and Nora on ice meets Hepburn and Tracy/Will and Grace."
Their banter is unlike anything we've ever heard from Olympic commentators. When Gannon prompted them to explain the new rules that will allow music with lyrics next year, Weir said: "I can't wait to see an Eminem short program from one of the boys." Lipinski countered: "Why not the girls? You know I'd love that." Weir disagreed with her on a skater's performance, and she said slyly: "I hear you, Johnny."
He holds a definite edge in colorful quotes:
- Describing the feeling of "popping" out of a jump: "That's kind of a situation like throwing a cat into a bathtub where they just splay their legs out, and you can't control it."
- On an Austrian skater who wore an unorthodox costume: "I applaud her use of short shorts, reminiscent of our own Terry Gannon in the 1983 college basketball championship."
- On what Russian superstar Evgeni Plushenko will do in retirement: "I don't think you'll ever see him in some caftans or short shorts, sipping Mai Tais by a pool."
Lipinski, meanwhile, is queen of the metaphor. She went deep to describe the roles in a skating pair: "The man has to be the frame and the woman has to be the pretty picture." She also does her homework and uses the information well. She foreshadowed Plushenko's stunning withdrawal by pointing out that he had not done any jumps in his last practice and appeared to be in substantial pain.
The two are at their best when they simply analyze. As they watched an Italian pair, she said: "Sometimes, I notice him when I should be noticing her. I think his skating needs to improve or that to happen." On a pairs throw that led to a fall, he observed: "She didn't use her own foot to jump. She was relying totally on him just to toss her up, and to be a good pairs partner you have to help one another."
When a French pair finished an overhead twist awkwardly, Weir pointed out that two skaters of similar height can make a bad match. "She comes down and has to wrap her arms around him because he can't get a handle on her," he said. "It's not easy to grab someone your own size by the hips and place them down gently after they've fallen from heaven."
Lipinski and Weir rarely impose themselves on the scene. They know when to back off. Weir tends to drop his voice when he makes a brief comment during a program, and it can often be difficult to hear him over the crowd noise. The audience seems to be more intrusive during the live broadcast than in the tape delayed one, although it's hard to compare. Hamilton's loud staccato bursts could not be drowned out by landing aircraft.
For the prime-time broadcast, Hamilton and choreographer Sandra Bezic set the emotional tone. In the morning, Lipinski and Weir let the skaters do it.
The morning crew has a significant advantage, with two hours of air time and almost 20 performances to cover. They can let conversations develop. Bezic, Hamilton and their colleague, Tom Hammond, rarely present more than six skaters, the elite of the competition. The weaker skaters generated the most insight; their flaws make ideal fodder for a commentator.
If Lipinski and Weir can incisively explain the details separating one medal contender from another, they should be unstoppable. If they can do live coverage, they're not far from being able to handle tape delays for prime time. It's just question of when prime time will be ready for them.