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In the Booth With Mr. Tony

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 10, 2006 5:17 PM

Like my 50ish friend and fellow Long Island native Tony Kornheiser, I, too, usually have a tough time making it past halftime of "Monday Night Football". So maybe I missed Mr. Tony describing Baltimore Ravens head coach Brian Billick as a "preening shmoe" as he so often used to do on a regular basis in print, on radio and television for so many years.

In the first half of the Ravens loss to the Denver Broncos on Monday night, Kornheiser had a number of chances to utter one of his signature phrases, but sadly, he held off. At one point in the first half, the camera was on Billick stalking the sidelines and Tony was talking about Billick's great good fortune in having a quarterback like Steve McNair fall into his lap this season. I thought surely, here it comes: "HEY BRIAN, YOU PREENING SCHMOE!!!!

But it didn't happen.

Maybe he used the line in the second half, when I was drifting off to sleep, further induced toward the Land of ZZZZs by a defense-dominated game -- not to mention Joe Theismann's rambling riffs -- that surely sent millions in the eastern time zone toward their pillows and down comforters, the better to check out the final score on the web or morning paper on Tuesday morning.

But I doubt it.

Tony is a friend of mine, and friends don't pull punches with friends.

Yo Tony, it's time to take off the gloves, not to mention the governor, on your inner you. It's really about time to start acting more like the brilliantly acerbic, equal opportunity, slicing and dicing machine of a Mr. Tony we all have known and loved in various multimedia settings for so many years.

I say this as a critic who Mr. Tony once labeled "The Assassin" because of my own occasional propensity to take shots at so many of the gas-bags and no-talents doing sports on radio and television. But I'm not here to bury TK this day. I would just like him to be, as our mutual friend Dan Jenkins might say, his genius own-self, even if ESPN's suits -- not wanting to do anything to offend their NFL partners -- apparently seem to have something else in mind.

I am not alone in this. Ever since ESPN got into the Monday night business in the preseason, I've been asking a wide variety of people, in and out of the media, to give me their quick-hit impressions on Tony and the telecast, now on ESPN for the first time in history. Here's the short version of what I've been hearing, and observing my own self.

--Theismann and Kornheiser, believe it or not, often are difficult to differentiate because their voices sound too much alike. I've known both of them for a lot of years and don't have that problem myself, but if you close your eyes and listen to the broadcast in 15-second doses, all those people who say they initially have a hard time telling who is actually doing the talking definitely have a point.

--Tony's openings at the top of the telecast are terrific. Obviously he takes as much meticulous care in writing them as he always did with his columns in The Post. In fact, they sound very much like his columns in The Post, and that can only be a good thing. During the game, however, he too often goes back to points he made in that opening instead of pushing into other areas. It's not a real big thing, but it's been noticeable, for sure.

--Theismann talks too much. Big surprise there, right? Joe T came out of the womb with the vocal cords of a carnival barker and he hasn't stopped yapping since. During one second-quarter stretch of the Denver-Baltimore game, I timed his comments at about 15 seconds per pop, sometimes maddeningly longer.

Tony K's remarks were about half that length, occasionally only a few words, and it made me more mad. TK needs to fight for more air time, and Joe T needs a muzzle or a tonsillectomy.

--Tony K and Joey T have all the chemistry of the U.S. Ryder Cup team. Theismann wants to talk football, and more football, but X's and O's have never been Tony's greatest strength. He's far better skewering people, taking his best shots at their looks, the way they sound, making mischief, deflating egos. You'd like to think that's why ESPN hired him in the first place. It definitely was not to dissect cover-two defenses.

--There are too many times when Theismann talks down to Kornheiser, as when he said Monday night, "look for the Ravens to go to more hard counts. Now Tony, that's HUT, hut." When Kornheiser facetiously thanked him for explaining that to him, Joe T said, "well, you didn't know what a silent count was."

Perhaps Theismann meant it to sound like playful banter. It didn't. And I suspect many viewers also took it as the big-star football guy putting down the funny guy newspaper columnist who used to take his best shots when Theismann actually played the real game. It made me feel uncomfortable for both of them, and I never felt that way when Theismann and his old Sunday night ESPN partner, Paul Maguire, were trading on-air jabs. Friendly, good-natured jabs. TK vs. Joe T has not sounded much like friendly or good-natured.

---Tony at times seems intimidated by Theismann. I can't imagine why, but a number of people have said they'd like to hear Tony challenge Joe T and beg to differ far more than he's doing now. It doesn't have to be malicious, by any means. But it needs to happen more often.

All that being said, Monday Night Football on ESPN remains a work in progress. They haven't even done ten games together, and you'd like to think by the time the league hits the stretch drive in November, they'll all have figured out some of this among themselves, or maim each other trying.

Mike Tirico remains one of the smoothest play-by-play operators out there, and you'd also like to believe he'll eventually become more adept and at ease reining in Theismann and bringing out the best of Tony K. We saw some of that best three weeks ago when ESPN went to New Orleans for the first Saints game at the Superdome since Katrina. Kornheiser (no jokes necessary) was eloquently passionate in his commentary, and elevated the broadcast way beyond anything having to do with a football game.

A few other thoughts.

Will someone tell pregame and halftime host Chris Berman to please stop shouting? We see you Boomer. We hear you. We know you're there. We know you probably played catch with John Elway down on the field before the game. We know your great friend Ray Lewis is really a swell guy, because he told you he really is a swell guy. But just drop the decibel level, and allow Steve Young -- the measured voice of reason on your panel -- to make his points.

While we're at it, can we cease and desist on the "Jacked Up" segment, where the weekend's most brutally vicious hits are replayed in pregame and at halftime, followed by all the boys on the set yelling "JACKED UP!!!" Some of those wicked hits have led to serious injuries and really should be no laughing matter. Of course they're part of the game, but glorifying and exploiting the violence is unseemly and so unnecessary.

Ditch the fantasy football charade. Kornheiser playing fantasy football on his own? In your dreams. He plays golf. He plays music. He plays with his dog, Maggie. But fantasy football for Tony K? It's a made-for-television illusion, designed to appeal to viewers in the ESPN demographic of get-a-life, wanna-be-GM mopes who seem to get vicarious thrills with the latest sports craze soon, no doubt, to be replaced by the World Series of Dominoes.

The e-mails to Tony? Doesn't work for me. Maybe text messaging is the key. Look what it did for Mark Foley.

I'd also stop parading B-list celebs up to the booth. It was fine for Howard Cosell to welcome a John Lennon here, a POTUS there, a long time ago in a world devoid of a zillion network and cable paparazzi-fueled Entertainment Tonight-type shows. Now, it simply looks like blatant promotion for ABC's primetime lineup. Did we really need Desperate Housewives hunk James Denton (who?) in the booth for 15 minutes Monday night in Denver? Did Tony really ask him (about his character, apparently now unconscious on the show), "when you're in a coma, does your facial hair still grow?"

You want must-see television? Let Tony have a three or four-minute -- wait, how about five good minutes -- on the pregame or halftime show to interview one or more of the principals in the game. This past Monday night, for heaven's sake, it could have been five rollicking minutes with Brian Billick, with Mr. Tony starting off by saying, "So Brian, I've been calling you a PREENING SCHMOE for as long as you've been in Baltimore. Am I wrong?"

Stay tuned. It's going to get better.

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Badgerlen@hotmail.com or Badgerlen@aol.com. He'll be writing about sports on radio and television every week on the web, and welcomes your input, good, bad and/or ugly.

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