Perhaps it's time to retire the phrase "as American as apple pie" on the grounds that not even the biggest apple pie in the world could be as American as the Super Bowl. Yesterday's telecast of Super Bowl XX was preceded by a pregame show subtitled "An American Celebration," but the whole long orgy of football, pageantry and commerce was an American celebration from beginning to end.
Like many American celebrations, this one celebrated America. It was a day of flagrantly self-satisfied American-ness, and commentators frequently referred to the unifying spirit of it all. It was "a day when a game makes our differences less important," said NBC's Dick Enberg, who also dubbed it an "unannounced" and "undeclared" American holiday.
It was a day in which fast food companies slugged it out in competing big-budget commercials (cost for a single commercial minute: $1.1 million), with Burger King unveiling to the nation the face and figure, such as both were, of its newly adopted mascot nerd, "Herb," and McDonald's countering with Romeo and Juliet sharing a McD.L.T. It was a day in which NBC went wild with promotional zeal to celebrate its prime-time fare and its anchor man. It was a day when the president of the United States, having been tactfully induced to forgo the traditional televised congratulatory phone call to a Super Bowl winner (NBC feared viewers would tune out if the call dragged on), sat down and talked live with a newsman in the White House about his athletic career, content to be but a supporting player upon that holy ground a commentator reverently referred to as "pro football's greatest stage."
And yes it was also a day on which the Chicago Bears met the New England Patriots for a football game in the New Orleans Superdome. But Americanism and super-ism really did seem to come first.
President Reagan saved NBC's otherwise slipshod and desultory pregame spectacular from nearly complete fizzle when, about half an hour before kickoff, he obligingly huddled with NBC anchor Tom Brokaw and chatted about sports, which he said were "part of the American personality" and "so much a part of American life." Reagan wore a red sweater, but though that's a Patriots color, he nimbly avoided announcing a favorite team. It was no trouble at all for Brokaw to lead Reagan down memory lane. "I remember one day running plays . . ." Reagan began one anecdote.
When the interview seemed to be over, when Brokaw was in fact wrapping it up and preparing to send it back to Bob Costas in New Orleans, Reagan shook up the whole schedule, and must have given fits both to his White House imagekeepers and the boys in the NBC control booth, by suddenly asking Brokaw, "Do I have a second that I could tell you a little incident in my memories of football?" What was Brokaw going to say -- "Sorry, pops, your time is up"? He said, slightly shaken, "Sure."
The Gipper then began a story about his college football and sports announcing days. The question was, would this be another trip up the Pacific Coast Highway? Would the story and the storyteller ramble on, perhaps forcing NBC's producer to have to choose between the kickoff of the game and the president's meandering chitchat? But no, the story was brief, and well told, and had a nice punchline. Reagan was being his wonderful self, not his slightly baffling self.
Brokaw made a wee stab at getting Reagan to talk about a political matter, a possible tax increase this year, but Reagan of course was not about to announce a change in his oft-stated policy 30 minutes before the Super Bowl. Reagan did drop one random bombshell, again in all apparent innocence, when, responding to Brokaw's question about the propriety of a nation having collectively bet $2 billion on the outcome of the game, Reagan said all that betting involved "too much temptation to try and fix things." The Super Bowl -- fixed?!? Watergate we could take, but this would be too much. Brokaw generously ignored the remark and went on to something else.
Another of NBC's innovations, to stretch a term, introduced in this year's coverage was a much ballyhooed moment of silence, not in anybody's honor or memory but as a means of letting viewers leave their TV sets to take care of personal matters without missing a commercial. Costas referred to the respite as "this brief intermission," and what followed was, first, one of the funny, campy old animated featurettes that movie theaters used to show to chase patrons into the lobby for snack purchasing (dancing ice cream bars and weenies). Use of this film suggested the producer is a fan of the David Letterman show; it was a purely Lettermanic touch. From his isolated perch in the North Pole of the broadcast day (NBC's post-midnight "Late Night" show), David Letterman now sets the comic tone for all of television. Maybe for all of America.
After the weenies danced, the screen went blank, the image replaced by a clock counting down from one minute, with Leroy Anderson's "Syncopated Clock," once the theme song of "The Late Show," on the sound track. Perchance America chuckled even as it flushed.
Sweeping generalizations about America, as if the whole country were one huge anonymous Herb, come easily after watching a Super Bowl telecast in which the name of America was invoked at every opportunity, and a lack of opportunity wasn't much defense, either. "Teamwork is what built America," declared a banking commercial. "Ambition is the fuel that drives American business," said an ad for Hilton, "America's Business Address." Miller beer, one was assured, is "Made the American Way, born and brewed in the U.S.A." And in a fast-food spot, a man who received a 50-cent coupon with his McDonald's McD.L.T. sandwich exulted, "Only in America could something like this happen."
NBC, which was trying with feverish dedication not to miss a single promotional trick (Joe Montana and wife materialized to plug "The Last Precinct," an NBC cop show airing after the game), bathed viewers in hoopla for NBC Sports, which produced the game and the pregame show. "America loves its sports," sang a chorus. "America loves it sports, NBC style!" But for all the self-confidence, NBC did a lackluster and unimaginative job with the lengthy and dull pregame show. Even an appearance by Bill Cosby, swathed in cigar smoke, didn't do much to brighten things up.
Most of the program was devoted to poorly produced pretaped pieces introduced and outro-duced by the reporters who appeared on them. Only one of these, a reminiscence about the Kansas City Chiefs, the team that lost Super Bowl I, had any style or oomph to it. A ravingly weepy appreciation of Vince Lombardi was encumbered with repetitions of Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," now such a cliche' when used to accompany anything that most producers have the decency to avoid it.
NBC Sports still lags behind CBS and ABC, and yesterday's Super Bowl telecast reflected that. The exuberance, however forced, of a John Madden might have helped rescue the second half, when but for a few unexpected highlights, the game became a rather listless rout. At NBC these days, it's gospel that the first way of improving something is to hype the promotion. Saying it often enough is alleged to make it so.
Of course a Super Bowl without hype would be a contradiction in terms. The hype reaches event levels in itself; stories are done about it, and these stories can't help being part of the hype. The Super Bowl is such a big event that the other two networks feel obliged to run Bowl-related stories even though they are contributing to the promotion of a competitor's goods. When you reach a state of hyper-hype, such things occur.
Even MTV, the cable music video network, got a piece of the Super Bowl with its "Super Bowl Weekend." The newest wrinkle in this year's event was probably that the two competing teams produced competing music videos. The Chicago Bears' "Super Bowl Shuffle" was by far, and symptomatically, the better of the two, and on MTV's "Friday Night Video Fights," it won a viewer phone-in popularity contest by about 3-to-1. Oh portent of Things To Come.
MTV also aired no less a production than "The Making of the Super Bowl Shuffle," not much of a movie except for the added glimpses it afforded of such welcome infusions into contemporary folklore as Jim McMahon and William (The Refrigerator) Perry, Bears both. The Bears had won the charisma competition on television long before the game began.
NBC's pregame coverage opened with a short film by Bob Giraldi, the famous video director, but it was all so overexplained and, yes, overhyped by Enberg that the film, about Super Bowl fans surmounting obstacles to get to their TV sets, seemed a washout. Later, the producers of the pregame show attempted a football video to the John Cougar Mellencamp song "Pink Houses (Ain't That America?)", part of the day's insistent Americana theme. But the video was numbingly literal and flat. It was appropriate, after NBC's dull pregame show, that Super Bowl XX opened with first a fumble and then an injury. Costas wears well and keeps his wits about him, but he is given little support. Mediocrity abounded, but then one of the things being celebrated on Super Bowl Sunday had to be excess -- the sheer joy of it and sometimes the sheer torture of it. America watched, America listened, and America probably loved it. After all, it kept telling America what it loves to hear: that it's still the most American place in the Universe. Uranus, eat your heart out.