What's with all the sportswriters on sitcoms?

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Sept. 22 2004 3:50 PM

Kornheiser, the Scrivener

What's with all the sportswriters on sitcoms?

Don't quit your day job
Don't quit your day job

It wasn't long ago that newspaper sports columnists wrote newspaper columns about sports. Now, if you don't have a second, third, and fourth gig, you're a worthless hack. Tony Kornheiser, who ostensibly writes for the Washington Post, had to quit his side job as the host of a daily radio show so he'd have time for his other side job as the host of a daily TV show, ESPN's Pardon the Interruption. Kornheiser's so busy these days that he had to create a clone: Starting this week (CBS, Mondays, 8:30 ET), you can watch Listen Up, a new CBS series based on the busy journalist/TV host/father's struggles with yet another side gig— Post"Style" section columnist.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

Judging by the horrendous first two episodes, the phony Kornheiser won't be on the air for long. The writing is tin-eared—Jason Alexander's Tony Kleinman yells "Hammer time!" when he punishes his sassy teenage daughter—and Alexander's chemistry with the show's fake Michael Wilbon (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) doesn't approach Kornheiser's easy rapport with his real-life PTI co-host. But even if Listen Up is canceled, there will always be a spot for the sportswriter in the world of stock sitcom characters.

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The Odd Couple's Oscar Madison is the Grantland Rice of television sportswriting. Jack Klugman's Oscar is more a legendary character than a legendary writer; that's mostly because his typewriter was always buried under dirty clothes and takeout containers. His job at the fictional New York Herald didn't generate much conflict, at least not compared to Oscar's incessant cigar smoking and his habit of dressing like a colorblind hobo. More often, it was just a cheap setup for walk-on roles from the kind of B-grade celebs—Monty Hall, Dick Cavett, Deacon Jones, Bobby Riggs—who would hang with a tabloid columnist.

What, me work?
What, me work?

The most important thing about Oscar's career was that it fell on the XY side of the show's dyad of gender roles —a love of sports was less a job qualification than an innate quality of manhood, like hating to shop and peeing standing up. Post-Odd Couple, the TV sportswriter still signifies everyman masculinity. The bachelor with chocolate-stained pants is out, though; today's model is the put-upon family man à la Everybody Loves Raymond's schlubby New York Newsday columnist Ray Barone. The patriarch model was also present in Mr. Belvedere (in which Bob Uecker plays Pittsburgh sportscaster/sportswriter George Owens), The Tony Danza Show (Tony Danza as sportswriter Tony DiMeo), and the short-lived NBC series The Second Half (stand-up John Mendoza as a sports columnist for a fictional Chicago daily).

The sportswriting dad isn't a popular television type because lots of men want careers in journalism. Rather, it's because lots of people think it's a job where you get paid to do nothing. In sitcom sportswriting, there aren't any deadlines. There aren't any editors or assignments, either. Most real-world sportswriters are out covering a game on Friday night; the sitcom sportswriter is at home in front of the boob tube.

The stay-at-home sportswriter is handy for sitcom writers because TV dads have to be around to dispense punishment and pearls of fatherly wisdom. That means they either have to work from home (Jason Seaver, the dad on Growing Pains, was a psychiatrist who saw patients in his home office) or never do their jobs (how often did Cliff Huxtable actually don his scrubs?). Sportswriters are the ultimate sitcom fathers: They're always at home and they never do their jobs. Ray Barone, who works in his basement, rarely takes more than 10 steps per day.

The only show of any renown that showed a sportswriter in the workplace was ABC's The Slap Maxwell Story. Dabney Coleman won a Golden Globe for his performance as the irredeemable jerk behind a column called "Slap Shots," but the series only lasted a year. In other sitcoms, the office gets invoked only when it's shutting down. When Oscar Madison (briefly) loses his job, he has to look for work at a "girlie magazine." A newspaper strike leaves George Owens bored and at home in one episode of Mr. Belvedere. But strike or no strike, George was usually at home bothering Belvedere—sportswriting leaves a lot of time to annoy the family butler.

Most shows with sportswriting dads also don't linger over sports, either. While sitcom sportswriters do, on special occasions, hang out with the 1969 New York Mets or Johnny Bench, games and athletes typically remain in the background. Raymond's first season was full of sports cameos from the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Katarina Witt, and Tommy Lasorda (twice!), but the show scrapped the athlete cameo gimmick early on—Raymond's non-sports-loving viewers likely get enough televised sports at home. Other than the mildly sporty Cheers, the most successful sports-heavy sitcom was probably Coach—and network execs (except those dolts at CBS) aren't looking for the next Coach.

Unlike other sitcoms, Listen Up presents a legitimate approximation of a sportswriter's life and demeanor. That's probably because the show is based on a real person. Just like Tony Kornheiser, Tony Kleinman has to leave the house to host his show and has to write his column when he's at home. And unlike all those milquetoast sportswriting dads, this one is authentically loud and annoying. "I feel things so big they just come out," he tells his daughter, explaining his occasional outbursts of rage. "It's a good thing in life, and it's great if you're a writer because it makes you able to express so much about the things you care about."

Listen Up's accurate representation of the lifestyle of the harried modern sportswriter pretty much guarantees its failure. The authentic ink-stained scribes like Mike Lupica, Bill Conlin, and Woody Paige who appear on roundtable shows like ESPN's Sports Reporters and Around the Horn and SportsChannel's The Sportswriters on TV are too loud, too boorish, and too opinionated for the gentle, sweater-laden world of sitcoms. You wouldn't want a real sportswriter anywhere near your toddler or your living room—he wouldn't know when to leave and would leave cigar burns on the coffee table. What you want is Ray Barone, a guy who likes sports but doesn't talk about them, who writes about sports but doesn't think his column is a big deal. Sure, everybody loves Raymond, but nobody gives a damn about his byline.