Picture a clueless traveler adrift in a foreign land where nobody speaks his language.
Now picture me sitting in front of the TV watching Fox Sports Net's "Best Damn Sports Show, Period."
Oui, oui, I have no idea what anybody is talking about. The more I watch, the more I feel it. I'm like one of those guys who, having grown weary of supercilious accusations of xenophobia, visits a foreign country for the first time and finds himself wallet- and trouserless in a back alley.
But that's just me ... and perhaps a few others like me. As co-host Tom Arnold has said, "If you're a critic of the show, the headline is right there for you ... 'The Worst Damn Sports Show ...' It's all been said before." Like most things self-consciously crude and lowbrow, "The Best Damn Sports Show, Period" has become a respectable hit since its launch last July, having steadily attracted more viewers each month after expanding to a two-hour format in December. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the show is also a big hit with advertisers, and accounts for the 10 percent net gain in Fox Sports Net's ad revenue last year.
Part of this hybrid newsmagazine/talk show's success with the ad people is no doubt due to the 1950s-style insertion of products into the programming. One of the show's newest sponsors, Mike's Hard Lemonade, has set up a little stand in the corner of the set, adding a quaint, frat-boy version of "Hints From Heloise" segment to the program. Did you know you can mix Mike's Hard Lemonade with Mike's Hard Ice Tea to create a drink named after some golfer? Now you do. Outback Steakhouse has also graciously provided beef to be consumed onstage.
The show is billed as Fox's answer to ESPN's "SportsCenter," and although it's unclear who posed the question in the first place, it's still a good answer, ratings-wise. Whether "Best Damn" ("Damn Sports"? "Sports Show"? "Show Period"?) lives up to its name is a matter of taste, but that it is more, um, assertive than other shows of its genre is undeniable. Co-hosted by Chris Rose, the show is far more "real guy, real guy talk"-oriented than its ESPN counterpart, and it clearly likes it that way. In fact, "Damn Sports" makes abundantly clear what it thinks of the more "highbrow" comedy-sports cocktails that have been essayed recently, notably Dennis Miller's short-lived association with "Monday Night Football."
Fox Sports president Tracy Dolgin has said that "Sports Show" is the result of trying to create a more "Fox-like" sports franchise than some of the Net's failed past efforts. But after watching a few episodes and a highlights tape, the show strikes me as far more genial and civilized than, say, "The O'Reilly Factor." Again, this may just be because I don't speak the language, or maybe it's because I was expecting "The Man Show" with balls. (Comparatively speaking, the bikini bimbonics are kept to a minimum here.)
Still, what I have perceived as a relative gentility may simply be a factor of co-host Tom Arnold's temporary absence from the installments I caught. (Arnold was off shooting a movie, but did occasionally call in to the show to kid guest host Will Sasso, of "Mad TV," about his weight.) Rose and other guest hosts, such as former Major League player Steve "Psycho" Lyons, former NFL player D'Marco Farr, former NBA player John Salley and leggy news-babe Lisa Guerrero don't exactly come off like rabid Fox dogs. They all seem to enjoy each other's company. When Guerrero pitches in with, "I agree with Psycho!" everyone nods happily and the audience applauds.
In fact, aside from the occasional fat-cheerleader sketch, "Sports Show" is mostly reminiscent of "The View." (In the fat-cheerleader sketch, in case you are wondering, a cheerleader complains, while gnawing on a turkey drumstick, that her team's new weight regulations don't make sense.
"The team is called the Buffaloes, OK? Hello!"
Rose nods and asks, "What's next for you? Are you going to make weight?"
"You're damn right I'm going to make weight," she ripostes. "Thanks for reminding me!" Sticks finger down throat.)
Yes, fat jokes are a staple on "The Best Damn Sports Show, Period" -- as are jokes about the hotness of Anna Kournikova, the fiduciary nature of Tiger Woods' girlfriend's attraction to him, white men who can't jump and so-bad-they're-inoffensive jokes about the Washington Redskins (scalpers, boy were their faces red, etc.).
But there are tender moments. Guerrero says things like, "There are a lot of misconceptions about [San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry] Bonds that people are going to want to hear about. He's awesome!" Sometimes, the boys sit around and talk about the things that matter to them -- like when Lyons weighs in on Mets' shortstop Rey Ordóñez's recent errors and relates his own psychological battles with the ball. Then former Dallas Cowboys star and scandal-magnet Michael Irvin declares, "There's nothing more fragile than an athlete's psyche!"
Also fun, in a just-visiting sort of way, is watching the boys fawn over 6-foot-9, 300-pound Minnesota Vikings draft pick Bryant McKinnie. They admire his small glacier of a diamond stud earring, stroke his braids and scold each other for not getting to the subject of football sooner -- before impetuously asking whether McKinnie has his underwear tailor-made.
Even if Fox intended to present this show as the real man's alternative to ESPN's effete "witty" repartee, it comes across as achingly earnest. When someone asks the question, "In a four-corner cage match between the Rock, Jet Li, Ray Lewis and the Portland Trailblazers -- who would win?" it takes me right back to when I was 8, and my 6-year-old brother would pelt me with similar queries. (Of course, back then, he was thinking more along the lines of Evel Knievel, the Six Million Dollar Man, Muhammad Ali and the Fonz. And sometimes, I'm not sure why, he wanted to know whether I would rather freeze to death or fry to death.)
Perhaps most notably, "Best Damn etc." is either entirely unencumbered by format, or encumbered by so many formats as to be rendered unclassifiable. Maybe over on HBO they are trying to score points for originality, but elsewhere they are sending in the clones. A successful format the show has seen is a successful format the show has adopted. In this way, "The Best Damn Sports Show, Period" is an excellent example of the strange Möbius-strip shape TV has taken on lately. Start with "The View" and throw in some of "America's Funniest Sports Videos," a "Daily Show"-style newscast, a few comedy sketches in the "SNL" mold (largely unfunny) and a couple of celebrity guests, and even if you're watching alone, you're spending the evening in front of the TV with your buddies on TV.
But this conflation of superheroes, this quorum of stars gathered in a mock living room much like (hey!) your own is, essentially, what the "The Best Damn Sports Show, Period" is all about -- real guys, real guy talk, real superstar athletes who act just like regular guys, quaffing a brew, grilling a steak, making the sponsors happy, making the viewers feel like part of the team. You may not be able to claim you've never allowed a sack in your entire career, but you can eat at the local Outback Steakhouse pretty much whenever. It's mirror TV -- even if the mirror is slightly distorted to make it look as though you, too, can hang out with the Rock and blow smoke up his ass like it's just another day in celebrity-land for you. And if you spend two hours in front of "The Best Damn Sports Show, Period" every night, then, damn, I guess it is.