Sports radio star Jim Rome's new TV show on ESPN is called "Rome Is Burning." It has a segment called "Rise and Fall of Rome," another called "When in Rome" and two more called "Phone Rome" and "Thought to Rome With." It's a good thing this guy's name isn't Wambsganss.
But if it were, he'd find a way to work it in because if there's one thing Jim Rome's TV show is about, it's Jim Rome's ego. Rome is burning with a self-love that dares speak its name. Ad nause-Rome.
The other thing the show is about is how tough Jim Rome is. He likes to affect macho poses, his favorite being the one where he faces the camera with his legs spread wide, like a wrestler about to go into a crouch. He glares at the camera like he's trying to stare the audience down, and he has himself shot from angles designed to make him look imposing.
He's also famous for his tough talk. Just ask him.
"I'm pretty much known as a guy who shoots straight and doesn't pull any punches," he brags on a commercial during his radio show, which is called "The Jungle." His fans, who are usually more entertaining than he is, are known as Clones, and they have to "come strong and bring it" if they want to get on the air. Unf! Grr!
It all sounds great, but really, how tough is it to shoot straight and not pull punches when you're talking about sports? On last week's "Rome Is Burning," which airs Tuesdays at 7 p.m. Eastern on ESPN, Rome took swipes at Jeff Kent for not realizing until after the fact that his Astros teammates had thrown a no-hitter at the Yankees; Phil Mickelson for not winning another major; Tim Duncan for being dull and the Harlem Globetrotters for being a tired act. Whoa, what a bruiser.
But when he had heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis sitting right next to him in the studio and saying with a straight face that he's in Muhammad Ali's class as a fighter, all Rome had to say was "much respect." Where was the Jim Rome "smackdown," as he likes to call it? Wouldn't a straight shooter have said something like, "Lennox, Ali never got knocked cold by a journeyman like Oliver McCall or Hasim Rahman, and he beat Liston, Frazier, Norton and Foreman. Putting aside your tendency to get stretched by one punch, who have you beaten?"
The thing that's frustrating about Rome is that beneath all the bluster and self-congratulation he's a smart, witty guy. He's a pretty good interviewer who can think on his feet, as he also showed in that Lewis interview and another with Scott Cowen, the president of Tulane University. And though he's not nearly as insightful as he clearly thinks he is -- he can say that LeBron James dunking on high schoolers doesn't mean he'll dominate in the NBA and then act like he's just unlocked the secrets of the universe for you -- he does get off a nice line every once in a while. His "take" on the semi-pathetic sight of the New Jersey Nets using "Saturday Night Live" has-been Joe Piscopo to hype up the fans during the playoffs: "What, was Carrot Top already booked?"
"Rome Is Burning" moves along briskly and touches on an impressive range of serious and silly sports issues each week, but Rome is a block of wood at the center of it. He's so busy trying to act tough, he just comes across as stolid. It doesn't help that he's not a smooth reader, a problem made worse by the fact that he (or his writers) don't write well for broadcast. Someone should tell him: Cut the parenthetical clauses. He also sounds like he's reading even when he's speaking off the cuff.
A centerpiece on the show is "The Forum" -- Get it? It's a play on Rome's name! -- a panel segment in which Rome lets three guests kick around the issues of the day. Last week he had sportscaster Jim Lampley, comedian Adam Carolla and writer Ralph Wiley.
Rome should have Lampley on all the time because he's such a pompous ass he makes Rome look humble, and he should have Carolla on all the time because his goofball shtick undercuts the brooding, this-is-war vibe that drags "Rome Is Burning" down. Like him or not -- I can take or leave him most of the time -- Carolla's loopiness brings Rome's wooden persona into relief, and good for Rome for being man enough to invite him on.
So, the central question of the show: Is Jim Rome tough? I don't know. But if we all just agree that he is, maybe he'll relax, let his intelligence and wit take center stage, and put on a better TV show.
All together now. Ooh, Jim. You're soooo tough!
- - - - - - - - - - - -