Monday Night

August 7, 2001
Monday Night Musings
By Ric Sweeney

Are you like me? If yes, then you likely found yourself inexplicably drawn to Monday night’s Hall of Fame Game on ABC, an event that, under normal circumstances, has all the appeal of Rosie O’Donnell’s Exit to Eden. But knowing that in just a year’s time, the Texans –- our Texans -– will be showcased on the very same stage, well… there was just this need to watch, you know? Like a tractor beam was pulling me in, not unlike what happens every Sunday morning when Trading Spaces comes on The Learning Channel.

(Random Note: Outside of Fear Factor, Trading Spaces is my new favorite show of all-time — I can’t get enough of it. Have you seen this show? The premise involves a pair of neighbors trading homes for two days, during which they, along with a professional designer, redecorate a room in the house on a $1,000 budget. It has all the elements necessary for great television: a hot host [Alex McCord, who, FYI, is a Texan. Very nice.], flamboyantly gay designers with massive attitudes and hair-trigger tempers, and an unscripted, and usually uncomfortable ending in which the neighbors each go back to their respective homes to see what design improvements have been done courtesy of their soon-to-be ex-neighbors. It’s always blatantly obvious when they don’t like what they see, and those moments… they should be MasterCard commercials, because they’re priceless. Why is this show not on NBC’s Must See TV lineup? Better yet, why am I still typing?)

Anyway… Surprisingly, despite the landslide of hype last year, I only caught bits and pieces of the new and improved Monday Night Football, unable to take in an entire broadcast, and here’s my ridiculous reason why (I don’t have a name for this phenomenon, by the way, though I likely should, but here goes): if Houston doesn’t have a team and/or isn’t playing, I find my interest in that particular sport lacking. Always have, always will. So, in addition to the quasi-dress rehearsal vibe, I thought this might be a great opportunity to, at long last, take a really long look at ABC’s renovations to the program.

But first, preseason games always remind me of one of David Letterman’s all-time funniest jokes. Back when Art Rooney died (I think it was Art – regardless, this was during Letterman’s NBC heyday), he asked, “Since it happened during preseason… does it still count?” He came on the air the next night and had to apologize, but that was comedy gold. I hate the Steelers. Now back to the action…

Fittingly, the NFL and ABC began the evening with a moment of silence for fallen Viking Korey Stringer. This has nothing to do with MNF, and not to belittle the moment, but it always makes me uncomfortable when TV chooses to broadcast such occasions. I mean, are we obligated, at home, to also give a moment of silence? Just to be safe, I shushed my wife when she piped up to ask a question – I don’t know… was that out of line? Hell, I remove my hat anytime they sing the National Anthem on TV, so what do I know? Still, nice dénouement to what has been a truly heartbreaking story.

OK, back to my take on the new and improved MNF, starting with sideline reporter Melissa Stark, who last night was absolutely sparkling. Maybe I only caught her in cold weather games last year, but she always seemed bundled up and de-sexified in her first season on the show. Last night, though, she had on a sleeveless sweater, and man… check please.

I don’t like to admit this, but there was a time last year when CBS’ Bonnie Bernstein jumped ahead of Stark on my list of hottest chicks covering the sports scene (due in paperback later this year), but I think Stark is now, once again, entrenched in first place. Adding her to the broadcast was a master stroke (seems a joke is in order here), a truly wonderful decision that then-producer Don Ohlmeyer should have plastered on his grave.

In addition to updating key developments during the game, Stark’s duties also include interviewing players, which makes me wonder… Do you think players ever hit on her while being interviewed? It would seem an appropriate time to pull out the always popular, “Hey, would you like to see my microphone” line at that point, right?

Somewhat related note: Last night, Melissa interviewed former Bills’ head coach, and recent Hall of Fame inductee, Marv Levy, who offered this head scratcher: when asked which moment from his coaching career most stands out, his answer was the 51-3 thrashing of the Raiders in the Bills’ first-ever AFC Championship game. Memorable, sure, but he picked that over the comeback against the Oilers? How is 35-3 not you’re top memory?


By the way, about two… two and a half years ago, I worked at a television network (term used loosely) that was readying a live, daily show that needed a female host. My boss at the time challenged me to find us one, and, using a contact I had at ESPN, got Stark’s work number and called her, leaving a message (I had been told she was rarely, if ever, at the office). I was given anywhere from a snowball to 15% chance she’d call back, but damn if she didn’t two days later, leaving me a message after I had gone for the day. Yeah, that’s right, uh-huh… I had a message from Melissa Stark on my work voice mail. Can you say, “Press S to save…?”

So, I called her back, and left another message for her -– never at the office, you see — when, a day or two later, mid-afternoon, the phone rings… and it’s her. Now, granted, this was pre-MNF, but still… this was a pretty big deal. Sadly, the first two times I’d called, when I knew I’d be getting her voice mail, I had prepared scripts for the occasion. This impromptu call though… I wasn’t ready for it.

To make matters worse, somehow, the entire network got wind and gathered around my desk to watch me crash and burn while talking to her. And they did not leave disappointed. I couldn’t swallow to save my life and had trouble finding words to complete my sentences. A standard line from me went something like this: “We–ll, Me–li–ssa… how… uhm… I like paste.” It was bru-tal. Strangely, it was the last time we ever talked, as she wisely railroaded me her agent’s way. But even as she was growing impatient with my ill-mannered speaking habits, there was something there between us -– I could tell. And thus, to this day, our love remains of the unrequited variety…

One of the biggest disasters from last year’s version was the amped-up starting lineups. You might remember the concept – three quick, random cuts of each player in extreme close-up (think A Hard Day’s Night in technicolor), followed by each player (and I mean each player) introducing himself, his position, his college, his ACT scores, his little league stats… Pure, unending torture that seemingly found a new level of low when then-Cowboy Randall Cunningham used a fake English accent for his introduction. Anyway, the lineups would usually wrap up about midway through Spin City the next night, an absolute failure from the get-go. This year, thankfully, the lineups are more traditional and simple, a wise move on ABC’s part. Thus far, I’m impressed: ABC’s vamped up Stark and stripped down the bells and whistles. Sadly, though, they’re still refusing to admit what a colossal mistake Eric Dickerson was.

Here’s what I don’t get about Dickerson -– why even bother sending him to the games? He could file the same shallow, non-in depth reports from his house. In fact, I’d rather they cut to him reclining at his palatial home, so that way they could at least turn his wasted air time into a pseudo-MTV Cribs segment, which, I promise, would be far more insightful. He adds nothing to the game, usually either serving up tired war stories (“When I played running back…) that quickly turn into tired clichés, or just repeating, verbatim, Al Michaels’ lead-in. Here’s a sample:

Al: Now let’s go to Eric Dickerson with a quick take on Trung Candidate, who last year was hurt and ineffective. Eric?

Eric: Al, last year, Trung Candidate was hurt and ineffective. He’ll have to turn it around this year. Back to you.

Al: Thanks, Eric.

Dennis: Hey, Eric, babe? Don’t strain yourself, OK? Jesus Christ, Gary Condit’s a practical font of information compared to you, chi chi.

During last night’s broadcast, Dickerson was holding a microphone and interviewing Jack Youngblood. But, why, if he has the mic, is he still wearing his “Hi, I’m Judy from Time/Life books” headset? Shades of Larry Bud Mellman handing out hot towels at a New York City subway station creep up as Dickerson had trouble deciding which mic to use. Classic. Anybody else remember Dickerson picking up, like, 1,200 of his 2,103 yards against the Oilers in ’84? Even as a Colt, that guy was an all-time Oiler killer.

And with that, it’s time to focus on the three guys in the booth. Let’s start with Al Michaels. Pure, unadulterated greatness. I recently saw HBO’s documentary on the 1980 US Hockey team, and Michaels has earned a free pass with me forever. He’s the best play-by-play man working, and if you don’t agree, I’ve lost all semblance of respect for you. The man survived a year in the booth with Boomer “If they can just outscore their opponents, they should have a shot at winning this game” Esiason unscathed, which makes Tina, Colby, et al look like wimps, and never did his talent or skill waver. Consummate professional, the Xaviera Hollander of the announcing circuit.

And then there’s Dennis Miller. They say about the SNL alum that you either love ’em or hate ’em, that there is no middle ground, but I’m here to tell ya, I’m on the middle ground. I find him funny, annoying, painfully scripted, a distraction and a perfect voice for the common fan, sometimes all on the same comment. To quote Leonard Maltin, “Some of Dennis Miller I like, and some of him I don’t like at all.” I think part of his problem might be his booth mate, but overall, it’s an interesting experiment that still hasn’t blown up in anyone’s faces.

Did I blame Miller’s inconsistency on a “boothmate?” Yep. Dan Fouts, who I actually kind of liked on ABC’s college football, sadly brings a Jar Jar Binks-like stink to the proceedings. I don’t know, maybe I’m still livid about The Waterboy, but am I the only one who thinks Fouts is like Screech to Miller and Michaels’ Zach and Slater? He just seems wildly out of place in this particular booth.

Nobody, and I do mean NOBODY, can drain the life out of a joke quite like Fouts. He steps on and over Miller’s best lines, trying to either up the ante on the comedy scale (and failing miserably), or trying too quickly to turn the focus back to the action. It’s wildly uneven and disconcerting, and I think he’s negatively impacting Miller’s performance.

(Random observation: Marshall Faulk has the face of a fat person. How is he the best running back in football?)

And that was just the first half, people. Good God, preseason games are boring. Fortunately, I was able to catch the remaining moments of The Weakest Link on NBC.

The 2001 NFL season is a big one because it’s the last without a Houston representative, but I’m apparently not that ready for some football… not yet anyway. Next year, though, when the Texans are playing in this game, I’m likely to make it through… at least three quarters.

Ric Sweeney is still reeling from last Wednesday’s big news: MTV’s 20th birthday bash. MTV is 20??! Oh, yeah, and the Hakeem thing sucked, too.