In the most appropriate homage to Bill, I set up for a running diary, which the rest of the world calls "live-blogging."
And away we go:
11:51: Colbert introduces the segment. (SC: "I wonder what we'll talk about?") Bill gives a wave to the crowd as Colbert does his "it's-all-about-me" schtick. (Hmm: Who is the audience cheering for again? Keep that in mind.)
11:51:07: Bill reaction shot to Colbert's antics. Slightly deer-in-headlights, but that's understandable. Bill is wearing a pinstripe suit and open-collar white shirt. (I'm disappointed: Where's the Jalen Rose NBA Draft outfit?)
11:51:20: SG slyly references an earlier joke in the show about Hungarians. (Points to SG: You're paying attention! I always like when the Colbert or Stewart interview guests do that.)
11:51:56: Colbert talks about Bill's "fan's perspective"...yada yada yada... one-word responses from Bill. I guess Colbert didn't take the John Sawatsky ESPN interview training. (One-word answers are interview death on Colbert/Stewart. When you can hear individual audience member chuckles, it's quiet. Too quiet. But it's early yet.)
I believe the upshot of the question from Colbert was that Bill stays out of locker rooms for athlete interviews because there isn't enough room in, say, the Giants locker room for both Barry Bonds' head and Bill's head. (Wait: Did I mis-interpret that? Ha ha: Bill, we kid 'cause we love!)
11:52:09: Colbert reads the entire title of Bill's book, and comments about the title "It's a good one."
Bill quietly comments on "But now there's no 'Peace'" with Red Sox fans. "It's terrible." More projection! We can't hear you in back!
11:52:20: Pause the DVR for a sidebar with myself:
This is where I have my first "I-wonder-what-SportsGuy-readers-seeing-Bill-in-person-for-the-first-time-are-thinking" moment.
(Full disclosure: I've met Bill once in person, very briefly, and I really liked him. We have an occasional email correspondence, and he's been nothing but nice to me.)
He's an unbelievable writer – and has created a very impressive little empire. (OK, I'll stop the SG-slurp now.) But the fact is, he's not nearly as good on TV as he is in print. Not even close. That's not a criticism -- just an observation.
(The reality is that if Bill was as good on TV as he was in print, he'd be so big as to eclipse everything else on sports TV. He'd have a show more popular than PTI and I have no doubt he'd be sitting in Tony Kornheiser's seat on Monday Night Football. As Simmons himself might say: I will not argue about this.)
So anyway, having heard him on the radio a few times (and having seen him on TV once or twice on that ill-fated train-wreck "Cold Pizza" segment of him and his LA buddies sitting at a diner table talking), I knew he wasn't as good on broadcast media as he was in online media.
I'm always curious, then, how fans who only know him by his brilliant online-writing skills react when they see the actual guy behind the Guy. So far, the interview is a slow start. But the Colbert interview segment is always more about host than guest. You've got to be willing to let Colbert carry the thing.
Un-pause the DVR and continue...
11:52:45: OK, NOW Bill is warming up. Colbert threw him a softball, asking what makes the Red Sox so likeable. Bill got as animated as we're likely to see him -- it's in his wheelhouse.
(Number of pop culture references so far? Zero. That's a disappointment.)
11:53:40. Colbert flashes his genius. He points out that "Path to 9/11" (on ABC) was trounced by football on both Sunday and Monday nights.
Colbert: "Does that mean that
(This is PRECISELY the kind of pop-culture-meets-sports reference you'd expect out of Bill -- but maybe only online, not on TV. We're in Colbert's World now.)
11:53:58. Bill stumbles through a reply, but then has an outstanding save by setting up Colbert with this: "You know, the highlight of Bush's presidency was sports-related?"
Colbert: "He caught that fish!" (LOL. Colbert runs with it. Audience eats it up. Again, people watch the interview for Colbert, not the fill-in-blank guest.)
Bill references Game 3 of the 2001 World Series when Bush threw out the first pitch in a bulletproof vest, marveling at his strike:
"Would Reagan have been able to do that?" (Clever.) "Would Franklin Roosevelt?" (OK, that's hysterical.) "Would Bill Clinton, who probably throws like a girl?" (Eh, wrong audience, methinks.)
Simmons: "His presidency peaked that day." OK, that's low-hanging-fruit clever. But now, step aside for the master:
Colbert: "You know what? I think he's been throwing a fastball past us every day since then." (Audience goes nuts.)
Bill tries a joke about pitchers needing bulletproof vests in a Mets-Yankees World Series. Even with a NYC audience, it falls flat. (Maybe BECAUSE it's a NYC audience.) Moving on...
11:55:11. Colbert asks about the USA Hoops team coming in third at the World Championships. "What the fark is going on?" (Yep: LOVE the use of "fark.")
OK, this is DIRECTLY in Bill's wheelhouse – basketball. I have very high expectations for what comes next:
Bill offers up an explanation that we throw a team together in two weeks, versus the Greeks, who have been "playing together for, like, 20 years," etc.
What the hell? Is Colbert interviewing Ric Bucher here? Hit me with some vintage Simmons, man! Tell me how "
Simmons: "The funny thing is that none of those guys could play in the NBA. Which is weird." Weird: Yes. Funny? No. At least not when noted on this particular TV program. (Perhaps ANY.) But I quibble with semantics...
11:55:47. The "Greek" interview line comes to a screeching halt. Bill ends a sentence. The audience is quiet. Colbert seems stymied, reaching for anything to make this a funny.
I ask myself: What must "Dad" be thinking right now? I know: "Why haven't I heard of this 'Cole-bear' guy? Was he on the
11:56:35. Bill starts talking about how the NBA players didn't want to be there, and how we should send all high school kids. "It'll be like 'Miracle on Ice.'" It feels a little off the rails right now. I'll tell you what the "miracle" would be: That Colbert saves the end of this segment with a nice kicker right here. Ask, and ye shall...
Colbert: "You know what I say? I say 'Basketball on Ice!'"
And that's the segment closer; at this point, probably mercifully.
11:26:45. Segment wraps. Colbert pimps the book, thanks Bill for coming on. The exit music plays and the camera pans back into a fuzzy fade-out. I'm waiting to see if Colbert (or Bill) extend a handshake. Neither does.
I'm not sure what – if anything – this means. I've seen guests get a big handshake afterwards; I've seen guests get nothing. I wonder how Colbert feels the segment went? (And I'm wondering how Bill thought it went... I'm positive there's a column in this, hopefully soon.)
Wrap-up: OK, so all in all, Bill was OK. Certainly not great. But not awful. I'm not going to dismiss that being good on Colbert is difficult as hell: Maybe the most difficult interview in late-night TV.
It's Colbert's show. He's got to be "on." To keep pace, the interviewee has got to be "on," too. And I've seen WAY too many who fall flat. They can't all be Stone Phillips.
Being extemporaneously funny on TV is incredibly hard. Just watch Tony Kornheiser, who is GREAT on TV (and vastly more experienced on TV than someone like Bill), yet still manages to have as many dribblers as he does ropes so far on MNF.
The reason that Colbert and the Daily Show crew can pull it off is that they're masters of the form. So maybe it's not fair to ask someone like Bill, a master of online writing but certainly not on-air TV, to be even close to as good or entertaining as he is in his columns.
I'm not trying to be an apologist for him. I'm just wondering what kind of expectations Bill's fans had for him.
If those expectations were as high as they are for his writing, the basic gist of today's post-Colbert commentary will be: "Wow, was he not as good as he is online."
If you had low expectations, he did OK. Again, he wasn't great. If you thought he'd be like he was in his column, you'd be disappointed. If you knew he wasn't as good in broadcast, you probably thought nothing worse than "eh."
The non-sports fan – the one who had never even heard of Simmons before he walked on the set – probably found it less dynamic than the usual guest but certainly unoffensive. (Hell, bland is fine: The guy was on national TV getting to promote his book. The performance is icing.)
More than anything, it was a showcase of the difference between someone with complete mastery of online persona (Simmons) and complete mastery of TV persona (Colbert)... and Bill was playing on the road this time.