Friday, September 15, 2006

Bill Simmons vs. Stephen Colbert

Last night, my former colleague – and the Web's most popular sportswriter -- Bill Simmons was on "The Colbert Report" to support the paperback release of his book "Now I Can Die In Peace."

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 America cares more about who covers the spread than who was responsible for 9/11?"

(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 "Laguna Beach" is really a parable for Coach K's ineffectiveness as an Xs and Os coach!

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.

(Pause DVR)

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 Boston Globe NBA draft cheat sheet? Is he another one of those foreign players?" (That would be Bill's Dad – always referred to as "Dad" and never "my dad." I'm guessing my own father is watching Colbert right now and wondering how my erstwhile "Around the Horn" career could have been so unmercifully euthanized.)

(Unpause DVR)

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.

-- D.S.


LoganAvatar said...

Hmm no youtube link yet....

Christian Thoma said...

Yeah, I've heard Bill on the radio before, and I've always been struck by his Lincoln-esque voice. He's a master writer, but just doesn't have 'live' presence. And that's maybe a good thing, otherwise Bill Simmons could become grandmaster of the Sports Universe.

Jay said...

He calls ESPN radio in Boston from time to time. He just sounds tiny. The first time I heard him it really shattered the voice I had for him when I read his articles.

FreKy J said...

He just seemed a bit out of his element, as you pointed out Dan. Perhaps if he got a start on some small local media outlet, he could become good on TV, but it's incredibly difficult to just walk into the national TV spotlight and be a success. Very few pull that off.

Unknown said...

Bill managed to tread water which was about what I expected of him. Like everyone else I have seen him on TV and knew his writing was better than his TV persona. Hopefully this will just enforce to Bill that his world is in the written word, even though Colberts show is impossible for most to do.

Brewah said...

I'm not sure how many people remember Bill from his Digital City Boston days, but he was WAAAAY better back then (this was late 90's, early 00 if I remember correctly) and I've been a little disappointed with him since he moved ESPN.

The great thing about Bill at Digital City was that he didn't really have an editor to reign him in - he said wrote some pretty hilarious/outlandish remarks that wouldn't make it past the ESPN censors. Reading his work now you can notice the restraint.

For many of the reasons mentioned in other posts, I refuse to see Bill on-air. His voice annoys me, and he's almost never as lively as he is in his writing. I don't want my fond rememberances of his DCB days clouded by poor visual and audio performances.

RevScottDeMangeMD said...

Question...Do people read Simmons because they think he is a good writer and funny? Or do you think people read him because he is a Boston douchebag who makes you want to punch the computer and you ultimately punch a stranger instead. I'll take the 2nd one.

Unknown said...

I listened to the clips of him on Carolla's show and it's about the same. Bill just can't quite pull it off, and his voice is surprising.

It's funny how we ascribe a certain voice to people. WHen I saw Shanoff on ATH, it was totally not what I expected and he sounded funny too. Smarmy as well...kinda thought you were forcing it to out-Mariotti Mariotti.

Unknown said... answer the question: It doesn't affect how I view his writing. It's usually great stuff although he's losing a lot of tread when he ventures into Patriots territory. Bill is able to dress down the Red Sox...but he goes completely homer on the Patriots. That does get old.

TJ said...

Personally I think Simmons is pretty good in those segments on bad movies he does with Adam Corolla, but that might just be me.

I think my problem with Bill's TV/Radio presence is his voice. It's a little too.. I think the word "weenie" was used. It's just kind of funny to me to hear that voice and try to reconcile it with the uber-macho "what is a girl doing in a fantasy league?!?!?!" tone his columns can take.

TJ said...

But for any true geeks out there, seeing Simmons on TV still isn't half as jarring as the first time you see images/videos of Gabe and Tycho from Penny Arcade.

Juke Box Hero said...

Deadspin has the youtube link. Also it must have been hard early in the interview bill was cut off after ever 3 or 4 words and then at the end Colbert started to let him go even though bill was ready to get cut off.

Christian Thoma said...

Troy: Indeed. What's up with that? Of course, considering PA is such a geek site, should we be surprised that Mike and Jerry aren't as cool as Gabe and Tycho?

Zach said...

Dan, I think you nailed the main point of this, which is that going on Colbert is really, really tough for just about anyone, because, as you said, you're gonna have to be the straight guy. His humor often works best with politicians, who are so oblivious to the jokes that they walk right into them. With writers like Simmons, there's less humor to be had in the first place...

Troy: i remember going to the first PAX and being pretty damn surprised at who the folks behind it were...

The Ross said...

I remember in a Simmons mailbag article a few years back, someone asked him why he never did TV or radio, and Bill admitted that his style adapts better in print than on-air.

I met him about a year ago on the tour after the book came out, and although he was extremely nice, he wasn't cracking any jokes or making any witty comments like people expected. Still nice to meet the man behind the ingenious sports/pop culture writing.

Unknown said...

I've said it before and I'll say it again - for loyalists to Simmons from the Digital City Boston days he has become our Brett Favre.

Seriously I make apologies for him all the time but the truth of the matter is - he lost his fastball about 4 or 5 years ago and everytime I'm about to give up on him I remember the good old days and I keep crawling back for more.

I remember his first TV appearance on I think Channel 7 and his voice was just awful - so high pitched and he was so nervous. I will say he was better then that last night but like you say - going on Colbert is really tough, more tough than Jon Stewart in my opinion because of the things Steven is likely to say.

marcomarco said...

Someone needs to youtube this... It's not on the ComedyCentral video's yet. Last one is Ken Jennings vs. Stephen Colbert

MJL said...

I just watched the interview on, and I agree with everyone that has said Simmons is slightly awkward on television. He looked absolutely terrified before the interview even began.

And I don't know if you sneezed and missed it or what, but Colbert and Simmons shook hands just before the book was mentioned again at the end.

marcomarco said...

Just watched that on ComedyCentral.

I can't believe he acutally validated/pimped "The Curse" after objecting to it so vehemently in the past. He was #1 on the Shaugnassy-bashers list.

Talk about a flip flop.

Then he claims that Boston fans enjoy being miserable and everything has returned to normal this season?

I'm hoping it was just TV nerves, because if it wasn't, he just lost all credibility.

Matt Berg said...

Bill Simmons copied Chuck Klosterman with the 18 year olds playing for USA basketball, miracle on ice comment. And no citation?

Matt Berg said...

Oh, and Bill on YouTube (via Deadspin).

hanke11 said...

I am just glad we finally got to see the Bill "I am on the Colbert Report" Simmons face.

CorrND said...

Finally had a chance to watch my Tivo'd copy. I don't know if my expectations were set very low by all the comments here, but I didn't think he was that bad. I've certainly seen much worse, anyway. Like people that have no idea what they're getting into or people that decide they don't want to play along with Colbert's shtick. At least Bill was on the same page as Colbert.

Again, this is probably because I was expecting much worse, but I thought his voice was pretty normal.

Brave Sir Robin said...

I e-mailed Simmons after this interview and compared his performance to Michael Olawakandi (but ahead of Daunte Culpepper).
It was such a disappointment. The only good line was the Clinton throwing like a girl

Therapeutic Ramblings said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Therapeutic Ramblings said...

New comment...old post, people always said I was a bit slow, I just thought they meant I suck at running.

So they say that those who don't have the right presence on radio. Those who don't have the voice.....write. What happens when you don't have the presence, and don't have the turn into Shannon Sharpe on the CBS Half Time Show.

I'm happy to see that Bill at least hung in there.