I dearly, dearly love Adam McKay’s 2004 comedy Anchorman, a scathing and very silly indictment of the vapidity of local news and the cowering terror of men who don’t want to compete or collaborate with women in professional spaces. But as much as I’ve been looking forward to the film’s sequel, due unto us shortly, even I have been feeling a bit of fatigue at the omnipresence of Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell), the titular anchorman, who’s been making the rounds in everything from car ads to curling commentary, in support of the new film. It’s hard to imagine there’s much of Anchorman 2 that hasn’t been revealed to us in the many, many commercials that have been cut for the movie. And while I trust Ferrell’s powers of sublimely goofy improvisation, surely there are only so many silly things he can find to say on air before they become somewhat wearying.
But there is one bit of Burgundy cross-promotion I would badly like to have seen. Burgundy and Champ Kind (David Koechner) were supposed to co-host ESPN’s SportsCenter tonight. Their appearance has sensibly been cancelled, since the Florida State Attorney Willie Meggs plans to announce this afternoon whether or not charges will be filed against Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, who has been accused of sexual assault. It could be gonzo and revealingly brilliant to have Burgundy and Kind cover what will surely be the biggest sports story of the day: the record of the actual sports media had a poor enough record of covering sexual assault cases that it would be fascinating to see how close parody lies to the real thing. But ESPN is right to cover the story straight first, and to recognize that there are people who wouldn’t see Burgundy and Kind’s performance for the analysis of sports reporting that it is, and instead would take it as license to treat the accusations against Winston as a joke.
If it had been a more mundane news day, though, the clip ESPN released of Burgundy interviewing Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning gives a sense of the revelation that might have been:
It’s become easy to focus on the punchlines of Anchorman jokes rather than the setup. What’s brilliant about them isn’t whatever goofy combination of words Burgundy ends with, but the seriousness with which the character approaches all stories without regard to their actual gravity, and his aping of the actual conventions of journalistic language.
What’s funny about Burgundy’s conversation with Manning isn’t really that he’s comparing him to “a succulent baby lamb” or suggesting that mustaches are key to football performance. It’s that Burgundy doesn’t have to change the setup for any of these questions at all from the phrasing sports anchors use all the time in conversations with athletes. Look at how he starts, telling Manning “You are one of the great quarterbacks playing the game today, you’ve had a lot of success.” That’s the kind of totally unnecessary affirmation people who talk about sports on television offer to athletes all the time, rather than using their airtime to try to elicit actual information from the athletes in question.
Then there’s his second question for Manning, which begins with a reiteration of basic facts, before offering up the most useless query you can possibly ask someone in public life, and yet that’s asked constantly: “So you play in Denver, for the Broncos, at Mile High Stadium. Tell me about your relationship with Thunder.” Thunder happens to be the Broncos mascot, but what makes the question ludicrous isn’t that Manning is being asked about his closeness to a plush animal, but that it’s framed in such a way that it suggests the questioner has done no preparation whatsoever, and allows Manning to serve up talking points. If you’re going to ask an athlete (or an actor) about a relationship with a teammate or an employer, the only way that inquiry can possibly produce an interesting answer is if it’s specific. How do you prepare for plays (or scenes)? How have events changed the way you work together? What happened on a specific drive (or a specific workday)? Otherwise, there is absolutely zero possibility that the person being asked a question will repeat anything other than positive pablum that reveals no actual information whatsoever. It’s a question designed to dissolve into the ether. It serves the interview subject rather than the viewer or reader. It’s embarrassing.
And then there are the cliches, Burgundy talking aimlessly about himself, remembering that “I used to yell Chekov all the time! No clue what it meant,” and riffing off LeBron James’ famous television special, saying “You can have South Beach, LeBron. Ron Burgundy is taking his talents to Bristol.” The presence of ex-athletes and ex-coaches in the broadcast booth has some advantages in sports broadcasting: it means that anchors and commentators often have deep technical knowledge of the game they’re covering, and have experienced emotions similar to the ones players, coaches, and managers may be feeling during a significant moment. But possessing that knowledge isn’t the same as communicating it for a mass audience. And having once been the subject of sports reporting, it can be difficult for these former participants to relinquish their sense that they ought to be the subject of the broadcast, no matter how little they actually have to offer at any given moment. Burgundy captures that self-regard and inability to distinguish matters of import from trivia perfectly.
We’ve got Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central four nights a week offering up a pitch-perfect satire of cable news punditry. But sports coverage, which is consumed by vast numbers of Americans, rarely gets the savaging it deserves. This short clip gives us a sense of what might have been, even as ESPN stays genuinely classy and sticks with serious coverage.