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Smash-mouth Sarcasm

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The ghost floating above the television this evening will be familiar enough: the bad hairpiece, the face of a dyspeptic Bela Lugosi and the voice like a guy behind a Brooklyn delicatessen counter reciting Leviticus.

It's Howard Cosell, of course, drifting through the living room as "Monday Night Football" begins a new season, the Cosell chair in the play-by-play booth changing occupants once more, ABC-TV calling upon comedian Dennis Miller to jack up ratings for a former prime-time hit.

With a few ex-jocks in between, we've gone from Howard the Humble to Dennis the Droll. What a transition. No Happy Hour could explain that attitude adjustment. It's Johnny to Dave, Sam Peckinpah to Quentin Tarantino, George Jetson to Homer Simpson. It's bombastic reporter assuming the mantel of Truth and Justice to comedian armored in sneering sarcasm.

In other words, one Man of the Hour to another.

Miller is the only non-athlete commentator to become a member of the Monday Night Football broadcast team since Cosell, and Cosell was there when the show debuted in 1970. The experiment was considered nuts. As if the idea of prime-time football wasn't weird enough, they throw in a "color" man like Cosell, who never played the game and was a caustic SOB known to think American sports was so much overblown, sentimental hooey.

That's perfect, said then ABC Sports president Roone Arledge, telling Sports Illustrated why he hired Cosell, who had a reputation for asking tough questions about economics and race while doing sports reporting and commentary for ABC radio since the late 1950s. "I'm tired of football being treated like a religion," Arledge said. "The games aren't played in Westminster Abbey."

Funny thing about that Westminster Abbey remark. Thirty years later, along comes Miller, who steps into the booth and in his first pre-season game broadcast says he understands some folks take their football quite seriously, but, hey, "it's not the Vatican."

No, it's much bigger than that, Pigskin Lad. Not to get off on a rant here, but on any given Sunday or Monday, Americans do not collectively have millions in wagers riding on what happens in the Holy See. Nobody's losing this month's car payment if the pontiff fumbles a homily. Get serious, cha-cha, there's more going on here than numbskull hero worship. It not just the players, owners, advertisers and TV network executives who measure their football passion in dollars, it's also many fans.

You won't hear Miller argue with the pursuit of money. He's not some sanctimonious Cosellian crusader running around trying to straighten out the world. He went through the whole college-kid-inspired-by-"All the President's Men" bit, got a degree in journalism and soon decided there was more money in mocking pols than indicting them. He's post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-Woodward and Bernstein, post-hippie, post-modern and largely post-pretense.

In between performing comedy and social commentary he's found time to advertise beer, discount long-distance phone service and restaurants. As he said in a rant on his HBO show, "Dennis Miller Live": "I like money. It's neat and tidy and clean. It's fun to fold and stack and smell and look at ... It's just plain fun to count money, and I often do it in a loud falsetto while wearing nothing but a captain's hat and a coin changer."

Nothing too threatening there, eh? Nothing to rattle the stemware in ABC's corporate skybox. The man is hilarious, but about as subversive as a stadium construction bond issue.

Fine, it's the 00's in America. Who needs subversive? Get into the SUV, run out and buy nacho chips and brewskis, get on the laptop quickly to check the mutual funds one more time, maybe order a Rolling Stones CD from Amazon.com. Then switch on Monday Night Football, hear Dennis settle into play-by-play sanctum with Al Michaels and Dan Fouts.

"As 3-nothing games go, this has been the running of the bulls at Pamplona," Miller said during the last pre-season game between Miami and Green Bay.

Cosell, who died at 77 in 1995, was a little different. He had a way of asking questions that bordered on sadistic. Once he asked badly scarred former welterweight and middleweight champion Carmen Basilio: "But Carmen, what about your face?" He once said to aging quarterback Johnny Unitas: "People want to know if you can still throw the long ball."

Fun and games

A labor lawyer turned broadcaster, Cosell never lost the lawyerly yen for advocacy. He was always pushing a case. Before free agency in baseball, he railed against the reserve clause. He ripped boxing for corruption and brutality. He criticized college sports for abuses of academic standards and accused the Olympic movement of flagrant commercialism and hypocrisy. Most famously, he supported Muhammad Ali when the heavyweight champ's title was revoked in 1967 after Ali claimed conscientious objector draft status because of his Muslim religious convictions.

The Vietnam War was on and Watergate was still just a hotel in Washington. The Civil Rights movement was afoot in the streets. With a showman's weakness for grandiosity, Cosell invested sports with a gravity befitting a politically charged time.

As former New York Post writer Larry Merchant once said, Cosell made "the world of fun and games sound like the Nuremberg trials."

Miller, who graduated from comedy clubs to "Saturday Night Live" in the early 1980s, turns the Nuremberg trials into the stuff of fun and games. It's all so many scraps floating on an endless stream of pop culture flotsam. He's a cartoon wiseguy on Mystery Science Theatre. All roads lead to and from television and nothing is so grand that it cannot be shrunk to idiot box dimensions.

In a 1993 concert in Washington, Miller points to a giant photo of the Lincoln Memorial statue of Abe in that colossal chair, saying this is Lincoln "as we love to remember him, at the helm of the Starship Enterprise - 'SPOCK, PHASERS ON EMANCIPATE!' " Later in the show he says he'd just started reading "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich": "I'm not really too far into the book; Hitler is still a Mary Kay rep."

The new breed

Cosell and Miller share a sermonizing gene, but Miller always throttles back from full Elmer Gantry, sets his phaser on "Detachment" and closes each HBO "rant" commentary with, "Of course, that's just my opinion, I could be wrong."

Hard to imagine that phrase coming out of Cosell. How would that fit the picture of the sage truth-seeker in a world of fools? Even with the self-parody (catch Cosell doing play-by-play at a political assassination and a wedding night in Woody Allen's "Bananas"), you had a feeling he believed it.

Cosell left pro-boxing broadcasting in 1982 in a fit of disgust over its brutality, although he continued to broadcast amateur bouts. He quit Monday Night Football two years later, declaring the NFL a "stagnant bore." In 1985 ABC-TV canceled his "SportsBeat" show due to low ratings. He was 67, and while he continued radio broadcasts until 1992, he never appeared on television after doing a baseball broadcast with Al Michaels in 1985.

Nevertheless, the seed had been planted. To his critics, Cosell was always more bombastic showman than journalist, but his work kicked open a few doors. Sports broadcasting would not be the same. Genuflection was no longer the only acceptable posture. Sports became fodder for serious reporting and, more to the point here, legions of wise guys.

And not just the folksy ex-jocks like Joe Garagiola, Bob Uecker, John Madden and "Dandy" Don Meredith. These were members of some other breed, guys like Craig Kilborn, Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann. Guys who never played the damn game. Guys in eyeglasses with college degrees. Suddenly all the wise-assery that had been part of the sports press corps since chariot racing at Olympia was in your face on the tube.

"The jock culture and the joke culture go together and always have," says David A. Klatell, co-author of "Sports for Hire: Television, Money and the Fans" and associate dean of the Columbia School of Journalism. "I'm actually one of the people who believes it's a sensible decision" to put Miller on Monday Night Football. "I see him as very much in tune with the viewers they're trying to attract."

More women, more soft-core sports people. The sort who might not mind having a Dan Fouts explication of the Broncos secondary peppered with occasional references to "F-Troop," Sylvia Plath, Janet Reno and "Gomer Pyle." This is not the prime-time audience that made Monday Night Football a ratings monster in the days before cable rocked the networks.

Olbermann, host of "The Keith Olbermann Evening News" on Fox, has a question about putting a bona fide professional wise guy in the Monday Night Football booth: what took so long?

"It almost seems tardy," says Olbermann, among the first of the new generation of broadcast wise guys. "I think Miller's job, getting that position, is really kind of a latest step on an evolutionary chain."

He figures Miller will stay out of trouble as long as he avoids remarks suggesting the game's so dull it's not worth watching. Miller gingerly approached that territory a few times in pre-season games. Olbermann, who has worked for ABC Sports president Howard Katz, says that's the third rail.

"Howard has a good sense of humor, except if it's the product he's selling," says Olbermann. "Then there's nothing funny about it."

The record suggests that satire, pointed commentary and tough questions slip off the sports-industrial complex like a bad toupee. The irony of Cosell was that for all his protesting the inflated importance of sports in American culture, his work on Monday Night Football only served to make football a bigger attraction than ever. Who knew? The audacity of it all seemed to border on madness.

"ABC has lost sight of the fact that pro football is a game, not a show for three TV stars," Bill MacPhail, president of CBS Sports, said shortly after Monday Night Football started. "What should we do, follow them with a team of Don Rickles, Milton Berle and Mickey Rooney?"

Well, not to Maxwell Smart your righteous indignation, pal, but would you believe Dennis Miller?

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