In November, 1980, I left my job as a sportswriter with the Albany Times-Union and moved to New York City. Let me just say this about Albany: It's not some of God's best work. I arrived in Manhattan with $1500 to my name, $1150 after I paid for a month at the Times Square Motor Hotel. For the next eight weeks, I lived in a large room on the 14th Floor, in between a hooker who was learning how to type and a Vietnam vet who eventually learned how to scam massive amounts of free cheese from President-elect Reagan. This is not their story.
Shortly before I left Albany, I had received a letter from the managing editor of Sports Illustrated, offering me the chance to contribute a piece to the magazine. They were looking for a hockey writer and were slightly impressed by my Times-Union clips and overwhelmingly impressed by the fact that my uncle was Herbert Warren Wind, the country's preeminent golf writer and one of Sports Illustrated'soriginal laureates.
The managing editor called it an "audition." I would be assigned three stories. If all of them ran in the magazine, I would go on staff. If two of them ran, I would probably get the gig. One or less, thanks for stopping by.
My first piece was on then Hartford Whalers defenseman Mark Howe, the son of ice icon Gordie Howe. Mark was playing his first season without his legendary father, who had hastily retired the previous April at 52. I spent a week in Hartford, wrote the piece, turned it in, got it back, rewrote it, turned it in, got it back, repolished it and turned it in for good that Friday. The last thing I heard was, "This is going to be in the magazine."
Sports Illustrated closes most of its pieces by Sunday morning. Saturday night, I was in a bar, half-watching the Whalers-Islanders game, more than half watching my Wild Turkey. At one point, I looked up just long enough to see a stretcher come out onto the ice and cart away Mark Howe, who left behind a puddle of blood in the crease.
The details of his injury are not suitable for a family website. Mark Howe missed two months, then came back to resume a long, exemplary career which ended in 1995 with the Detroit Red Wings, the team his dad had gilded for 26 seasons.
It took me a little longer to come back. My audition at SI ended with Mark Howe's injury, and so did my career as a sportswriter. For the next 12 years, I made my living as a stand-up comedian, performing as far away as Australia, as near as the Improv on 44th and 9th (the Times Square Motor Hotel was on 43rd and 8th), as memorable as Las Vegas, as forgettable as Albany and Hartford.
In December, 1999, while working as the head monologue writer for Late Show with David Letterman, I was hired to write a sports humor column for ESPN Magazine. My column, "The Monologue" ran two and a half years there, until a gentleman named Rob Fleder asked me over lunch if I would consider doing the same type of column every week at the magazine where he worked. A little book calledSports Illustrated.
That was three years ago. THE BEST OF THE SHOW is my first collection of SI columns. There's a lesson in here somewhere. I think it's this: All that crap people tell you about a life beyond you're wildest dreams? Turns out it's true.
Before we begin, here are my goals for this first chapter. I want to avoid self-indulgence. What I mean by that, what I mean to say is, I, I, I, I....okay, let's get back to that.
How about if I teach you how to write a joke? You know, get a return on that $22 you just shelled out? It's very simple. You pretend your brain has double-stick tape around it. You pick a celebrity, someone universal with a lot of baggage, and free associate. Topics, words, phrases start to stick to the tape. Pick one you like, remove the rest and free associate off that. More words, more phrases stick to the tape. Repeat the last step and get more specific free associating. Keep doing that, keep boiling it down, like you're making crack. Eventually, you can see the connection between each step. Add some attitude, some nonsense logic, you've got a joke.
I'll do an easy one. President Bush. Let's see...dad was President, disputed election, loves tax cuts, compassionate conservative, quit drinking, former owner of the Rangers, big baseball fan. I'll take big baseball fan. Okay... big baseball fan, t-ball court at White House, against steroids, honors championship teams. I'll take honors championship teams. Okay...honors championship teams. Ceremony in Rose Garden. Bush among the Red Sox. What could happen during a ceremony with Bush and the Red Sox?
Wait, I got it.
The World Champion Red Sox recently visited the White House. They presented the President with a customize jersey: BUSH 43. Come on. Am I the only one thinking? How about IDIOT 1?
Basically, that is my life. I gather items from sports - people, places, things, arraignments, pharmaceuticals - and I try to logically free-associate off them. Eventually, it congeals into something resembling a joke. And if not, I just stick the word "Tagliabue" at the end. Because, come on, who are we kidding? Tagliabue is funny. Say it. No, better yet. Take two gulps of water, don't swallow, now say it. Huh? Funny? Do I know what I'm talking about? Give it to me.
Other than drooling water on myself, putting the column together is a two-part process. Three, if you count paying off cops. Every morning, Tuesday-Saturday, I get up, get down on my knees and pray to a Higher Power that Mike Tyson did or said something stupid the night before. Then, I make coffee. (I like my coffee with milk and two Vicodin).
I read six newspapers a day, back to front, and not just because I'm Jewish. Every day I read the sports sections of the New York Times, New York Post, New York Daily News, Boston Globe, USA Todayand the Watchtower, which has all kinds of trouble getting the results from games on the coast. I also check in regularly with SI.com, Yahoo Sports and www.allthingslizaminelli.com, which also has trouble posting late scores.
Most newspapers and websites end up sharing pretty much same information, although USA Today is great with the daily round-ups from all the teams. Just once, I'd love to see next to the Brewers:"MILWAUKEE - Still cheap, still sucking. No change. Check back in six months." Or next to the football Cardinals: "ARIZONA - What are you looking at? Read a book, Roto Boy!"
Believe it or not, the best items for my column come not from newspapers or website, but something called The Sports Business Daily, a scarily thorough compendium of sports-related news generated five days a week out of some guy's curing shed in North Carolina.
The SBD, published by Street and Smith, is an exhaustive daily synthesis of both sides of the big stories, issues and trends in the sports industry, and their corresponding dollar figures. While that is fascinating stuff for you spreadsheet geeks, there is a section near the back called Sports Industrialists, which features boldface names galore. It's there you find items such as "Dennis Rodman sold his house in Newport Beach for a reported $3.8 million after paying $865,000 in 1996." You see something like that, and you think, "Well, that's the first thing he's done in the last eight years that involves the world 'appreciation.'" Okay, maybe that's just what I think. And I have to go through a lot of double stick tape to get there. Rodman, tattoos, Pistons, Bulls, Lakers, Mavericks, wedding dress, kicks a camera man, motorcycle, drinking, hair color, Carmen Electra, Madonna, multiple piercings. Too much. So, I went with house, sold, closing, mortgage, appreciation?. bingo. See, just like making crack. Which may or may not bring us back to Rodman.
I try and write at least ten jokes a day from Tuesday to Friday. That's my foundation, and if the column was a newspaper, that would be the feature and business sections. I use Saturday to write jokes on any of the marquee games. By Saturday night, around 10:00, I have about 50 jokes, which I edit down to the 30 I really like, then polish them up nice for shipping. I email the column in around midnight.
Sunday morning , my editor, the frighteningly efficient Kostya Kennedy, calls me and tells me the jokes he's looking to cut. The final column is usually around 20 jokes. If there is something going on Sunday (which, between the NFL, the golf majors and the playoffs is 40 out of 52 weeks), I usually send another five jokes before 5:00. We make our final, final cuts Monday morning (after the legal department has called and said I can't say Tonya Harding danced topless at her husband's bachelor party unless I have three signed affidavits from guys who gave her dollar bills). I devote Monday afternoon to my favorite charity, In God's Love We Deliver Chinese, play with my cats, Joe and Charbonneau, and pass out just before Final Jeopardy.
Tuesday, I wake up, and the process begins anew.
I did a similar column, The Monologue, for two and half years at ESPN Magazine and this format, twenty jokes and a band, seemed to work consistently. I moved over to Sports Illustrated and they said, "Don't change a thing. Except the title. And make it funnier. We don't want any Tonya Harding-type trouble."
My first day at Sports Illustrated, I told my editor, Kostya Kennedy, "Look, there's only one rule with this column. You can cut a joke because you don't think it's funny, you can cut a joke because you think it's offensive, you can cut a joke because you think the magazine might get sued. But you are not allowed to cut a joke because you don't get it."
I know what you're thinking: "But I don't get it." Relax, you have plenty of company. My benchmark is 50 percent. If you get half of the jokes every week, you are a well-informed, borderline obsessive follower of sports, and I will guess not very happily married. If you get more than seventy-five percent of the references, seek immediate help from your clergyman or pharmacist. Hey, I don't get seventy-five percent of this stuff, and I wrote it. I'm just trying for a sound, man.
Rather than just do a Xerox job and reprint my first 112 SI columns, I thought it might be interesting to annotate each column, explain or desperately justify the process behind a couple of selected jokes, include a few of the jokes that weren't selected and do half a Casey Kasem on the bands at the end. Other than that, I think we're caught up. For what it's worth, my motto has always been: Do a volume business of cheap laughs, and pass the savings onto you, the reader. And by "always," I mean, you know, just now when I wrote it.
Enough. You look like a good crowd. Enjoy The Show.