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Original Issue

Laugh Track

In the burgeoning partnership between sports and comedy on
television, there is the good (Fox's Jimmy Kimmel and Jay Mohr),
the not-so-good (ABC's Dennis Miller) and the ugly (Fox's Tom
Arnold). Why the increasing nexus between sports and yuks on TV?
"It's a necessary means to an end--and the end is ratings," says
Mark Shapiro, ESPN senior vice president and general manager of
programming. "If you can produce programs that serve the casual
sports fans--and comedy does that--hopefully you can retain that
audience for a longer period."

Two years ago Kimmel (The Man Show) was chosen to pick games for
Fox NFL Sunday. Last year saw Miller's much-ado addition to the
Monday Night Football booth. Mohr Sports will make its debut in
February, when the actor-comedian--the merrymaker of Fox Sports
Net's NFL This Morning team--moves to ESPN to host a live
half-hour Sunday-night talk show.

Are network executives smiling? In Kimmel's case, yes: Fox NFL
Sunday's average ratings have increased in the prized age
18-to-34 male demographic, from a 3.0 in 1999 to a 3.3 in '01.
While it's unfair to blame Monday Night Football's slide (down
14% from 2000 through Oct. 22) on the hit-and-miss comedy
stylings of Miller, neither has he provided a Nielsen jolt.

Even Miller provides far more chuckles than Fox Sports Net's
nightly Best Damn Sports Show Period, which debuted on July 23
and is the worst damn hour in sports broadcasting, exclamation
point. In a recent episode cohost Arnold offered unfunny jokes
about toilet seats, pap smears and big butts. Fox's hiring of
Arnold is destined to end up alongside D.B. Cooper's
disappearance and Pauly Shore's stardom as one of the great
unsolved mysteries of our time.

Of course, much of the humor in TV sports is unintentional. "In
my opinion the funniest person in all of sports is Eric Dickerson
with his sideline reporting on Monday Night Football," says
Kimmel, who launches into his impression of the running back
turned broadcaster conducting a postgame interview: "'How are you
feeling after the game?' 'Uh, I feel pretty good, Eric.' 'O.K.,
back to you, Al.' Now that's comedy to me."


COLOR PHOTO: ADAM KNOTT/PEOPLE The TV sports jokers brigade, including Mohr (top), Arnold (left) and Miller, earns mixed notices.