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Original Issue

Committing a Chortle Sin

We are anation of lonely football fans, bereft of mirth. Fortunately, the people on theNFL pregame shows understand this. From Howie and Terry to Cris and Jerome toShannon and Boomer, they all know that what we crave most is not analysis, butlevity. You find it everywhere. Shoulders heaving, diaphragm contracting, NFLcommentators cannot stop giggling.

ESPN's SteveYoung: "What does that mean to the NFL if a kid plays six games and we havehim in the top five?"

Michael Irvin:"It means he's playing great!"

Chris Berman:"Ho-ho—ha-ha-ha-ha!"

Tom Jackson:"Ca-ha-ha-ha!"

One sports anchorrefers to this apparently crucial job skill as "the chortle, chortle,chortle," though there is also much cackling and snorting and theoccasional power guffaw. On a recent Sunday, CBS's Dan Marino laughed 17 timesduring a one-hour show, a tally made more impressive by the fact that he was onair for only 16 minutes. Here's a sample of what Marino found so funny.

Boomer Esiason:"I will go on the record right now and say they will not make theplayoffs...."

Shannon Sharpe:"You ain't no rap artist. You don't need your records!"

Fox's Howie Longand Terry Bradshaw each squeezed off 24 chuckles in 20 minutes that same day,more than a laugh a minute. One gets the feeling that if FCC standards allowed,Bradshaw would slug a Budweiser on camera, then alight from his chair to crushthe can on Long's forehead. It's enough to make a guy wish he could travel atall times with a pack of pregame commentators. Every visit to the bar wouldcome with its own laugh track, every utterance hailed as comic genius.

Joe Buck:"Cold coffee really gives you bad breath, doesn't it?"

Bradshaw: "Isthat what it is? Ha-ha-ha-ha. Tee-hee-hee. Bless your heart."

As with any artform, there are those who just don't get it. Football is a complex and oftenbrutal sport, these humor-haters say. Randy Minkoff, a media coach who's workedwith more than 1,000 athletes, says of the studio analysts, "They have torealize that the reason they're there is because they're experts, not becausethey're Jerry Seinfeld." Andrea Kirby, a media coach who's trained PeterGammons, Jim Kaat and Young, says, "When they're actually having fun, youcan tell, but when they're not, it's deadly obvious. I've asked guys why theywere laughing on the set, and some will admit they have no idea."

Here's a theory.Humans are social animals, and we need cues. It's why television began usingcanned laughter in 1950, why cartoons such as The Flintstones and The Jetsonshad laugh tracks, despite the obvious impossibility of their being taped infront of an audience. It's why local TV news entered its Stepfordian happy-talkphase at the end of the 1960s, trading relevancy for personality, WalterCronkite for a sea of Ron Burgundys.

Perhaps pregamecommentators represent the natural evolution of this concept. They provide thesolitary American male, stranded in his domestic prison, with the camaraderiehe craves. Flip on Fox, and you can join a virtual fraternity—and my, whataccomplished, athletic, well-dressed buddies you have!—while the commentatorsinterrupt each other and crack jokes, just like real guys do.

Irvin: "If[Eli Manning] wins this game Sunday night, it says, I have MATURED, I am HERE,I am amongst the elite quarterbacks in this league, and in New York City,that's a huge statement to make."

Jackson: "Areyou retarded?"

So, complain allyou want, skeptinistas. Go ahead and question why pregame shows that once took30 minutes now require an hour—four for the Super Bowl. Go ahead and grumbleabout how ever since Charles Barkley arrived on Inside the NBA and displayedsome genuine wit and charm, a legion of imitators have crowded the airwaves,like so many ball-hogging Michael Jordan clones souring the game.

Sure, take yourshots at the minds behind Monday Night Football for their failure to understandthat 1) every comic (Tony Kornheiser) needs a smart straight man; and 2) nofootball game needs a comic. Feel free to wonder whether real football fans areturning off their TVs and going instead to the Web, where they aren't subjectedto manufactured joviality, Hannity & Colmes--like canned theatrics andcrass innuendo aimed at some elusive demographic known as the "casualfan." Go ahead, but be forewarned that if you do, you will be missing outon some high comedy. Even if it is unintentional.

Steve Rushin ison vacation.

A media coach says of the often giddy NFL pregame announcers, "I'veasked guys why they're laughing on the set, and some will admit they have noidea."