THERE ARE CERTAINthings fans expect of pro athletes. That they make people laugh is not one ofthem. This has not stopped jocks from trying. The most recent attempt came fromLeBron James, who, while hosting the ESPYs two weeks ago, took the stage in awig and baggy pants to belt out My LeBrogative. Though James should be laudedfor his courage, it was a reach. It's one thing to act in Nike commercials;it's another thing to host a two-hour variety show.
Still, you'd havethought James had killed at the Laugh Factory. Guffaws. Plaudits in the press.A gig hosting the season premiere of Saturday Night Live. Why? Because even ifhe's not funny in a Chris Rock way, James is funny for a jock, and ourstandards are remarkably low for star athletes when it comes to personality.Which is to say, we exult if they have one.
Take Greg Oden.Last month the Ohio State center arrived at the NBA draft as an unknownquantity and charmed with his humility and wit. He told The Washington Post,"My face isn't made for movies so I'll probably do the cartoon route. Shrek5, holla at me." When asked why he is marketable, he broke into the robotdance. The reaction from the sporting public was surprise, if not shock, atthis eruption of charisma. A young basketball star making fun of himself?Shouldn't he be thumping his chest, predicting dominance or trolling forendorsements?
In a way, though,he was trolling for endorsements. Ten years ago invincibility was hot; AllenIverson sold shoes because he was the baddest dude around. Now likabilitytrumps street cred. "Especially after the Artest thing and Kobe's arrest,wholesome and charismatic sell," says Bob Dorfman, an ad exec and author ofSports Marketers' Scouting Report. So Dwyane Wade is billed as a guy whodelivers trunkfuls of basketballs to needy kids, and Oden writes a genial blog.(His reps stress that he types it himself, as if this is in itself shocking,which, sadly, it sort of is.) A recent entry detailed meeting Steve Nash atdinner, only Oden refers to him as "STEVE NASH!!!!" Already, Oden—whohad an endearing cameo as a presenter on the ESPYs—has been contacted by Conanand Letterman, and ESPN is inquiring about future projects.
Oden's coming outwas not contrived—by all accounts, he is a self-effacing guy—but it wascalculated. Before the draft, his rep, Bill Sanders, had Oden meet severaltimes with media coach Steve Shenbaum, a former comedian and actor (AmericanPie 2) who has also worked with Pete Sampras and Alex Smith. Shenbaum ranthrough improv games with Oden and worked on "punctuating a joke." Forinstance, Shenbaum knew Oden would likely be asked about a draft showcase hehad skipped. "My first thought was to say, 'It went great, I didn't miss ashot,'" says Shenbaum. "I don't know if that's funny funny, but whenGreg would say it, people would go crazy. My friends that wrote on Will &Grace would scoff at me and say these aren't very good jokes, but everyoneloves them."
Of course, thateveryone loves them says something about everyone. Dogfighting, gun possession,steroids, routine egomaniacal behavior—give us well-adjusted and we swoon."I don't want to knock my clients, but I would say the bar unfortunately isso low that now when an athlete just does the right thing, they'reapplauded," says Shenbaum. "It's not like Greg is doing high-concept,off-the-wall humor. He's just showing that he's quick."
If it's so simple,why don't more athletes do it? Kobe Bryant, for example, has spent yearstrying, in vain, to connect with fans. "That to me is Kobe's ego getting inthe way," says Shenbaum. "Because he's one of the greatest basketballplayers ever, he also thinks he can be his own media coach. He's going homethinking, I can kill it here. It takes humility to say, 'This isn't my skillset.'"
Granted, it is arare skill set. Most jocks can draw laughs only as straight men—think Kareem inAirplane! Michael Jordan was never funny, preferring regal and charming, thoughnever humble. Today, however, humility is in, and a little goes a long way. Sokudos to James for taking a chance at the ESPYs, but he should know he doesn'tneed to go to such lengths to try to make us laugh. After all, none of us wrotefor Will & Grace either. We're usually just as impressed that an athletecan take a joke as make one. In other words, funny is good, but human isbetter.
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ILLUSTRATION BY FRED HARPER