September 20, 2004

Tony Kornheiser: Pardon the Sitcom

It pains me to agree with the TV critics that, at least based on the merits of the pilot, the new CBS sitcom, Listen Up, based on the life of Washington Post columnist/ESPN personality, is indeed pretty lame. Jason Alexander plays Tony (Tony Kleinman on the show) and the only other well-known actor is Malcolm-Jamal Warner, who portrays Michael Wilbon (he's called Bernie Widmer). George Costanza is one of the great comic creations in the history of television, and I was curious how Alexander would modulate his performance while portraying a character not totally unlike his Seinfeld persona.

The concept of Listen Up couldn't be more conventional. Tony blusters and fumbles at home, embarrassing his teenage son and daughter, while his wife looks on with an equal measure of bemusement and mild irritation. We also see Tony at work, mostly on the air, debating sports issues as he does in real life with Michael Wilbon on ESPN's Pardon the Interruption.

Any show that features Jason Alexander playing an ambitious, neurotic, beset character has its moments. And I'm going to continue to watch for at least a few weeks. The other characters didn't register much, but a few funny lines show the promise of what could be.

I admit I might be a little tough on the sitcom because of how much I admire Tony Kornheiser. In the past few years, no television show has provided me as much pleasure as PTI. Yes, I'm a sports fan, but I think I would enjoy watching Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon if they were discussing interior decoration or holistic veterinarian medicine. Pardon the Interruption is structured so that most of the time Kornheiser and Wilbon are arguing a la Crossfire, but the co-hosts are smart enough to know when to play their discussions about sports seriously, and when to joke around or when to play devil's advocate. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel had the same kind of rapport when discussing movies, but neither critic ever displayed Kornheiser's spontaneous wit.

Nominally, PTI is a sports show, but it is really about the friendship between Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon. Like a soap opera, PTI rewards daily viewing -- you can't possibly understand the nuances of the back-and-forth between the co-hosts unless you know about their respective loves, fears, and neuroses. During the latter part of the summer, Wilbon was covering the Olympics and Kornheiser was taking frequent vacations, and it became apparent how hard it is to pull off PTI when either of its stars is missing. Since the two of them have been back together again every day since Labor Day, Kornheiser is bursting with energy and wit. Michael Wilbon, a perfect straight man, knows when to lay back and when to joust.

Tony Kornheiser has nothing to do with Listen Up other than collecting his royalty checks and that's probably just as well. Probably only Larry David could provide both Alexander and Kornheiser with the sitcom vehicle they deserve, but any enterprise that takes David away from producing the next string of Curb Your Enthusiasms is not one I can endorse.