Tuesday, February 1, 2005
Updated: May 31, 2:29 PM ET
Sprawling out in Jacksonville
By Bill Simmons
Editor's Note: Page 2's Bill Simmons is filing round-the-clock reports from Jacksonville, Fla., in Super Blog II. Check back throughout the day for updates. Here are all his entries from Day 2:
Posted, Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2005 -- 12:50 p.m.
DAY 1 | DAY 2 | DAY 3 | DAY 4 | DAY 5 | DAY 6 | DAY 7
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- As you're reading this, I'm probably standing in a buffet line at Media Day, waiting for a 300-pound sportswriter to stop loading chicken fingers on his plate. But I wanted to post something about Letterman's tribute to Johnny Carson last night, just a talented guy paying tribute to another talented guy. Letterman ended up speaking extemporaneously for something like 15 straight minutes, focused and emotional, giving a heartfelt eulogy for the man who inspired his career. And since it was the highlight of my first night in Jacksonville, I thought I would write about it.
The Letterman-Carson dynamic always fascinated me. In the mid-'80s, when Letterman would occasionally visit Johnny's show, then Johnny returned the favor during the transcendent "Letterman Goes to L.A." Week, Carson was the one guy who always left Dave a little flustered. And Dave never got flustered, not even when Crispin Glover whistled a karate kick at his head. Letterman always had too much nervous energy when Johnny was in the room -- it was obvious -- so he would over-laugh at Johnny's jokes and rip through his own material with a little too much gusto. There was something endearing about it, like watching a son trying to please his father.
Two decades later, I was watching Letterman pay his respects to Johnny on his own show. Since both men meant a great deal to me as a kid, it was emotional to watch -- especially since Letterman should have been the one who replaced Carson in the first place. And I'm not sure if he's ever really gotten over it; since he moved to CBS, it's like he's been playing a caricature of himself, except for those rare moments when he turns into a real person again (like after his heart surgery, or those painful days after 9/11). I don't think he's cared about his show for some time, but he probably can't imagine doing anything else. So he's stuck. Unlike with sports, your skills can't slip that noticeably in late-night TV -- it's more of a gradual decline, and there's no way to pinpoint when someone wasn't as good as they used to be. With Letterman, the show that used to be a parody of a TV show somehow became a parody of itself, and I'm not even sure when it happened. Then again, if he had taken over Johnny's spot, he would have defended that territory much more zealously, and he never would have allowed himself to trail a hack like Leno in the ratings.
Of course, no moment illustrated the difference between Leno and Letterman like the days after Johnny's death. Letterman may go overboard most of the time, but you never lose sight of the fact that he's a real person -- flawed, deeply troubled, somewhat anguished, but a real person nonetheless. Leno? He's a blank slate. Seriously, do you know one thing about him? Would you want to have dinner with him? Hell, would you want to have coffee with him? Me neither. Even the magazine features about him invariably drift towards his overall elusiveness as a human being, like even his friends can't figure him out. He's like the Manchurian Talk Show Host.
Last Monday night, Leno came out with a predictably awkward tribute to Carson, devoting his entire show to the man he replaced, conveniently forgetting how his manager leaked the "NBC pushing out Johnny?" story in the New York Post that hastened Johnny's retirement in the first place, or how Leno didn't even ACKNOWLEDGE Johnny on the night he took over the "Tonight Show," or how Johnny famously avoided Leno and his old show after his retirement, compounding the insult by writing jokes for Letterman's monologue as recently as last month. His "tribute" to Carson remains a defining Leno moment, like watching a female Olympic gymnast giving another gymnast one of those fake hugs they don't really mean. What a crock. May we never take this man seriously again. If we ever did.
Am I biased? Absolutely. I'm a Letterman guy. I wouldn't be doing this for a living if not for a handful of people that passed through my life, and he's one of those people. With that said, I thought the past eight days illustrated the difference between Leno and Letterman better than any show ever could. It's not that Leno is a bad person -- obviously he isn't -- but that it's physically impossible to feel any semblance of a connection to him. Maybe that's what some people need when they're falling asleep at midnight -- someone safe and harmless, someone who doesn't challenge them in any way. But he shouldn't have been the guy to replace Johnny. That's the bottom line.
As for Carson, I loved two things about him over anything else: Nobody was better at saving a bad joke, and no celebrity walked away with more dignity. Carson headed to Malibu and never came back -- not for an Oscars show, not for a Barbara Walters interview, not for a "Curb Your Enthusiasm" cameo, not even for an informercial -- and only because he wouldn't allow us to remember him any other way than we already did. Even in his final few years with the "Tonight Show," Leno and Letterman were breathing down his neck, a clown named Arsenio Hall was stealing some of his younger viewers, and SNL was running that vicious "Carsenio" sketch on his own network. The writing was on the wall. He was the face of a dying generation of comedy. So he left. And never looked back.
I just hope Letterman has the good sense to do the same one day.
**NEXT UPDATE: LIVE FROM MEDIA DAY**
Posted, Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2005 -- 10:54 a.m.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- My editors want me to pass along every single aspect of my Super Bowl experience, even if I'm handing in drunken gibberish at 4 a.m. This isn't drunken gibberish, but it might as well be. Here are four things I learned in Jacksonville last night:
1. This is a bigger city than I realized. For instance, the airport is located in the city, and my hotel is located in the city, only the cab ride took 30 minutes from Point A to Point B (total cost: $48, including tip). Everyone seems to be spread out all over the place, and the most common sentence seems to be "Yeah, you're about a 15-minute cab ride away from there." As we learned in Houston last year, "sprawling" isn't an adjective you want from a Super Bowl city. We'll see how this works out. Yes, I'm a little skeptical.
2. My cab driver was a longtime Jacksonville resident who looked like Porky from "Porky's," only he was much friendlier, and he didn't know Alex Karras. When I asked him if he was surprised that Jacksonville won the 2005 Super Bowl, he replied, "Hell, yeah, I couldn't imagine where we would put everybody." When I asked him if he still felt that way, he said, "Yessuh, I still can't figure out where we're putting everybody!"
(Note: I'm starting to feel like I'm crashing at an old college roommate's house and he's telling me, "Don't worry, we just have to clean out the guest room, you'll be fine in there," and then we go in there and it's covered in boxes from wall to wall.)
3. The Patriots are staying at the Renaissance; the Eagles are staying at the Sawgrass Marriott. Philly's hotel is 10 minutes closer to downtown, where everything will be happening this week. So if you're looking for someone in the "Who will be this year's Eugene Robinson?" in your Super Bowl Goat office pool, you might want to lean towards one of the Eagles. Please God, let it be Freddie Mitchell.
4. My hotel has 31 cable channels ... including the NFL Network. I make fun of the NFL Network from time to time, but it's actually one of my favorite channels, so it was nice to see it make the cut. On last night's "Total Access," which I watched while mowing down a room service hamburger (Grade: B+), Rich Eisen hung out with Corey Dillon and Tedy Bruschi, who looks so much like Marissa's gardener boyfriend from "The OC" that I literally did a double-take. Never noticed that before. I wonder how he felt about the lesbian kiss between Marissa and the hot '80s-looking blonde last week.
Anyway, after one of those goofy interviews where they acted out a run-block or something -- why do football shows do that stuff? -- they headed over to a pool table where Deion Branch was playing David Givens. (I came in late, but I'm assuming this made sense at the start of the show ... and if it didn't, then God help us.) Suddenly someone handed Eisen a cue, and he decided to try one of those showoff-y behind-the-back shots, only he kept flubbing it. We're talking MAJOR flubs -- like he missed the ball entirely twice. Poor Rich looked like a drunk chick at a college bar. Needless to say, chaos ensued -- Givens and Branch were doubled over doing Sammy Davis Jr. laughs.
So that's the fourth thing I learned in Jacksonville: That it's funny when Rich Eisen repeatedly screws up a billiards shot in front of Deion Branch and David Givens.
While we're here, one more story from my dad's visit last weekend, since he's a diehard Pats fan and all: When we were discussing New England's chances on Sunday, I mentioned how I was worried that the Patriots were turning into the Yankees of football, how the rest of the country was starting to root against them. This was new ground for me. Even when the Celtics were winning in the '80s, more people were rooting for them than normal because of Bird, and because of the way they played. Even though the Patriots are pretty likable as far as winning teams go -- hard-working, unassuming, tight-lipped, resilient, all that stuff -- there's always a natural backlash against a team that keeps winning.
Still, for a franchise that doubled as the unequivocal black sheep of the Boston sports scene for most of my life, watching them evolve into the 21st-century Yankees has been practically mind-blowing. For all of us. Your average Patriots fan feels like one of those husbands on "Extreme Makeover," the guy with the bad skin and the cheesy goatee who watches his homely wife coming out of the back with new teeth, a new nose and 36Ds. There's just no way to properly react to this. I keep waiting for someone to take it away, like the league finding out that Belichick and Pioli have cheated or something, or that Brady was really a fugitive from the law using an assumed name. Since dad can remember everything back to the Plunkett Era, he was even more dumbfounded than me:
"I mean, this is the PATRIOTS," he kept saying. "I can't get over it. It's like the Bird Era all over again, but with the Patriots!"
That's how every Pats fan feels. And everyone is handling it differently. As you can probably tell, I have trouble enjoying something good when it's happening; part of me always waits for something to go wrong. After the Sox-Yankees series ended last October, I kept expecting them to announce that there was going to be a Game 8. With the Patriots, I'm getting sidetracked by a strange sense of guilt over this whole thing, that there's almost been TOO much winning, that it can't keep continuing, that it's almost unfair to the other fans.
Thankfully, there are readers like Dan from D.C. to keep everything in perspective:
You should be ashamed of yourself for feeling bad about the Pats being a great team. We (longtime Pats fans) deserve this for all of the years of misery and frustration we have had to live through to get to this point. Please remember the following:
The Pats trading Plunkett to the Raiders only to see him win the SB.
The horribly mismanaged teams of the '70s and '80s by the Sullivan family which make the Red Sox of that time look competent.
Eason running around in the first SB against the Bears looking like he was being chased by murderers with knives.
The cocaine scandal that happened two seconds after the SB.
Those awful teams coached by Fredo who now suddenly "gets it."
Feel free to fill in the rest.
So if that makes us Cobra Kai I say, "Sweep the leg" and take out McNabb and the rest of the Eagles. No Mercy!
(And yes, "Fredo" was a reference to Pete Carroll, who's now the new Bear Bryant of college football. To paraphase the great Roddy Piper, just when you think you know all the answers, somebody changes the questions.)
More in a few hours ...
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.