After months of preparation, this week SNL co-head writer Bryan Tucker and Above Average officially launched The Kicker. Described as a new sports-centric comedy website “built for both the dedicated and casual sports fan,” The Kicker has already collaborated with comedians like “Weird Al” Yankovic, Kenan Thompson, and Andy Samberg and athletes like Jamaal Charles, Odell Beckham Jr., and Eric Decker, with many more in the works. Shortly after the launch news broke yesterday, I spoke with Tucker and The Kicker’s general manager Grant Jones to learn more about how the site came about, where they hope to take it in the future, what it’s like writing comedy for athletes, and more.
Between SNL starting up again and prepping the new site, how’ve you been these days?
Bryan: Super busy. SNL is off for the summer, and normally I do projects on my own time and spend time with my family, but this summer was especially busy because I was working hard to help get The Kicker up and running, and then I had a couple other projects as well. So you know, busy, but in a good way. The fact that you can see the fruits of your labor starting to come together makes it feel like Okay, it was worth it to be so busy.
How about you, Grant?
Grant: Well, I don’t work on Saturday Night Live so my schedule’s been a little different than Bryan’s, but we’ve been hard at work on this for a while. I started in earnest in May, and Bryan and I and Marc Lieberman who runs business development for Above Average had been talking about it for a while, but we really started looking at content strategy and business strategy and finding staff starting in May. So we’ve been really busy, and this day has really been a long time coming, and I think Bryan and I and the rest of the Kicker staff are really excited and happy with the way the content has come out.
So you started working on it in May, but was that when it all started? Was the origin of the site before that?
Bryan: I would say the origin of it began up to ten years ago when I was thinking that maybe there should be a comedy involving sports – possibly as a TV show – but as media evolved and I thought more about it, I thought it’d be better to do it digitally because it could find an audience rather than be put on a cable channel that already had a specific audience, and we could kind of build it from the ground up and figure out what it was. So about two years ago I started doing stuff with Above Average involving sports, and Marc Lieberman, who Grant mentioned, kind of shared my vision, and he worked on The Onion Sports before he came here, and so together – with the help of Above Average – we raised the money to get it started, Grant came onboard in May and really got it going, and we got a full staff by August and started putting things out on Facebook here and there about a month ago.
So it was your idea that you brought to Above Average? Since they’re somewhat connected to your work at SNL through Broadway Video, it was the obvious choice?
Bryan: Yeah, totally. I came to Above Average because after talking about what this should be with some smart people, I kind of agreed that it’s such a niche in terms of the audience, although I do think it will find a very broad audience. But, could sports comedy be on Comedy Central? Well, I’m not sure, because maybe people on Comedy Central are comedy fans but not necessarily sports fans. Or could this be something on, like, ESPN? Well, I’m not sure about that because one, maybe those people just came for news and analysis about sports and not necessarily comedy, and two, ESPN’s first priority is to work with the leagues and it would be hard to be independent there. So we just decided the best fit would be to build it ourselves and be independent and kind of start small and help find an audience gradually.
Grant, how did you get involved? I assume you weren’t working with Above Average before this?
Grant: Correct. So Marc and I actually worked together at The Onion, and when Bryan and Marc started talking about this opportunity, they brought me in to sort of help develop it on the business side, a little bit on the branding side, and the marketing side, and so that’s how I got tied in. Marc is actually the person who hired me six or seven years ago at The Onion, so I have a long relationship with him and that’s how I was brought into the fold.
Obviously Above Average has the video production part covered, but what’s the setup of the writers behind your videos and articles? Do you have a set staff?
Grant: Totally, yeah. Bryan and I share a lot of resources with the Above Average office, and they’re up to 40-50 people right now and they’re growing and have had a really great couple years in the digital comedy space. So we get a lot of those resources that they already have, but our editorial staff is different. Our head writer David Ingber came from MLB where he was before this writing comedy for MLB’s Fan Cave. So he’s our head writer, and then we have a staff of writers and then also some contributors. One of the things we really wanna make sure we’re doing is finding people in the comedy community who have a passion for sports because that’s really, to us, what this needs to be: comedy writers who have a passion for sports and not necessarily sports writers who have a passion for comedy.
Do you have any long-term goals for the site or places you hope to take it as it grows?
Bryan: I don’t know if we have definite goals yet, but we’re giving a presentation tonight, and one thing I’m gonna say in that presentation is that we don’t just want it to just be a site, we don’t want it to be a TV show – we want it to be kind of a brand in the same way that if you think about movie reviews you go to Rotten Tomatoes. We want this to be a place where if something happens in sports and you want to see a funny take on it, this will be the first place you go. And getting there involves building an audience…it’s a mountain to climb, and we’re just at the bottom.
In your introduction post on the site, one of the things you mentioned in your mission is to “keep it positive.” What does that mean in terms of sports comedy – where is that line drawn?
Bryan: It varies depending on the situation, but the reason I put that in there is that I wanted to distinguish our site from other sites that might talk about sports where the purpose is to tear down athletes and say, you know, who sucks and what needs to be changed. Our site kind of celebrates fans – we are sports fans and we want athletes in organizations to do well, but I will couch that by saying we’re also independent and, you know, if somebody has bad behavior or if there’s something going on that’s scandalous, we reserve the right to totally make fun of that and get into that space. Another reason I wanted to keep it positive is we want to work with athletes, and we want them to know that this is a place where they can come and we will make them look funny and we won’t make them look stupid.
[laughs] I like that. It’s a safe space for them.
Bryan: Yeah, exactly. And it’s the same way when an athlete hosts SNL – we’re not gonna do anything that they don’t wanna do, even though we’d like them to make fun of themselves a little bit. We hope that this will be a place where athletes feel the same way.
It seems like more often than not, athletes make pretty great SNL hosts. From all your years writing on SNL, what have you learned about writing comedy for athletes versus actors and comedians? And do you have a couple favorites?
Bryan: I agree with you that they’re often good hosts – I think if anything, a big reason is that on SNL you’ll see them do things that you’ve never seen them do before. You’ll see LeBron James dressed up like an ‘80s dancer and get on Solid Gold, you’ll see Eli Manning make silly emoji faces, and when an actor does that it’s fun, but when an athlete does that it really alters your perception of them, you know? I also think that athletes get a little more of a pass on SNL because the audience understands that their first job is to be good at sports and not necessarily to be super funny or great actors, so when they come out and do pretty well it’s often a pleasant surprise. The Peyton Manning episode was, I think, early in my second year, and I loved being part of that just because it came out so well and it was good to see that guy get a nice boost, because I thought he was a really nice guy. I’m a huge basketball fan, so when LeBron James hosted that was really big for me – it’s not often I get starstruck, but I definitely remember feeling a little nervous talking to LeBron and not wanting to ask him to do anything he didn’t wanna do, kind of being a little bit more of a fan when talking to him than a professional, maybe, than I should’ve.
I also love Charles Barkley, because I just naturally can write in that guy’s voice a little bit. [laughs] So when we do Shaq and Barkley on SNL or any NBA stuff I’m usually involved. And then last year, I thought one of our best shows was when Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson hosted. He’s transcended sports so that he’s a movie star now – he’s a movie star first. But there was a time where he played for Miami and was a wrestler and was an athlete first. But one thing they all seem to have in common is they’re used to being coached, and they’re used to understanding that they have to go out there and they have a job they need to do, so they’re usually a pleasure to work with because you can say “No, I think maybe you should do it like this” or “Our idea was this” and they’ll just say “Yep, okay that’s great – let me try it like that,” whereas maybe actors sometimes might have real strong ideas on what they want to do.
Can you talk a little bit about the different comedians and athletes who have already collaborated with you?
Bryan: Sure! We just released a video featuring “Weird Al” Yankovic called “Every Press Conference Ever,” which I thought turned out pretty well. Tonight we have our big launch party and we’re going to premiere a music video featuring Kenan Thompson, who’s a guy I’ve collaborated with for a long time on SNL. That’s about basketball and that’ll be on our site tomorrow. Then we have a bunch of, you know, maybes – people we are talking to who we hope to get involved.
Grant: Yeah, we’re having a lot of great conversations with a lot of basketball players and a variety of athletes and developing ideas with them. I think that’s one of the things that we really want to do – not just present an idea and have that be the end of the conversation, but develop that idea with an athlete in mind specifically for that athlete. It might be a passion that they have or a skill that they have, but maybe there’s something they have that the world doesn’t know about, and that’s something we want to highlight and bring out: a side of these athletes that maybe the rest of the country hasn’t seen.
Bryan, I know this question is sort of cliche, but I can’t not ask an SNL co-head writer: What’s your advice for aspiring SNL or comedy writers, especially nowadays with how overwhelming it can be getting noticed on the internet?
Bryan: Well, as you might guess, I get that question a lot. I have this website called btcomedy.com and I get that question so much that I wrote down a whole page of advice for aspiring comedy writers and put it up. [laughs] But basically, it’s just finding a place to do comedy and finding a likeminded group of people. I will say that from when I started out – which was, I mean I started doing comedy in like 1991 so a long time ago – I noticed especially with the internet there’s just so many more opportunities to get your own stuff out there and to get paid. I think the hard part is because there’s so much, it’s hard to stand out, and I think as a new writer it’s a little bit easier to make content and get involved with things, but it’s a lot harder to have that content turn into something that everybody knows about. Saturday Night Live is really one of the few shows left that is still always in the cultural conversation, and it’s still this very big-tent show the whole country knows about. And it seems like there’s so much comedy now that’s for one specific audience – which I like, a lot of it is great – but in the same way that we’re doing a sports comedy site, if you can find a niche that no one has discovered before, I think that’s an advantage.
I’d like to end this by telling you I’m a big “What Up With That?” fan…
Grant: [laughs] Me too!!
And I feel sure that we’ll get at least one more someday.
Bryan: I would love to. I don’t know when Kenan is gonna leave SNL, but before he leaves SNL, I give you my word that I will try my best to do one more. [laughs]
Check out The Kicker here.