Modern Comedy Owes a Lot to Those ‘This Is SportsCenter’ Commercials

Trawling YouTube is a weekly look at one interesting story or oddity from YouTube. You ever go down a YouTube rabbit hole and suddenly you’ve wasted five hours watching every Madonna video? This is about those rabbit holes, but the comedy-related ones.

A decade after This Is Spinal Tap, the world was introduced to “This Is SportsCenter.” The latter phrase is, as we all know, the tagline to ESPN’s daily omnibus highlight show; but it doubles as the title of that show’s long-running, much loved ad campaign. You’ve probably seen a million of these little spots. The latest:

…has all the characteristics. Desert dry humor, playful mockumentary style. Totally straight-faced in every way except for the cartoonishly incongruous “funny thing.” Takes place at the ESPN offices in Bristol, Connecticut. And then, oh yeah, I guess it is about sports in a roundabout way. Obviously many of these are much more explicitly about sports (pitching Chad Johnson touchdown dances, etc.), but that’s not why any of them are good. They’re good, it seems to me, because they’re carefully executed mockumentary filmmaking that give us a glimpse into this bizarre workplace where silly things happen all the time.

About a decade after the “This Is SportsCenter” campaign premiered, The Office debuted on U.S. television. In retrospect, this was obviously a watershed moment in TV where the mockumentary form caught on like crazy: multiple shows spun off from The Office and dozens more projects borrowed heavily from its proven tone and production style. This genre which had previously only been accessible if you wanted to order some fucked up European I’m Alan Partridge DVDs was now all the rage in U.S. prime time.

Indeed, when you think of mockumentaries, what are the big ones? Well, The Office, Parks & Rec, Extras, Modern Family. Then there’s Trailer Park Boys, which premiered in 2001. There are movies like Borat. Then mainstream British forerunners to The Office (UK) like I’m Alan Partridge, which came along in the late ‘90s. But going backwards chronologically, there’s still a huge gap before you get to This Is Spinal Tap (1984) or anything before then. (Even Waiting for Guffman didn’t come along until 1997.)

Well recently I found a huge trove of these spots on YouTube, carefully collected and edited into 10-13 minute compilation videos, and I’m here to tell you, they’re good as hell. Specifically, the effect of watching so many in a row is essentially the same as watching a strangely paced Adult Swim-style workplace sitcom. But beyond that, there are a number of other interesting takes to explore about this campaign. And I’d like to suggest that, taken together, they form an argument for “This is SportsCenter” as a kind of Rosetta stone of American comedy.

For starters, in the 22 years these spots have been airing (incessantly, by the way), over 400 have been produced. I’d be willing to bet that the average American would recognize these at least as much as they’d recognize Michael Scott or Leslie Knope. And at this point probably way more than even Spinal Tap frontman David St. Hubbins, although he actually appeared in one of the spots himself:

So when we talk about mockumentaries, the above examples may be the ones we give explicitly, but our subconscious is full of mascots pushing mail carts, Stuart Scott talking straight to camera in “talking head” testimonials, and NFL players filing papers. (Probably my favorite rule about these commercials is that they just wear their uniforms around and nobody ever talks about it. Do they still have it on from the game the night before? Do they wear warm-ups in the car on the way to work and then take them off? When they go to practice, do they take their game uniform off and put on a practice uniform, then put their game uniform back on?) So although nobody realizes it, these things are woven pretty intricately into our cultural fabric.

Another big thing about these spots is that there are tons of pro athletes in them. And read any SNL memoir – pro athletes suck at acting (see Michael Jordan doing the “da bulls” thing). But when they visit Bristol, athletes always look good. They are always funny. I would even go as far as to say many of these spots are held together by a pro athlete’s performance. Like the above LeBron/throne one – no offense to Scott Van Pelt, but he has clearly not made a strong choice in this scene. He is deferring to LeBron in what frankly seems like a shitty first take until LeBron saves it with a subtle (probably ad-libbed) “Okay. Oh-kay…” that wraps the whole interaction up in a nice bow and resets the energy. And maybe LeBron is an exceptional example, but this is also true of Chad Johnson, Tiger Woods, other pro golfers whose names I don’t know, even umpires. Much virtual ink has been spilled about how social media is making pro athletes more accessible and their unique personalities more knowable. If that’s not a direct result of 20 years of athletes making these silly commercials, then it’s at least a development that grew out of ESPN’s cultural footprint.

Another interesting angle involves one other entertainment phenomenon happening in the early ‘90s: the late night wars. In particular the vibe of hosts like Letterman and Conan. These shows together brought a certain sensibility to the U.S. mainstream, namely the sensibility that combined hip conceptual thinking with silly cartoon visuals/subject matter/pointlessness.

Another thing that would have a big hand in popularizing that style? ESPN spots like this:

Another noteworthy similarity here is that all of these not only use this conceptual style and dry tone, but are rooted in the backstage world of a TV show. Like, when you’re thinking of Conan or ESPN bits, I imagine you’d start with “okay, so what could happen around a TV studio?”

From Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN:

Kevin Proudfoot, Executive Creative Director, Wieden+Kennedy [the Portland, Oregon ad firm responsible for this campaign, Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign, and many others] The SportsCenter campaign came about envisioning ESPN, as absurd as it seemed, as sort of the center of the sports universe. Because at that time, no one else was broadcasting sports twenty-four hours a day. And so it seemed this was the twenty-four-hour, seven-day-week home of sports, and if it’s the home of sports, it’s the center of this universe that expands out to all these games and all these athletes and all these personalities, and doesn’t it make sense that when you go behind the scenes at SportsCenter and you’re in the hallways or cafeteria, that athletes and mascots and coaches are there too, wandering around, doing whatever it is that they’re doing as they pass through on the way to the next game and whatnot?

You could even argue that that cartoon-thinking style is somewhat British, especially when presented in such a dry deadpan. But where shows like The Office or I’m Alan Partridge give you this main character as a conduit to the silly world of the show, Wieden + Kennedy purposely avoided focusing on any one main character. I imagine this is mainly because that’s a lot harder to do in :30 (or a three-minute late night sketch) than 22 minutes, but there’s also another reason: at the end of the day, these are commercials, and thus have to make the ESPN brand the first priority. This universe doesn’t exist to be populated with funny characters; it exists to make you think ESPN is cool. As Judy Fearing, Senior VP of Marketing, explains in Those Guys Have All the Fun:

When I first got to ESPN […] one of the first things they told me was that the marketing organization needed to embrace sports and, in their opinion, promote some of our proprietary programming. We were promoting “tune into sporting events,” but it was really time to start making people aware of some of the home-grown programs like Baseball Tonight, NFL GameDay, which I think is now Countdown. So my team, along with [Portland, Oregon-based ad firm] Wieden + Kennedy, got together and said the real jewel is SportsCenter because it’s on all the time. That is the one we should focus on. […] They said, “What we want to do is do it in a way that’s a little but of what we call the ‘mockumentary.’ We want to shoot it documentary-style, but we want to have some fun with it. We want to make people know that this is the mecca of sports, so that athletes might hang out at SportsCenter. But it’s about the show and the guys who are at the anchor desk. And it will give consumers a little eye into what it’s like to be there.

In other words, they decided to promote the ESPN brand rather than any particular event, which was seen as a risk at the time. I don’t think it would be considered such a risk today, probably because Silicon Valley tech jerks are obsessed with #branded #content and they basically run the world now. But in any case, once this campaign started getting momentum, pro athletes started lining up to appear in them, and, according to some passage in the ESPN book that you can look up for yourself, Bristol actually started looking like it does in the crazy commercials. Mascots walking around, pro athletes joking with anchors, staffers dealing with big crazy scenarios on a regular basis – be the brand you wish to see in the world, or something like that.

At any rate, it’s important to keep in mind that advertising is inherently exploitative, as folks like Bill Hicks like have pointed out. But this campaign is evidence that, while many folks in advertising are very terrible and ruining the world, there are exceptions to every rule. Would The Office still be good if it was actually trying to sell you Dunder-Mifflin paper products? Yep, it sure would. (The first few seasons, at least.)

Modern Comedy Owes a Lot to Those ‘This Is […]