The day news of Tony Kornheiser’s retirement broke, we decided that we’d make a run at interviewing our favorite sportswriter of all-time. After much groveling to an ESPN acquaintance, we answered the phone one day earlier this month and the voice on the other end said, “This is Kornheiser.” We scurried to mute Melrose Place and then he asked us how much time we’d need and we bluntly said two hours, but like this: “two hours?” He was silent. And then he laughed and we laughed and our day/week/month/year was made. We set a date for the following week.
So it’s the Thursday before Memorial Day and we’re pacing back and forth in our tiny office, going over the questions. No call comes for hours, and we decide to get a haircut. We’re in the chair and she’s trimming the burns and the phone rings. Dammit. It was Kornheiser. ‘Have a safe Memorial Day weekend …’ we muttered into the phone in our best (weakest?) can-I-be-your-friend-please? voice.
Tuesday we spoke (he doesn’t do email, apparently), and the lengthy interview follows. We always poke fun at 5,000 word opuses on the web; if you give us a mulligan on this one, it won’t happen again. It isn’t a straight Q&A, but we’ve bolded our questions.
Somehow, we got started talking about the shirtless Vince Young photos.
Q: Imagine the internet furor if photos of you and Wilbon and Bob Ryan turned up partying shirtless and boozing.
Q: This kind of medium didn’t exist 10 or 20 years ago, but at the same time, these athletes are in the offseason. Should the athletes care? Should the teams?
There’s a really big difference being a college kid and a pro athlete. You can do a lot of stuff in college and get away with it, and it’s not that way in the pros. Matt Leinart and Vince Young are in the same boat, I think – they came into the league at the same time, both having won titles and one a Heisman and they play the same position and they’re getting insane money to, essentially, be the face of an NFL team. Certain rights and privileges that are there for others in this culture, and as high-profiles athletes, you more or less have to give those up. It is your right to have a party at your house and bong a beer and guzzle tequilla and take your shirt off in a public place. For 99 percent of people in America, that might be meaningless. But its not meaningless to these guys.
If I were the owner, it’d be a big deal to me. The climate for QBs has gotten a bit toxic because of what happened with Mike Vick. The standard is higher than it was five years ago. There is a whole lot less privacy than there was 30 years ago, or 20 years ago, or last week. If you’re going to take the money as a pro athlete, somebody should sit you down and say that’s part of it.
Q: Your buddy Joe Theismann never ran into these problems 25 years ago. He was quite the man about town in his prime.
Oh yeah, he was definitely a man about town and owned restaurants and had some very public romances. I think he’d be the first to say that. But Joe is really smart and savvy – I don’t think he did anything like this.
Q: You miss doing Monday Night Football with him?
The season I spent with Joe was remarkable in a lot of ways. You’d never know how famous and well-like he is throughout the country. I’ve said to to everyone, but the greatest place to be in the year we did MNF was standing behind Joe Theisman walking into a restaurant. It was like the parting of the Red Sea. He’s a very popular, recognizable fella. He’s been famous for 40 years.
Q: Speaking of restaurants, there was this video of you at a place in Jacksonville …
So bizarre! So bizarre! I’m with my friend Ira, who I went to high school with, and his older brother Mike. We all met up in Jacksonville to have dinner, and we go to this terrific Italian restaurant. I want to say the name, but I’d butcher it because I don’t remember it exactly. The bottom of the restaurant was rented out for a party of some sort, and we’re sitting on the street level. And we’re the only people on this level because the place was rented out for a party. The guy was doing us a favor because he was a Long Island guy, and we’re thrilled because we’re Long Island guys. So we get to talking, and he’s bring out food and more food and more food.
And then, out of nowhere, this guy just walks in. He’s probably homeless, I don’t know. And he comes up to the table to talk to us. I was reading the menu or something, and I’m thinking, ‘who is this guy? what is this about?’ and then the waitress comes and tells him to get lost, and shoos him out the door. The next day my friend calls me that it’s on the internet and I asked two questions:
“Did I use profanity to him?”
“Was I antagonistic in any way?”
“No. You looked sort of baffled by the whole deal.”
“Baffled is good.”
Q: Baffled is a good word to lead into the next question. Some media critics were baffled or surprised that you’d risk your successful newspaper brand and your successful PTI brand by taking a chance with Monday Night Football. And then, when the criticism came, you stuck with it. Why stick with MNF?
Why stick with Monday Night Football? I’d like to think I got OK, and I got better. You try to get better. And look – I’m a newspaper guy. And almost everyone who gets hired for a job like this is a former athlete or coach. Jocks of one stripe or another. You can’t say no if you’re a newspaper guy.
I’m not the Red Cross and trying to sound selfless here – I did it for vanity reasons. Somebody asked me and I couldn’t say no. It’s Monday Night Football.
But you also like to think, ‘if I’m good, maybe the next guy would be somebody like me.’ Maybe you’re next. Maybe Cheeseboy. Look at Wilbon on the NBA.
What is it that catapulted me to this? You’d be crazy not to say PTI. Well if you want the person you had at PTI, and you want to know why that hasn’t happened, well … my great fantasy is that if you want PTI in the booth, then put me and Wilbon in there together. Tell me why that’s a bad idea. If you say these two guys together on the show seem to have magic … why wouldn’t you try to do that somewhere else?
Q: PTI, has been incredibly successful, and it’s almost ground-breaking in the sense that is has spawned many imitators.
Eric Rydholm is a genius. Everything you see on the TV set – which is being copied by everyone else in the world – that’s Eric. He gets it. He understand all of this. He has the games – the rundown, the heads on sticks, the statboy, the clock, the bells – that’s all him. He and Jim Cohen were there at the creation. It’s a very small staff of people that really like their job.When we’re done, we’re going to be able to say, we were part of a great TV show.
I’m not into false modesty – it’s Rydholm. He’s given us the best car in the race. All we have to do is drive it.
Q: What about when Al Michaels went on the HBO special and said sports talk TV has turned into ‘gasbags on parade?’
I don’t watch everything else. I’m all for people in my profession getting the chance to yodel. I’m not going to say anything to suggest they shouldn’t be allowed to do it. I’m real happy we’re on the show that we’re on. People still like the show. When I get stopped on the street in DC, a lot of people know me from the newspaper. When you live in a place for 30 years, and you’re a newspaper writer who does some local TV, this happens. But when I get stopped in another city – any other city – it’s always, ‘I love your show. You and the other guy. Love the show.’
It’s always PTI. It’s not MNF or the George Michael show, or the old Sports Reporters. it’s PTI.
Q: So you and Wilbon … is the relationship like brothers? A married couple? Do you guys hang out frequently?
We’ve been together for 30 years, and in all that time, the most prescient comment about us was that we were like an old married couple who had been together a long time and knew how much we could say and how far we could go. People talk about chemistry … you can’t just invent chemistry. It doesn’t work that way. it’s not about pouring things into a beaker – it takes a long time to ferment and percolate. I always thought the married couple thing worked very well. Black guy, white guy, love each other, yell at each other. I’m 10 years older, I have kids, and Mike just had a baby. And he and his wife have a different set of friends than we’ve got. But we play golf together …
Q: Who’s better?
He’s better than I am. He’s younger and stronger, but you can also get into his head very easily. You can do that and make it easy.
Q: One last thing about PTI – Tom Brady recently took some shots at ESPN for driving the Spygate story. Do you guys ever feel compelled to just ignore something even if ESPN wants you to talk about it?
We don’t want to carry water for other people sometimes. We’re not going to do some stories. I think we have that kind of latitude.
Q: Back to the Post. How long did you grapple with the decision to take the buyout or not? It sort of feels like the end of an era.
I loved every single day working there. I’d gladly work there for the rest of my time. But I haven’t been doing all that much for print journalism in a couple years, and they could use the slot. I didn’t want to hold the paper hostage at any level. I think I’m part of the Washington Post family, however amorphous that family is.
Q: Any memories from your prime there, back in the 80s and early 90s, before TV came calling?
Well you work pretty late into the night, and writers are in various cities, so we weren’t always together, but the list of talent that has come through the sports department is astonishing. Forget about me and (Thomas Boswell) the older people, but … John Feinstein, Wilbon, Mike Freeman, Tom Friend, Adande, ESPN’s Marc Stein … man, I’m going to forget so many people … Dave Sell, Mark Maske – he was like a lottery pick intern – Steve Goff … just an unbelievable amount of people … Rachel Nichols who is now with ESPN, and Robyn Norwood … I must have left 10 people out …
Q: Norman Chad, your old pal?
Norman Chad wrote the best TV sports column in the world. Oh, David Aldridge, how could I forget him. In those days, people wanted to work in newspapers. There was no ESPN, no Sports Talk radio, and if you wanted to write, you went to a newspaper. You carried the biggest stick by working at the paper.
Q: So what’s this about some beef between you and Norman Chad?
Q: He gave an interview recently talking about how – and I don’t recall all the particulars – but you’re the reason he’s no longer on PTI or something.
Ok, let me say this – I love Norman Chad. I think he is far funnier in print than I have ever been or will ever be. He was a close friend of mine and he moved to LA. I would suggest that there’s nothing going on between us.
Q: Your Sunday Styles section column contained what we think was your best, most offbeat work. Why’d you give that up?
I gave it up when PTI started. It was hard to give up, but I don’t think you can do it and do all the other things. It’s too hard to be funny. You can be funny yodeling. But being funny in print is much harder than being funny on TV or the radio. If you devote a column to funny, and you’re not funny … and part of it was just me. I thought I was on the inexorable slide to awful.
Q: Who told you that?
Where you hear all these things – you hear them in your head. Writers always know. Just like athletes always know. Athletes know a year ahead of everybody else. The trick is to get out before everyone else notices.
[He says that he has to wrap things up because he has to make some television. We panic, because if you know the feeling of watching a great movie you don't want to end, this is where we were.]
Q: Got to ask about your pal Dan Steinberg, whom you call Cheeseboy. We email him frequently, and the guy’s good people.
Cheeseboy is working on a side of the street that I didn’t even know existed. I marvel at it. I make fun of it, but it’s clear that his side of the street is coming into the sunlight, and my side is being excavated at the moment. I’m sure if I sat down and read five or six of them, I could appreciate how now they are and how good they are. Everyone tells me he’s very good. We kid because we love.
Q: You said that newspapers were dead on Dan LeBatard’s radio show.
What, are they breathing? What are they doing? I love newspapers. But doesn’t it seem that an absurd percentage of people under the age of 35 are getting their news in different ways? They’re getting their news on demand on their phone while holding something else in their other hand. Are ink and paper newspapers not dead? They’re going to morph into the next thing, yes. But if they’re not dead, I think you can hear the siren.
Q: Any sweet vacation plans this summer?
I hate travel, and I think I may have a hernia. [In his best - only? - Woody Allen voice]: I have a new pain that I’m now obsessing about. Well I have this camp reunion in Pennsylvania, and a wedding in Vermont.
Q: Oh, that camp you always talk about, the one Larry Brown went to.
It’s a pretty cool cluster of people. [Now he mentions he really has to go, so we've got one question. If you've ever conducted an interview, you hate this moment, because there are no fewer than 20 things we could ask him. How many times have you mentioned your dislike for Jay Mariotti on PTI, and what's that about? That beef with Peyton Manning last year on MNF - looking forward to seeing him this year? Woody Allen, Stat Boy, one dinner and three athletes, favorite actress, more Theismann stuff ... but Dazed and Confused was on cable, and here's what we came up with ...]
Q: What music does Tony Kornheiser listen to? What are a couple of your favorite songs?
Don’t Worry Baby, by the Beach Boys and Enter the Mystic by Van Morrison.
Never heard of either of them. [Now that we looked them up, we are familiar with Don't Worry Baby. Mock if you must, but hey, we're the son of immigrants.]
Never heard of either? Here’s what you do. Go sit on the porch with a tin of cashews, and grab a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue. Pour three fingers out and play Into the Mystic so loud that you can’t hear anybody or anything but that song. It’s a typical song for me – a song for old, anxiety-ridden lunatics.
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