Steve Smith was filling the “Good Morning Football” studio with laughter. Kay Adams, Peter Schrager, Nate Burleson, and a cameraman were laughing over Smith’s rant about a Lazy Susan. I was just entering the studio, so I couldn’t hear exactly what he was saying. But apparently, it was worth an extended belly laugh.
I thought to myself, Are they rollemng remght now?
They weren’t. The NFL Network talkshow was on break. But on set, they never seemed to act like it. Of course, there were moments during break when the hosts attended to their phone, probably checking Twitter or, in Schrager’s case, reading texts from general managers and players around the league. Makeup artists appeared. The producers and stage hands made their necessary adjustments. Show-runner Logan Swaim, who Kyle Brandt said is a combination of former SNL comedian Robert Smigel and Rams coach Sean McVay, chatted with his talent.
For the most part, however, the cameras stopped rolling but the show did not. Thursday’s show featured Smith, a fill-in for Brandt, who was working play-by-play for a Chicago Bears preseason game. Brandt is the show’s energizer bunny, a relentless force of positivity. Smith, a guest on the show and a retired 16-year NFL receiver, brought that x-factor.
The hosts seemed particularly giddy. The preseason would be over in 24 hours. Real NFL football was nearly here. They were pumped.
Based in Times Square in New York City, the set is in the middle of a retail space at the NFL Experience, which means they have to set it up and take it down. It also means there’s so much room for activities (see: Smith jumping out of his chair). The show explores every angle of football coverage — on and off the field. They debate over the draft, the regular season and the Super Bowl. They break down film. They buzz over the latest trash talk between players. And they interview current players, former players, rappers, comedians, insiders, analytics gurus and reporters.
“If you’re listening to us, we’re going to make you laugh,” Burleson said. “And if you’re watching us from a distance on mute, you’re going to want to know what we’re talking about. It’s like going to a restaurant with that one booth that is having a great time. They’re not obnoxious. They’re not bothering you. But you keep peaking over and you find yourself, by the end of your meal, trying to listen to the next joke that’s coming up.”
Thursday’s episode probably needed little preparation. Their pre-production meeting is sometimes just 15 minutes long.
“They’re brief. They’re Spartan and I think they’re really one of our secret weapons,” Brandt said.
The decision to go with limited group preparation comes down to a number of factors. Most of all, the producers like the talent to save the arguments for the air. That keeps the conversation fresh and genuine, because it will be the first time they’ve had the discussion. The risk is that they may all agree on topics, which happened a few times on Thursday. Still, they prepare with the intent of stumping their co-hosts, and the entire production team is doing intense independent preparation before and after the meeting. Adams has noticed that preparation is fiercely competitive between the hosts.
“There’s this strange competition that goes on at the table, where we don’t want to reveal to each other what we’ve got,” she said. “We want to perform for each other. Sometimes, it’s less about the audience, and it’s like, ‘Oh, I’ve got something for you next.’ And Nate’s really quiet taking notes. Then I’m like, ‘Oh snap, we’ve got a crazy segment coming up next.’ … I think that keeps us on our toes, and it really is live as it happens.”
The improvisation begins. Maybe it never stops. It’s sports analysis that often includes a comedic twist. Schrager thinks of each show like HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Brandt thinks of the show as “Seinfeld.” They get a topic. (For example, would you rather: Aaron Rodgers and three unknown first-year wide receivers or an unknown first-year quarterback with Julio Jones, Odell Beckham and Antonio Brown?) And… go.
Generally, those topics come organically. Schrager thought of the quarterback vs. receivers topic during a commercial break on Thursday, and began razzing Burleson over it. Schrager said they’d probably use it in a later show.
Some topics miss, and the segment falls flat. Some topics go off the rails. They thrive off that chaos. A simple Skype call from Brandt on Thursday turned into Smith ripping into Brandt’s hotel room. Smith was laughing so hard that he started crying, and had to take himself off the set along with Burleson and Schrager.
Meanwhile, Adams held it down. She was the only one left on set to finish the segment and sent them off to commercial. Most often, she’s Diana Taurasi, the point guard. She weighs in on discussions as often as she facilitates them — often doing both at once. Smith said “she’s just setting up dunks.” She also dunks herself. On Thursday, he showed off one of her other hats: teacher.
“I embrace that. I enjoy that role,” Adams said. She’s got to keep her classroom in line every once in a while.
That said, Adams isn’t rigid. She pointed to a moment when she fell mid-segment. She didn’t bother with a graceful recovery — there was no coming back from that. Instead, she enjoyed the ridiculousness by laughing at herself on-air.
“We embrace the realness of every moment. That’s like anything you want to see now. You want to see the behind-the-scenes action. You want to strip it down. And that’s what it looks like: our show,” she said.
It’s not all bloopers and comedy standup, of course. To the contrary, this is a football show for diehard football fans. Burleson, for example, worked to debunk the idea that running backs are no longer important in the NFL in a segment about Giants rookie Saquon Barkley on Thursday.
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The goal of the show is to capture an informative but informal and fun conversation about football. They never want to talk over the audience with X’s and O’s or analytics. They also want to avoid talking down to the audience, largely because they want to talk with their viewers. They want to bring folks in to the table, which is cluttered with phones, computers, notebooks and coffee cups.
In a way, this is what a number of sports talk shows hope to achieve. Informal barstool chatter is the premise for so many shows. ESPN’s “Get Up” is an effort at this genre of television — and the world-wide leader is having a challenging time at making that work. ESPN also has a much more robust viewership than NFL Network, which means that the standards of performance are different. During the regular season last year, “Good Morning Football” averaged 109,344 viewers viewers. “Get Up” had 430,000 viewers on the day after the 2018 NFL Draft, which was considered a disappointing performance. The shows are held to different standards.
However, the crew said they embraced the competition with “Get Up” and other shows like them. (And why wouldn’t they? They seem to be stealing ESPN’s audience, even that theft is small.) NFL Network gives this show freedom to be goofy, be creative and, most of all, be themselves.
“Football has always been, ‘Wear your suit and tie and have the big tie knot,’” Schrager said. “I don’t think there’s ever been a show that had so much fun talking about football, especially in this day and age, the conversation elsewhere has been very serious and very dramatic. And I don’t know if everyone wants to wake up to that.”
He added: “Credit to the NFL and NFL Network, in this day and age, that this show is so loose, so young, so fun. They’ve really given us a lot of trust. And we’ve taken that trust and run with it.”
The NFL Network didn’t jam a bunch of former players and general managers onto the show. Burleson is the only full-time host who was a former player. Former Saints running back Reggie Bush and Smith rotate when they’re missing a cast member. They picked media members who have a talent for identifying and analyzing fun or dramatic storylines. Sometimes, those storylines are lost on members of the league. Schrager was a reporter for years. Brandt was a radio show host and reality TV show star (yes, he was on “Real World”). They know what excites people.
Perhaps because NFL Network is owned by the league, however, they seem to stay away from topics the league may perceive to be negative. On Tuesday, the NFL world was buzzing about Nike’s decision to back Colin Kaepernick with a powerful promotional effort involving the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback on Monday. Kaepernick is, in part, responsible for the national anthem protests, which seem to be impacting the league’s viewership. He is also in a collusion lawsuit with the NFL, as he believes he was blackballed from the league after inciting the anthem conversation.
The show didn’t open with Nike’s decision. Instead, they compared Barkley and Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell.
Their freeform approach relies so heavily upon the crew’s chemistry, and for the most part, they didn’t know each other when the show started. Schrager was friends with Burleson while he was still playing for the Lions. Now in their third season, the group is texting each other every Sunday (and Adams says that text chain is more entertaining than her Twitter feed). Schrager and Brandt crush Peloton classes together. Brandt recalled a time when he and Burleson hammered three vodka pineapples in a half hour at an airport. If they’re not friends, they’ve created an elaborate ruse to maintain appearances.
Brandt said they really came together in their first season, one where their ratings were down from their predecessor, “NFL AM,” when the crew travelled together to the Super Bowl in Houston. The show had its rough patches with production glitches and awkward segments in that first year. Brandt admitted he has worried he might be out of a job. But he compared that Super Bowl trip to a couple traveling together — if they made it through the the journey, maybe they were meant for each other. They left Houston a tight-knit group.
“It was a huge risk, because we all showed up signed-sealed-delivered and we could have hated each other,” Brandt said of the network’s decision to bring them together. “We could have undercut each other. I think they got really lucky and I know they made some educated guesses. But I think they won the chemistry Powerball.”
When Burleson mulled taking the job, he was reticent to move to New York, to read prompters and be a personality on a morning talk show. He sensed he’d be uncomfortable. But then he remembered what he’d told so many youngsters in the NFL: you’re got to be comfortable being uncomfortable. That’s what this show seems to be about: making chaos look comfortable.
For the most part, Swaim, Schrager, Burleson, Adams and Brandt are making that work.