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Less personality, please: why for some people, bland isn’t bad

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I’ve always suspected hell is an endless party where every person in attendance is convinced they’re the life of the party and no one can ever leave. Because a party can handle a maximum of ONE (1) person who is the life of the party. Indeed, some parties cannot handle any life-of-the-party people, for there is nothing less fun than a person insisting you have fun and you have it right now. Because fun isn’t something you force: you can try to organize an unforgettable evening, but no matter how carefully you plan sometimes people need to go home early because the babysitter has a cold and they’re giving Randy a ride so he needs to leave too and at that point it just seems like a good point to call it a night, no matter how much you scream at everyone to do shots.

I mention this because it seems TV executives cannot get enough life-of-the-party peeps: with the possible exceptions of Masterpiece Theater and the Weather Channel, television is overflowing with wildly charismatic personalities if by “wildly” you mean “very” and by “charismatic” you mean “loud.”

And I say: enough.

Once TV wasn’t filled with life-of-the-party people. Indeed, its biggest stars seemed to be the sort of folk who threw the party, then roamed the room periodically to make some introductions, start up a few conversations, and refill drinks/graduate people to the stronger stuff if they still were standoffish. These laid-back folks ruled both the evening (Walter Cronkite) and late night (Johnny Carson) and everyone wanted to be like them. They weren’t particularly exciting in their own right (indeed, they could border on dull), but they seemed genuinely interested in the world around them and were willing to listen to what other people had to say, even if they didn’t necessarily agree with it. (Not that we usually knew what they were thinking: a good host didn’t shove his opinions down someone’s throat, though he reserved the right to tell a guest he was behaving like an ass if he happened to be doing so.)

The result: occasionally there were evenings that were unforgettable – Cronkite coming out against Vietnam, Johnny Carson offering a year’s salary to see Dolly Parton topless, Cronkite going topless to get Carson to bring Dolly Parton back from Vietnam, etc. – but more often than not, things were just pretty good: not great, but no nails on a chalkboard.

Because you can’t force fun.

And you certainly can’t force it every freakin’ moment of every freakin’ broadcast.

Recently an ESPN talking head questioned Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III’s “blackness” for reasons including RGIII’s engagement to a white woman and his allegedly being Republican. (I am not linking to any articles on this talking head or even mentioning his name: quite frankly, it isn’t worth knowing.) This was surprising because:

1. After being a terrific quarterback in college who didn’t get into trouble and was liked by his teammates, popular with fans, and respected by opponents, RGIII was drafted by the Redskins and continued being a terrific quarterback who doesn’t get into trouble and is liked by his teammates, popular with fans, and respected by opponents.

2. See point one again.

So clearly a man like Robert Griffin III, with his “incredible talent” and his “upstanding behavior” and his “complete failure to do anything except live up to the immense expectations everyone places on him” was just begging to be attacked for provocative acts like choosing to share his life with someone who does not possess his particular racial heritage.

It should be noted I don’t think these remarks reflect the views of ESPN on interracial marriage (or possibly even the commentator himself): I believe they’re simply the result of the network’s increasing desperation to generate material that in theory continually causes its viewers to cry out, “I DON’T AGREE WITH THAT!!!” or “I DO AGREE WITH THAT!!!” or “I DON’T KNOW WHAT WE’RE YELLING ABOUT!”, assuming Anchorman‘s Brick Tamland is watching.

Sadly, there are only so many provocative observations you can express on the airwaves in a day. The eventual results are comments that are offensive and, beyond that, kind of weird. (Seriously, how did Robert Griffin’s intended bride come up? Did someone go, “You know what they say about marrying those white women, man: it’ll mess up a brother’s throwing mechanics!”?)

It didn’t used to be this way.

At one point, ESPN (and in particular its flagship program Sportscenter) was a solid, grooving by the grotto-type party: laid-back anchors calmly chatting about recent developments in the world of athletics, taking the games seriously but never forgetting they were talking about sports and not, say, South Africa’s transition to a post-apartheid government. You could have it on while puttering around the house or exercising or after a hard day when you were too sleepy to do anything but not quite ready to doze off just yet. Was it interesting? Sure, but more than that relaxing: here was something to help you cool out for a little bit before confronting the important stuff, whether in your personal life or the world as a whole.

Unfortunately, ESPN was also home to Chris “Boomer” Berman, a man who never saw an athlete he couldn’t nickname or a highlight that he couldn’t improve by making high-pitched noises with his mouth.

Since life is hard and time is unforgiving and bad things happen to good people and it all ends in death, it was no surprise when ESPN execs went, “This Berman guy is on to something…

And ESPN decided they needed to grab viewers and the best way to do this was through not just offering anchors, but supplying on-air personalities, each with more on-air personality than the last. These men – they’re always men – didn’t discuss sports, they expounded on them, offering opinions that are Passionate! and Controversial! and Poorly thought-out! and Borderline incoherent! and, in the case of that recent ESPN commentator, Flat-out racist! (They also found time for catchphrases, a sports hallmark ever since baseball legend Roberto Clemente announced, “It’s clobbering time!” before taking off on his ultimately doomed relief mission to Nicaragua.) (Wait, that was the Thing: Clemente in fact did not use catchphrases because he was a great humanitarian and not a total douchebag.)

And in the name of multi-media platform cross-promotional synergy, the network sprinkled these personalities through all their regular programming, so even if you tried to avoid them, you couldn’t, which is why many mornings over breakfast I find myself flipping on ESPN and, upon being informed that Stephen A. Smith is about to weigh in on some great matter before Skip Bayless explains why he’s incredibly wrong about it, immediately switching to Netflix streaming for an Arrested Development episode.

This is my plea to the great minds running the approximately 47 different ESPN channels and counting: risk us being bored. Risk us being bored senseless. Assume we have enough of an interest in sports – after all, we have already chosen to put on a network that only shows it – that we will watch even if every few minutes the entire studio fails to engage in a screaming match over whether Barry Bonds was a greater baseball player than Babe Ruth, then having a comic (to use that term loosely) show up to do impressions of your on-air talent and prove the only thing more horrific than a Jon Gruden is two of them.

Accept that there are not historic athletic performances every single week, no matter how you crunch the numbers, nor should anyone treat a player having a slump like it’s a personal insult.

Please do not do any more segments where “analyst” Merril Hoge all but offers to give Peyton Manning a handjob, no matter how many commercials featuring the Manning brother with fewer Super Bowl rings appear on your network.

Do not mention Tim Tebow at all (though if you do, stay calm: he’s a mere backup and the only people he ever hurt were the Pittsburgh Steelers when he knocked them out of the playoffs last year).

Leave RGIII, his fiancee, and any future children they may have together alone, unless they start playing for the ‘Skins themselves.

Just take a deep breath, exhale slowly, and then – speaking in a quiet, calm voice – give us the scores.

And once sports analysis is fixed, we’ll move on to the political commentators, because those jagoffs are clueless and manic enough to make ESPN talking heads seem like Oscar Wilde on Valium.

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