What am I, chopped liver? Can I get a glass of Merlot?" he kvetches, in his best Alvy Singer whine.
Heads turn. Tony Kornheiser, the man of a million opinions, endless insecurities and exactly eight thin strands of chestnut hair combed over a freckled dome, finally catches the eye of the bartender at the Palm. Already seated on a stool is Michael Wilbon, his nattily dressed Washington Post colleague and television cohost, sipping a ginger ale. Wilbon is uncharacteristically on time, and Kornheiser is characteristically cranky. He wears a blue oxford shirt, sports jacket and pattern tie and scuffed shoes pulled from the Closet That Time Forgot.
"I don't own any green pants. A long time ago I had green pants," Kornheiser says, confessing to one sartorial transgression.
Since October of last year Kornheiser and Wilbon have been the yin and yang of ESPN's Pardon the Interruption, known simply as PTI. The 30-minute yapfest, usually airing on weeknights at 5:30 p.m. (ET), features the two sportswriters' haranguing each other to an audience of 354,000 homes (as indicated by the show's .43 Nielsen rating), with a heavy concentration of flip-flop wearing, crotch-grabbing, Bud Light/Smirnoff Ice-drinking 18-to-34-year-old males. The format—in which topics switch faster than you can click the remote, with a bell interrupting each discussion—appeals to those with no dependents and short attention spans. Among its devotees are pro athletes, coaches, agents and celebrities including film director Penny Marshall ("She gives me a hug every time I see her," says Wilbon) and President Bush, who reportedly has the show taped.
"What surprises me most," says the 54-year-old Kornheiser, "is how many high school and college kids like the show. They say, 'It's like watching our parents argue.' "
But three weeks ago Kornheiser was rudely interrupted when the ESPN suits—smarting over critical off-air remarks about network personnel decisions, which were heard over the Internet—temporarily pulled Kornheiser off the morning radio show he has hosted since 1998 and suspended him from his TV show without pay for one week. (Wilbon was already on vacation.)
What put Kornheiser in the penalty box—lack of judgment, juvenile rebellion and "emotional stupidity," according to one ESPN executive—may seem like job requirements these days for sportscasters fiercely vying for attention and ratings. Spouting obscure pop-culture references, statistics and Rolling Stones lyrics, they are rewarded for the very thing that got Kornheiser muzzled: having strong opinions.
Indeed, PTI is less a sports show than a verbal smackdown, with the hosts debating everything from Martha Stewart's stupidity to Matt Lauer's latest hairstyle. "Tony has an opinion on most things," says PTI's 35-year-old producer Erik Rydholm, who meets with seven staffers each morning at 10:30 after scanning three dozen national and foreign newspapers online to find provocative subjects: the watercooler buzz, "subjects that light them up," says Rydholm. Wilbon (often just back from a road trip) and Kornheiser (fresh from his three-hour radio show) arrive around 2 p.m. and begin preparing for the taping in a Washington studio. "Then all we do is turn the cameras on," says the producer, clearly amused by his hosts' ability to recall not only obscure boxing statistics but also Ludacris raps. Waiting in the wings is the ever popular Stat Boy (the television version of a caddie), 24-year-old Tony Reali, who eagerly corrects the hosts' factual errors. Once a position is taken, it is defended to the death. Woe betide those who disagree!
Widely regarded as the perfect lead-in to SportsCenter, PTI is pulling in a 40% higher rating than the previous show in the same time slot. Heated debate is "what sells these days," says Mark Shapiro, ESPN's 32-year-old senior vice president and general manager for programming. "Blood-and-guts arguments. Sports is often defined by argument: Who's better? It's riveting entertainment. Tony's a wiseass, and Mike is Mr. Hollywood."
What sets PTI apart is not only the chemistry between the two hosts ("psychic friends," according to a former colleague) but also their wealth and breadth of sports knowledge. Together they have 45 years of Post sportswriting experience. Many consider Wilbon, 43, the best deadline writer in American newspapers, and Kornheiser the wittiest columnist. The show is merely a televised version of what they have been doing in the corridors of the newsroom for years: debating, ribbing, needling, one-upping. ("When the show is on and we are there," says Kornheiser, "[coworkers] don't even look up. They think we're yelling at each other in the room.") Kornheiser and Wilbon personally know owners, managers, coaches, players, trainers, beer guys and ball girls, and are widely respected within their industry. Athletes have been known to ask for their autographs.