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"Well, Ken," we'll say to the interviewer someday, "I've worked 10 years on this backhand, and by God I think it'll beat Connors today." And Ken will say, "That's the way it is from courtside, and now back to the booth."
TV is such a part of our lives that most of us harbor a secret media fantasy. Alone on the back nine, we practice facial expressions for network closeups. Or jogging lazily around the block, we imagine the tape at the finish line, the camera lights, the upthrust microphone. Artist and self-proclaimed celebrity Andy Warhol has predicted that each of us will be famous for 15 minutes. Well, NBC may make big strides toward turning that prophecy into a prime-time reality with a new show called (for the moment) The Sunday Games.
Bruce Jenner, apparently with nothing better to do now that NBC has canceled its Moscow Olympics coverage, hosted the recent two-hour Games pilot. The show, Jenner proclaimed, was dedicated "to the people who have fun, everyday folks who love to compete and go for it." But wait, don't run out and buy a can of pancake makeup and a new warmup suit just yet. It may be a while before Games gets to your neck of the woods and your level of competition.
In 11 uneven segments, hyped by the voice of former Laugh-In announcer Gary Owens, the Games pilot lurched through stints with professional bouncers, professional stuntmen cracking up cars in the Astrodome, the running of the bulls in Pamplona and the inexplicable antics of Royal Navy sailors galloping over obstacles while dismantling and reassembling a 19th-century field gun. Just everyday folks and taurines going for it.
The show is slotted for the fall season as The Thursday Games. Because we seem to be stuck with it, we can only hope that future installments, which will run for only an hour, will be more streamlined than the pilot.
In the opening segment, six professional nightclub bouncers, looking for all the world like a herd of crazed Beefalo, vaulted bars, ran around tables, crashed through doors and gave the bum's rush to a stuntman fitted with a special harness that allowed the bouncers to easily pick him up and toss him out the door.
NBC provided a measure of fun by parodying straight sports programming—filling segments with stop-action and slow-motion replays, post-event interviews and "expert" commentary. In "The World Belly Flop Championship" from Vancouver, a stop-action shot held a 325-pounder in mid-flop while comedian Arte Johnson pointed out that the man failed to "disiduate" and thereby lost points. But when sports-caster Charlie Jones invaded a pre-teen girls gymnastics meet in Los Angeles, the kind of event that occurs each weekend, and asked a panting 11-year-old why she was competing, well, that wasn't parody. It was simply stupidity.
The winner of the bouncers event was a certain Mr. T., a giant with a Mohawk haircut who is not only a pro bouncer but also a former bodyguard for Leon Spinks. If Mr. T. is just one of us ordinary folks going for it, then Bill Rodgers is just a guy out for a jog.
But, then, NBC hardly stuck to a just-folks approach in the "events." It trotted out Joe Namath, O.J. Simpson and Donna DeVarona to enliven a collegiate beer "chug-off," and got two-time Olympic weightlifter Bruce Wilhelm to lend his bulk to a tug-of-war between Hoboken, N.J. teamsters and longshoremen.
That's too bad, because the only people who gave Games any charm were us "real" folks. The best moments of the program were the balletic and electric performances of the New York City girls who skipped rope "double Dutch," using two ropes swinging in opposite directions. Shown to the music of Dancing in the Streets and shot against the gritty background of Harlem, the sequence let the human spirit soar across the screen, without benefit of commentary, slo-mo or points awarded. Every once in a while somebody at NBC knows when to shut up.