Early in the new ESPN documentary Mike And The Mad Dog, Robert Thompson — a designated Talking Head Expert On Pop Culture for decades — says that if you don't live in New York, there's a good chance you don't really know who Mike Francesa and Chris Russo are. But, the documentary argues persuasively, you've seen the results of their work.
Francesca was a well-regarded CBS TV commentator prior to the 1989 launch of Mike And The Mad Dog, the WFAN sports talk radio show that paired him — against his will — with Chris Russo, a more volatile and showier type. The two became enormously popular in New York and remained so until Russo left in 2008 to start his own satellite radio channel. Francesa now works alone.
The documentary suffers from a common problem with profiling original versions of familiar formats. What makes the original important is how many times it's been duplicated, and that makes watching it seem ordinary. You won't be startled by Francesa and Russo yelling at each other the way everyone assures you that you would have been in 1989, because so much sports radio followed in their footsteps that what they did seems routine. You've probably heard a million guys do this; it's hard to demonstrate in a documentary what was special about these guys doing it.
A side note: I host the podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, and panelist Stephen Thompson and I sometimes record promos for the show together. When we do, we try to achieve a certain very high energy tone, which we refer to as the work of our talk-radio alter egos: Thompsy and The Animal. I am The Animal. So drive-time duos with one regular person and one loud person, which weren't invented by Francesa and Russo but are certainly personified by them, have infiltrated even our relatively sedate podcast.
But recognizing the influence of Mike and the Mad Dog on sports talk radio, which is the documentary's viewpoint, is only one piece of the story. Consider these elements: people who are themselves and yet not themselves, people adopting personas that are blown-up versions of who they really are, an audience that's attracted in part by conflict, regular characters who show up to be cut down to size (in this case, repeat callers who became well-known), and outsized admiration for "keeping it real" ... are you with me?
It's not just that this is an early example of a certain brand of sports talk. It's an early indicator of the same forces at work that would give us Survivor and, especially, shows like The View. Much of cable news, too.
If you ever watch the panel shows that happen before and during football broadcasts, you know that they're just The View with men instead of women. It's just opinionated people being opinionated. Knowledgeable, sure, but primarily prone to bickering. And on ESPN, you can find plenty more programming that amounts to The Yelling Show, brought to you by Dudes Yelling.
Things tend to resemble other things across disciplines and formats, and the fact that WFAN struck gold by having a couple of men yell at each other for entertainment purposes is not unrelated to the fact that there are now, a couple of decades later, entire industries built on people yelling at each other. Watch this documentary, and think about what kept people tuning in, and see whether it's really that mystifying that Real Housewives shows came about.
Sports fandom tends to evade analysis as the analog to other kinds of fandom that it really is. I'm hardly the first to point it out, but people invest in plots they're not part of, they dress up, they yell and scream, and they ship — I mean, follow — key rivalries. It's also fascinating that Francesa and Russo are analyzed in the documentary in terms of their level of New York-ness, over and over. They're so New York, they get New York, they feel like New York, they sound like New York — in a documentary in which vanishingly few people who aren't white guys even poke their heads out. It would have been interesting to hear more consideration of who this constituency really was and is, since it wasn't exactly "New York."
At a brisk hour, Mike And The Mad Dog provides a peek at a particular New York subculture — local talk radio in general and local sports talk in particular — that's probably more influential than it's often given credit for. That's in part because it spawned so many sports shows, but it might be equally because it contributed to the atmosphere that feeds a lot of shows with nothing to do with sports at all.
"Mike And The Mad Dog" airs Thursday night on ESPN.