by Jim Longworth
Forget Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders. Tony Kornheiser is the hippest septuagenarian on planet earth, and he’s even seen on Uranus (I’ll get to that joke in a moment). So how does this veteran sportswriter and co-host of ESPN’s “PTI”, stay so young and hip?
TK: I work with young people every day. I walk into an office where I am surrounded by people who are 20, 30, 40, and almost 50 years younger than I, and often I overhear what they say, and they treat me nicely in a grandfatherly way, and they laugh at the stupid things I say. And then if I say, “Tell me about this”, they’re willing to tell me about it, and that keeps you a little bit clear of that silo mentality.
Later this month, “young” Mr. Kornheiser will be in Winston-Salem for the National Sports Media Association’s annual gathering, where he will be inducted into the NSMA Hall of Fame. I spoke with Tony by phone last week, and among the topics we discussed were his early influences, and the success of “PTI”.
JL: Who had an influence on the career path you chose?
TK: I grew up on Long Island, so I read Stan Isaacs in NEWSDAY, I read Larry Merchant and others in The New York Post, I read Dick Young, and I read Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill. I used to say, “Why can’t I be Irish? Look at these guys! (laughs) They got the genes, they understand what it is.” In high school I used to cut out columns by Breslin and Hamill and tape them up on my wall. I thought, “My God, if I could do this, if I could just be mentioned in the same sentences with those people. They were my idols, and I wanted to be a sportswriter, and that’s ALL I wanted to be.
True to his dream, Tony wrote about sports wherever and whenever he could, pulling stints at both his high school and college newspapers. In the early 1970’s he landed jobs with NEWSDAY and The New York Times, and in 1979 he was hired by The Washington Post. While writing for the Post, Tony launched his own radio show in D.C. which was syndicated by ESPN, and in 2001, the network paired Kornheiser with his longtime buddy Mike Wilbon on a new, daily television show called “Pardon the Interruption” (affectionately known as “PTI”).
JL: For me, “PTI” is appointment television because it brings me up to speed on the world of sports, but, more importantly, I just love the chemistry between you guys.
TK: Mike has said that “PTI” is sort of a daily digest of sports, and the brilliance of the show is if you keep it short, you keep your viewers. The reason Mike and I have great chemistry is we worked together for 20 years before we ever went on TV. Newspaper sports writing is what we wanted to do, but “PTI” is so good because we actually still like each other, and think that the other one has something to say.
And what they have to say ranges from serious to the absurd. My favorite part of the show is the open, when Wilbon mentions an item in the news, and Kornheiser tosses back a quip. Example:
Mike: Tony, Oprah says she once lived with John Tesh. Who’s the oddest person you ever dated?
Tony: This is awkward...John Tesh.
But Tony’s favorite running gag is to use the planet Uranus as a double entendre.
Mike: Tony, NASA just scrubbed its Pluto mission.
Tony: Really? When are they going to scrub “YourAnus”?
Sometimes, though, even the most accomplished wordsmiths get into hot water, like the time Tony was suspended by ESPN for joking about an on-air colleague’s wardrobe choice.
JL: It seems like every week or so, a sports guy gets suspended, fired, or is made to apologize for something he said in jest. Have network executives, and society in general, lost their sense of humor?
TK: I would say that the cultural wheel turns, and you either adapt to it or you die. One of the great casualties in the very current world is humor. Mel Brooks said, “Tragedy is when I fall down a manhole. Humor is when YOU fall down a manhole.” Humor has always been based on attacks on somebody, and in the world we live, those attacks are seen as much worse than they had ever been seen before. Some of the casualties of humor are in the day to day workplace, but you can still hang around with your friends and say terrible things. You just don’t say them out loud.
JL: We began by talking about the young folks you work with, so are you concerned that, with cutbacks in newspapers, today’s aspiring writers may not be able to have the kind of experiences you did?
TK: People will always want to read good writing, it’s just a question of where that writing is going to appear. I have great fears for newspapers in the short term, but this stuff is probably cyclical. If there were no more newspapers, there’s still writing, but I think they’ll come back.
JL: What about YOUR future, and the future of “PTI”? Is there any reason why you can’t be doing the show when you’re 90?
TK: Only if I’m drooling. Mike and I get the sense that as we get older and more hideous, and more curmudgeonly and more cantankerous, that young people actually like us. They think, “Wow, this is like watching my grandparents argue.”
You can catch Tony the curmudgeon and other sports notables at the NSMA Awards Weekend, which runs from Saturday, June 22 through Monday, June 24. For tickets and more information, visit www.nationalsportsmedia.org .
Jim Longworth is a columnist for YESWeekly.com, and author of the "TV Creators" series of books. He also serves as judge for the primetime EMMYs, and hosts a weekly TV show for Sinclair stations.
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Tony Kornheiser Interview