Cheap Seats, “Superstars 1978” 

Cheap Seats, “Superstars 1978” 

Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.

In the title sequence for the first season of the ESPN Classic series Cheap Seats, narrator Dan Patrick spins a Mystery Science Theater-esque origin story for this Mystery Science Theater-esque show, explaining how the original Cheap Seats host Ron Parker was crushed by a shelf of old videotapes, leaving librarians Jason and Randy Sklar to take on the gig of introducing clips from the ESPN archive, which the boys then proceeded to mock. This was all fiction, of course. The Sklars weren’t really tape librarians, and weren’t really second and third on the Cheap Seats depth chart (behind Ron Parker and ahead of out-of-work quarterback Ryan Leaf). No, in the real world—our world—the Sklar brothers got the job from their old Sunday school teacher.

Jason and Randy Sklar had a fast start in the comedy business. While still in their mid-20s, not too long after moving from their native St. Louis to New York City, they landed their own MTV sketch series, Apt 2F. But that show only lasted a season—and wasn’t all that well-received—so by 2002, the brothers were on the verge of quitting the business. Then they happened to have breakfast with Gary Belsky, whom they’d known as kids. At the time an editor at ESPN: The Magazine, Belsky had been asked to pitch shows to ESPN Classic, and when he met up with his old Sunday school students for breakfast, he told them about the “watching comedians watch old sports” concept that would become Cheap Seats. “Then he said, ‘Pass the syrup,’” Jason Sklar told me in a recent phone interview. “And we just stared at him with our mouths open. We were like, ‘Gary, is there some reason why you’re not asking us to be part of the show?’ Right about then, we would’ve done any show. And this sounded like something we would watch even if we weren’t on it.”

And so Cheap Seats Without Ron Parker became the second Sklar-hosted TV comedy series, and ran for four seasons and 77 episodes on ESPN Classic, from 2004 to 2006. (Cheap Seats repeats still pops up on the network, albeit sporadically.) During those three years, Jason and Randy saw their show cut down from an hour to a half-hour, and they endured a brief run of episodes in which they performed before a live studio audience. Throughout, they put on a show that borrowed heavily from the MST3K format—as many comedy series have—but managed the difficult trick of being playful and knowledgeable, which few MST3K clones have been able to execute.

I say that with some authority, because I’ve watched a slew of those clones over the years, and almost all of them have been as excruciatingly bad as those fan-generated “MiSTings” that used to clog up the old rec.arts.tv.mst3k bulletin board in the ’90s. When I stumbled onto Cheap Seats while flipping through channels one night, I instinctively reached for the remote once I realized what the format was. But I didn’t click away, for two reasons: one, the show was actually funny; and two, the Sklars were riffing on Superstars, an ABC “junk sports” program that I watched devotedly as a kid in the ’70s. 

Jason: As soon we heard that ESPN Classic had old Superstars episodes, we said, “Gold. Get every single one of them.” Just like when we heard that there was a tape of Steve Garvey holding a fishing tournament with his weird, unknown actor friends. We were like, “You had me at Steve Garvey fishing.” 

Randy: There was a time when we were kids when on Saturday, after we played little-league soccer or little-league baseball, we’d come home, and before our parents would go out and our babysitter would come over, we’d watch Wide World Of Sports. We watched all that stuff. Superstars. Rodeo. PBA Bowling. I could tell you, as a kid, who won the Firestone Tournament Of Champions. I could tell you that Mark Roth had the smallest ball-hold in the game. He’d give it a little pop every time. The reason Superstars was so great was that it was athletes doing things that were somewhat athletic. It wasn’t their sport of choice, and there wasn’t really a lot riding on it, so they made a lot of decisions that made them look like jackasses. 

“Superstars 1978” was the ninth Cheap Seats to air, from the era when the show was still an hour. (All the hourlong episodes were eventually trimmed back to 30 minutes for the repeats, with an added segment called “What Got Cut?”) The Sklars were still finding their range at this point, and the series wasn’t as tight or as funny as it would later become. Cheap Seats back then mostly coasted on the hosts’ affability—they were much, much less smirky and self-satisfied than the hosts of other MST3K clones—and on their ability to isolate what was absurd yet entertaining about the sports they were mocking.

Jason: What was so crazy about Superstars was that the people who won it were always the people who played the weird sports. Because they had enough time to train. You just know that Kyle Rote Jr. built his own obstacle course at home once he realized he could make some money. He was like, “I’m making $28,000 a year as a soccer player. Maybe I should do Superstars so I can get a speedboat.” 

ABC began airing Superstars in 1973, periodically bringing together an eclectic assortment of pro and amateur jocks to run, swim, play golf, lift weights, and complete an obstacle course, all to determine the best all-around athlete. And Jason Sklar is right: Usually it was the Kyle Rote Juniors and Renaldo Nehemiahs of the sports world who took home the Superstars championships. But almost as important as who finished in first place was who maintained the proper level of swagger while competing. That’s why in the “Superstars 1978” episode, the Sklar brothers kept track of which athlete looked the coolest.

Randy: I give [writer/comedian] Matt Price full credit for coming up with that concept of the “Coolperstars.” I just loved how lo-fi it was. It was literally us moving pictures along a cork-board.

The Superstar who came off the worst in this episode? Former Los Angeles Ram great Deacon Jones, the fearsome defensive end credited with coining the term “sacking the quarterback.” On Superstars, Jones struggled to keep his head above water in the swimming competition—though he fared better than Joe Frazier, who in a 1973 Superstars nearly drowned—and he did so badly at the obstacle course that ABC put together a slow-motion replay of him falling off a rope and set it to the tune of Paul Simon’s “Slip Slidin’ Away.” What was most damaging to Jones’ reputation (and what got the Sklars to move him so low on the “Coolperstars” rankings that he ended up off the board entirely) was that he revealed what he’d been doing in his years since retiring from football: working for a company that sells medical supplies. Such a mundane fate for the former “Secretary Of Defense.”

Then again, few of the Superstars competitors coasted, cool-wise. In this episode, Olympic high-jumper Dwight Stones gives a long-winded interview to Bruce Jenner in which he explains that he maintains his amateur status by giving all his Superstars winnings to the Desert Oasis Track Club, a “bona fide California corporation” that, according to the Sklars, only had one member: Dwight Stones.

Randy: We’re doing a comedy show, and who knows what’s true and what isn’t? But that was actually true. One of our researchers found out that the Stones’ “track club” was a total tax scam. Like a shell corporation. 

The Sklars also make fun of Dodger legend Steve Garvey for having hair like a Lego figure (and for being a perennial washout on the baseball Hall Of Fame ballot), and they skewer Garvey’s teammate Ron Cey for running like he’s trying to put out a fire between his legs.

They have the most fun, though, with Bill Bergey, an Eagles All-Pro who runs against Ron Cey, and whose hulking demeanor and bushy black beard gets the Sklars quoting Superman II: “Kneel before Zod!”

Randy: I just love that we called him “Kneel before Zod,” even though he doesn’t look like Terence Stamp. He looks like Non, who is the big, mute villain whose name isn’t Zod. I was like, “Well, the audience knows what we’re talking about.”

The average Cheap Seats episode was packed with those kinds of references: some topical, some classic, some obscure. In addition to Superman II, the “Superstars 1978” episode cites Breaking Away, Donald Rumsfeld, and Christine Todd Whitman, among others. And a few of those jokes came with expiration dates attached.

Jason: Honestly, I can’t remember what the final count was per episode, but it was somewhere between 250 and 400 jokes, and we were like, “You know what? Let’s put it all in.” It almost becomes this cool barometer of what was happening at that time. Bush was president, and we were in a war. People were pissed. Sports tends to be a very conservative arena, and we were among the most liberal voices on the network. God bless ESPN for not cutting that stuff out. Although I think they just didn’t pay attention to what we were doing on that show. We made a Louis Kahn, My Architect joke, which like, five people got. We made a Cat Power joke. Without even saying the name Cat Power we were referencing the song “Hey War” during a cat show. But for the thousand people who got those jokes out of the hundreds of thousands who watched, they were like, “I’m hooked for life. I’m yours.” If anyone else made a Breaking Away reference, I’d be, “Who are these people? I love them.”

That’s another way that Cheap Seats picked up the mantle of Mystery Science Theater 3000, a show known to use its more obscure jokes as a dog whistle to call to its true fans. The gang at MST3K later gave Cheap Seats their seal of approval when Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy (as Tom Servo), and Bill Corbett (as Crow) appeared in silhouette on one episode and mocked the mockers.

Jason: We talked to those guys before we even started doing our show. They said, “You know what? We weren’t the first ones to do this either. There was a little movie called What’s Up Tiger Lily? by Woody Allen.” When they came on Cheap Seats, that told their fans that they gave their endorsement to us, which was important.

It helped too that the Cheap Seats team knew how to build a joke. Even here, early in the run of the series, there are moments when the Sklars get on a roll in the best MST3K tradition, piling jokes on jokes. For example, building off the Bergey-as-Zod (or really Non) business, the Cheap Seats team superimposes lasers shooting out of the linebacker’s eyes during a golf segment, extending the gag long enough that it goes from being fleetingly funny to hilarious.

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Then at the end of the Bergey clip, the Sklars spot New York Yankee Reggie Jackson—a Superstars sideline reporter—lounging shirtless, and in voiceover they feign outrage that a network employee is dressed so casually. Cut to: Randy and Jason, on their couch, red-faced and nearly naked.

Randy: I was literally in an adult diaper, and Jay was in his underwear. And I was just screaming at him. To me, that was why I loved doing the show. Anything was possible. If he’s in underwear, I’m gonna be in a diaper. You know what I mean?

The Sklars say they never caught any heat for making fun of actual ABC/ESPN reporters during Cheap Seats. With one exception:

Jason: I hope I’m not talking out of school, but fuck it, the show’s over. I think it was in the roller-derby episode, they had this old, drunk-ish announcer, and we made a joke about, “Oh, he’s like a drunk [ESPN reporter’s name redacted].” And ESPN got really mad, asking us if we were making a joke about what this guy was going through at the time. Apparently he was a recovering alcoholic. We had no idea. We had to cut the joke. But I don’t begrudge them for telling us to do that. The thing is: It’s one joke out of 450. No single joke is so precious that you can’t go in a new direction, do something weirder. What the show taught us in a major way about joke-writing was how we needed to trust ourselves. If they say we can’t do one joke, we should believe that we can come up with something else.

More often, the Sklars say, the people they poked fun at appreciated the spirit in which the gags were intended.

Randy: We have a good relationship with Michael Floorwax, the “rising comedian” from the Steve Garvey fishing special. We’ve been on his radio show, and I mean, he could not be a better guy. In the Holiday Bowl episode, we gave Tim Brando some grief, and we saw him at the Super Bowl, and he had a really great sense of humor about it. Athletes love the show, because when you think about it, they’re on the road a ton, they’re in hotels, they’re watching TV; and when you’ve seen SportsCenter five times, you wanna watch anything else. I remember Todd Helton and Sean Casey, we met them at the All-Star Game, and they were the biggest fans of the show.

The Sklars also had the support of their vast and impressive collection of comedian pals, whom they drew from to help with the Cheap Seats sketches, whether those comics were sports fans or not.

Jason: ESPN originally said, “Hey, you can shoot this in D.C.” where they shoot Pardon The Interruption, “or you can shoot this in Bristol.” And we said, “What about New York? Can we do New York?” Because we knew we wanted to take advantage of all our funny friends who were in New York. Like everyone who had written on Conan, who were comedians in the city. Eventually we got Jon Glaser involved, who does Delocated now, and who’s just a tremendous writer. He kind of became the head writer for our studio stuff.

Randy: We were able to work with all of our favorite people, and to us, that was a joy. You can’t do that when you only do 12 episodes of a show. You can do it when you do 77.

Jason: Paul Rudd is a huge, huge sports fan. David Cross is not. Patton Oswalt and Brian Posehn, not big sports fans. But we were like, “I’d rather it be someone funny who can deliver this. They don’t have to know sports to play a character.” Like H. Jon Benjamin playing a Foley artist for wrestling. Not a huge sports fan. 

In “Superstars 1978,” the big sketch pivots off Bruce Jenner’s gig as a Superstars sideline reporter. The Sklars imagine what it must be like to be a relative of the most studly Olympian of all time, and then they show a short documentary about “Nicholas Jenner,” Bruce’s bowl-haired nephew, played by a be-wigged Nick Swardson. The younger Jenner aims to be a decathlete like his uncle, but doesn’t worry about how mediocre he is at most of the events because his theory is that in the decathlon, you don’t have to be great at 10 events; you only have to be pretty good at, like, seven events.

Jason: Swardson is a good friend of ours. We asked him, “Can you do this little bit for us?” And he was like, literally, “I’ll do this because I want to wear the wig.” 

The Jenner sketch, though, is another example of how a show like Cheap Seats can become dated inadvertently. Who knew in 2004 that Bruce Jenner would one day be famous for something other than the Olympics?

Jason: The fact that Bruce Jenner is on The Kardashians and being pushed around by a bunch of women who are only famous because one of them had sex with Ray J is insane to us. When we were growing up, he was essentially Michael Phelps without the weed. A hero. An American legend. If you asked, “Who was a man in 1977?” we’d say, “Let me show you this Wheaties box with Bruce Jenner on it. That’s a man, right there, throwing a javelin at your balls.” Now he basically looks like every one of our mom’s friends. Why does he have frosted tips on his hair? Why does he have a Chico’s catalogue under his arm? Why is he the most effeminate pushover on television?

In another sketch, the Sklars get confused when Dwight Stones lists his favorite athlete as Valeriy Brumel, and they look for guidance from “The Answer Dog,” a cranky, foul-mouthed, highly knowledgeable hot dog that they bought in 1982 at Game 7 of the Cardinals-Brewers World Series.

The Answer Dog angrily informs its masters that Valeriy Brumel was a champion Soviet high-jumper. That was one of the other appeals of Cheap Seats: It was surprisingly informative. The Sklars and their staff did what anyone does in the 21st century when watching something beamed in from the past: They Googled like crazy, disappearing down rabbit-holes of factoids. They frequently summed up the best of these in the regular segment “Do You Care?”

Randy: The researchers would come up with the facts. There had been some time elapsed from when these shows had aired, and the people in them had done things since then. “Do You Care?” was our “Where are they now?” moment. 

The challenge for any Cheap Seats episode was how to squeeze in sketches and asides and old sports in a way that flowed into 22 minutes, broken up by commercials. The Sklars and the writers wanted to fit in as many jokes as possible, while also delivering an episode with its own arc, both in terms of the host segments and the sports segments.

Jason: Our staff sat down and watched everything, and looked for the moments that had comedy value. We trusted them, which was a big trust, because maybe there was stuff that we never got to see that would have been funny. But there was no way for us to just watch hours and hours of footage. They were taking story beats, too. How do we tell the story? This guy wins this competition and advances, so we need a piece of it. This guy loses, so he can disappear. Really you’re looking at 12 or 13 minutes of the source material per episode. Can we still tell the story? We found that we could.

Randy: What we tried to do on the show was squeeze every ounce of comedy that we could from everything that we had. So we had visual jokes; we had jokes we were writing about what you’re seeing; we had the sketches, and the bumps that we were doing in and out of commercial breaks; and then, we had music jokes, too. We tried to say, “How many things can we pack in a show?” 

“Superstars 1978” ends the way that the actual Superstars shows always did: with the obstacle course. Don Maynard takes on Greg Pruitt, who was leading the overall competition until he stumbled on the tires in this last event. Reggie Jackson goes to interview a steaming mad Pruitt, and the Sklars smartly keep their mouths shut as Jackson tries to coax Pruitt to comment. “It’s on TV,” Pruitt huffs as he walks away.

Cheap Seats too was “on TV” for a good long while, which was something of a miracle given how little attention it received. Cheap Seats rarely garnered much mention from the entertainment or sports media. If I hadn’t found it by accident, I’m not sure I’d have ever known it was on—and I’m a huge fan of TV, sports, and comedy. The trade-off for ESPN allowing the Cheap Seats team so much creative freedom was that the network frequently treated the show as an afterthought.

Jason: We begged ESPN. We said, “Please, can we put some promos on during The Daily Show, or even MTV.” Our goal wasn’t to have people say, “I watch Cheap Seats and I watch Sports Center, and I watch Around The Horn.” Those are all great shows, but we wanted people to say, “I watch Cheap Seats, I watch Arrested Development, I watch Conan.” We were a comedy show with sports as the backdrop, not a sports show with a little bit of comedy in it. And I think that’s where a lot of sports shows that are trying to be funny have gone wrong in the past. 

In fact, that misunderstanding of the comedy aspects of a show like Cheap Seats led to one of ESPN’s few creative interventions, and a spectacular failure.

Jason: They put in a studio audience at the beginning of season two, which we really didn’t want, but I guess they felt like the show needed more energy. No matter how you handle that, it was always going to feel canned. Cheap Seats was a conversation with the people watching at home, and Randy and I were interacting with this old source material as well, so it kind of felt weird to have these other people hanging around. We did a mini-run of six episodes and started getting a ton of negative feedback and emails from our fans, and rightfully so. We had gotten like, two negative emails over the entire first 25 episodes. It’s so rare to get the chance to do a show on TV, and then for that show to be something so close to your vision, and to have people like it and respect it and develop a following, and then, for a few episodes even, to throw all that away? It was earth-shattering for us. Randy and I are insanely emotional people, to a fault. The tiniest thing goes wrong, we make the biggest deal out of it and get irrationally emotional. And if it goes right, and we’re really psyched about it, we love it more than anything in the world. We’re hyperbolically emotionally connected to what we do. Especially something we love, which Cheap Seats is.

Even though Cheap Seats is off the air (repeats aside), the Sklars are still stumping for the show, and trying to get ESPN to spring for a DVD box set. They know though that working through the rights issues is a bigger task than anyone at the network wants to take on. (“When people already have a ton of work to do, they can’t necessarily wrap their head around such a monster job,” Jason says.) Still, the brothers think the show’s a natural for DVD—though Randy would like to revisit those early episodes and “write all the jokes that we now wish we would’ve made.”

In the meantime, the Sklars continue to do stand-up, and to host their popular podcast Sklarbro Country. They also continue to pursue opportunities on television, doing guest shots on sitcoms and talk shows, sometimes together and sometimes separately. Jason and Randy are twins, but don’t necessarily think of themselves as a package deal.

Jason: We don’t make our twin-ness the center of our comedy. It’s just interesting visually. You immediately get the relationship, without having to explain any backstory. You look at us and you’re like, “Oh, they’ve spent a life together. I get that they have a shorthand.”

Randy: We have different physical features, but that wasn’t a conscious choice, like, “I have to grow a beard. You have to go get glasses.” I like that we don’t look exactly alike. Because the most interesting part is not that we look alike, but that we grew up at the same time. You may say, “I love watching Superstars,” because you remember what it was like watching that show when you were a kid. For me, I remember watching that show with Jay. We experienced that at the same time, in the same house.

That ultimately may be the key to Cheap Seats’ appeal: that we’re watching two guys watch sports who clearly have their own unique connection to each other and to what they’re seeing. Sometimes we take our nostalgia straight, unfiltered. We watch an old Steve Reeves Hercules movie from to start to finish, or listen to every track on Buckner & Garcia’s Pac-Man Fever album. But sometimes it’s better to see our nostalgia repurposed, to watch a movie that pays homage to B-pictures but with a modern sensibility, or to listen to a song that samples kitsch and makes it fresh. That buffer can allow us to preserve our affection for the original artifact, without boring us to the point of annoyance. Superstars was fun, sure. But Superstars filtered through Cheap Seats comes with its own built-in sense of fellowship.


Next time, on A Very Special Episode… Battlestar Galactica, “33”