Onion Sportsdome premieres Tuesday night on Comedy Central.
If you read The Onion — just read it — you know that part of the joke is closely emulating the format of real news. In exactly the same way, part of the joke of Onion Sportsdome, which premieres tonight on Comedy Central at 10:30 (and is based on videos The Onion has been doing online for some time), is closely emulating the format of real sports coverage — particularly on ESPN.
There's a lot of good stuff here, and certainly some wonderfully observant production. The graphics are perfect, the anchors are perfect, the music is perfect. It's a labor of love, and that's a very good thing.
There are two challenges this show is going to face in the longer term. The first is that SportsCenter already has a little bit of a sense of humor about itself, in a way that straight news (as mocked in The Onion classic) doesn't. The anchors are meant to be using somewhat silly hyperbole, and being amusingly bombastic; that's part of the shtick. That means that perfectly copying their mannerisms sometimes just looks like SportsCenter itself, rather than a parody of SportsCenter, even during what are supposed to be the funny parts.
The other issue is more substantive. If The Onion has a weakness, it's having a great headline followed by a story that consists of a bunch of different ways of saying the same joke that's in the headline. For that reason, I often don't actually read the entire story just because there's a great headline. I see the headline; I move on.
With video content, it's much more linear. You have the anchors shout the idea, but then the audience has to watch the entire story, for as long as it lasts. If you run out of jokes and keep repeating the basic premise over and over, you risk having people wish they could essentially get to the next joke rather than hearing a two-minute version of a five-second headline.
That's actually what happens in the very first segment in the screener I saw, where a solid one-line joke — in which Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James make some demands on the NBA — stretches out to two and a half minutes without really going anywhere else. Comedies like this are absolutely merciless, and holding up two and a half minutes seems like it requires a little bit more pith than that joke has. By contrast, a lot of the quick-hit jokes work very, very well and are very funny. It's the longer segments that don't hold up all that well.
They are definitely onto something here, with this format and this cast and this general idea. And I liked the second episode better than the first, which is always a good sign. But I'm not 100 percent convinced that the actual jokes are quite there in these first two installments. I like the structure — the roundtable of guys yelling at each other, the highlights, the anchors — but I wanted to like the show itself more than I eventually did. (As a side note, I hope the "Girlfriends" segment in the second episode, premised on the hilarious joke that women know nothing about sports, will not return — less because it offends me as a woman, and more because it offends me as a comedy consumer. The fruit doesn't hang any lower than that joke.)
There's a lot of promise in Onion Sportsdome, and the production is very, very skillful. But much will depend on how well the jokes themselves come off, and in the first two episodes, it's a tiny bit short of the mark.