Dan Bernstein snickers and rolls his eyes at the ceiling of the Score Sports Radio sound studio. It's 11:50 AM on a Thursday, and a caller's just dubbed him crap-filled. Bernstein and cohost Terry Boers are winding down "Who Ya Crappin'?," the segment of their morning talk show that's devoted to listeners' faxes and phone calls nailing sports figures and commentators (especially Boers and Bernstein) for missed predictions, Freudian slips, and lies. Bernstein must be laughing out of good nature, as this caller wasn't remotely funny. When the commercial comes on, in fact, it turns out he was just plain wrong.
"Imaginary radio's pumping out again for West Side Joe," Bernstein says over the intercom to the show's executive producer, Dan Zampillo.
"Yeah, you didn't say that," Zampillo says, standing in front of a computer displaying a queue of waiting callers: Robo Crap, Attack Panda, Pathological Liar. "But just take it."
After the commercial an even less coherent guy calls in to crap about "that witch lesbian" Anne Heche. It's the day after Barbara Walters's interview with Heche on ABC, and Boers and Bernstein--whose show runs from 8 to noon weekdays--have been spritzing the sports news with casting-couch jokes about Heche and Ellen DeGeneres. "So she had her greatest sex with, uh, whatserface?" Bernstein asked earlier in the program. "This is a woman who speaks in tongues in her head to God, right? So that's pretty cool. But she has yet to have an acting performance worth remembering. She's a no-talent!"
"But that's kind of what makes her compelling," said Boers.
"She's just a wack-job no-talent!" repeated Bernstein.
"It seems to work for a lot of people around here," muttered one of the producers. As Bernstein tried to start a riff about a ballplayer who looks like he's eating bugs out of his beard when he stands in the field, the producer cued a commercial over him in mock disgust.
The Boers and Bernstein show is nominally about sports, but they shape their material into what feels like a four-hour episode of Black Adder, complete with philosophical undertones inspired by pencilneck culture from Douglas Adams to Mad magazine. Bernstein says he spent at least as much time in college studying comedy theory as he did keeping up with sports; when he came to the Score (aka WSCR 670 AM), he wanted to work with Boers because "he was the one on the air who actually shared my sense of humor." (Boers's immediate answer when asked how they met: "The Manhole.") Boers is the sports-media veteran whose experience--including a stretch at the Sun-Times sports desk--anchors their shtick.
Just as Monty Python often reserved their bile for the British upper class, Bernstein says, he and Boers try to pick on team management as much as possible. "But we do it creatively--we don't just wanna say, 'Oooh, the Bears suuuuck, coach sucks, Bears suck.' Well, maybe they do suck. But let's make it fun."
They like to provide vivid imagery ("I'm incontinent," says Boers. "That's why we wear special pants!") and incongruous cross-references (Bernstein envisioning U.S. attorney general John Ashcroft dancing in orange short shorts with longtime Score announcer Mike North at the Downers Grove Hooters). And they like to involve listeners in the show. With Jerry Angelo's wood chipper--a bit that's amused regulars since August, when Bears general manager Angelo announced he was sacking some expensive players to trim the roster--they've managed to do all three.
"We actually had a contest," says Bernstein, after both the Tribune and the Sun-Times ran stories about Angelo that used the phrase "swinging the ax." "I said, 'How tired are we of the metaphor of the ax? We've been using that since time immemorial--we need something better than that.'" A listener suggested they steal some imagery from the movie Fargo. Zampillo and associate producer Scott Schayer rented the movie and sampled the wood chipper noise.
"So on cut-down day," Bernstein says, "there we were putting the Bears--wrrrrreeeeaaaaahhrrr!--putting them in the wood chipper." Callers played along, reporting "red mulch blowing out over the practice field and guys exchanging nervous glances," says Bernstein. "And it becomes a thing--a guy gets cut from the Bears, we hit the wood chipper. And everybody knows it now, but it's only because a listener came up with it. I didn't come up with it! We just executed the comedy. That's a perfect example of how we can work together to entertain ourselves."
Zampillo says running jokes like the wood chipper and the hosts' gleeful embrace of random interruptions make listeners feel they're part of a club. "Well, this guy's an idiot," he says, flipping through a stack of faxes. "But in general these guys seem to bring out the more intelligent callers."
Nonsports interviews are par for the course; Monty Python alum Eric Idle was on the show after his 1999 sci-fi novel, The Road to Mars, came out. "He talked a lot about comedy theory--that's a lot of what his book is about," Bernstein says. "He talked about categorizing different kinds of comics. He even talked with us about what kind of comics we might be." In the novel Idle postulates two archetypal clowns, the Red Nose and the White Face: "The White Face represents the mind, reminding humanity of the constant mocking presence of death; the Red Nose represents the body, reminding mankind of its constant embarrassing vulgarities."
Boers and Bernstein are somewhere in between. Their show isn't planned; much of the fun in his job, Bernstein says, is not knowing what's going to happen next, or which celebrity their producers will be able to talk into a live interview. "We know what we're going to talk about, but our stuff is off the cuff. It has to be. You can't script 20 hours a week." But they don't gratuitously make fools of themselves. "It's almost like there's instantaneous planning. It's not, 'I'm gonna go sit on top of a billboard for a stunt, or I'm gonna sit up to my waist in gravy for charity.'"
They'll take cheap shots, but Bernstein says they try not to be malicious or high-handed. "We're just a couple of goofs who are lucky to have these phony-baloney jobs. We understand that." They're also not above using listener cluelessness for comic fodder. In July a man called to say that he was Jewish and often turned on the Score just to hear Boers, because he liked hearing other Jews talk on the radio. Boers--massive, blond, and ruddy--played along and lied at length about his strict Jewish upbringing while the producers rolled on the floor.
When they go to the Superbowl, Bernstein says, other sports hosts don't know what to make of them. "They're coming at us with, 'Ooh, their wide receiver versus that quarterback,' and we're making dick jokes." What makes their chummy misery popular in Chicago, he says, is "our long history of sports pain. It's hard to make fun of a good team." The Bulls' good times, he says, were more difficult as material than the Bears' bad times. "How many times can you call in and say, 'Jordan's awesome?' But as soon as the high drama started of the end of the Bulls and the blame game and the soap opera began, then people just wanted to come in and pick over the bones."
Sports as comedy works in a city where the most respected cultural industry is low-tech, low-revenue storefront theater. Juggling phones during the break before "Who Ya Crappin'?," Zampillo asks a caller, "You wanna crap or no?" He smirks and covers the receiver. "That's what my world's resigned to, asking people if they want to crap. You know you've really made it in the business when you're doing that."
Two phenomena tell Boers and Bernstein they're doing their job well. First, they'll often make nearly the same joke in the morning that Conan or Letterman makes that night. Second, Bernstein says, listeners sometimes get so caught up in the satire they can't hear team management talk without trying to guess what Boers and Bernstein would say. "One of the great victories that I feel is when someone says, 'I can't watch this with a straight face anymore,' because we've been able to create such absurd images and connections that a lot of our listeners are beginning to look at sports as ridiculously as we do," he says. "If we take sports too seriously it's not an escape anymore. Then it's real angst. We want comedy angst!"
One week after the Heche show, real angst was thick as ash. The day after the World Trade Center disappeared, no one cracked wise on the Score. They devoted the show that day to well-screened calls, mainly from regulars, talking about the disaster. "We won't get back to our silly humor until it feels right, and it just doesn't right now," Bernstein said between callers.
The next day they interviewed NFL hall-of-famer Marv Levy about when it was appropriate to resume pro sports play after national emergencies. (Levy went back to football the week of the Pearl Harbor attack, before he was sent into combat himself.) Bernstein said that just a few days before he'd been thinking about how tired he was of the Chicago sports scene, of having to talk all the time about the same losing teams. "But this is a time when I realize why I love sports so much," he said. "I love my bad teams! I miss talking about my bad teams! I went into sports to get away from death and destruction."
A week later, Boers and Bernstein were doing their best to get their comic chops going again, and a listener called in to thank them. "We're idiots and dipsticks," Boers replied, "and people count on us for that."
Boers was quiet for a moment while Bernstein obligingly made fun of somebody. Then he added, "I'm a big butt."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.