So there I was, just scrolling through the TV guide, minding my own business, when I spotted a little program called ESPN Sports Saturday. The title intrigued me because I had never heard of it and because it was on ABC, not ESPN. It turns out it's a weekly clip-show of ESPN programming that makes its way onto ABC each Saturday; I guess it's Disney's way of showing local affiliates that they still care about them, even though they've basically taken every sport that was once an ABC property and transferred it to ESPN.
Well anyway, a First Take segment was a part of that highlight reel. And quite accidentally, for about three minutes, I found myself watching Stephen A. Smith argue with Skip Bayless. I only made it that long because I needed to know that what I was watching was actually normal, that I hadn't stumbled onto a "bad" moment where the hosts were off their game and were unnecessarily harsh to one another. From what I could tell, the three minutes I saw were probably of the same quality of any three minutes of First Take -- a show, I feel obligated to mention, is two hours long.
Bayless and Smith were arguing over Mariano Rivera's placement in baseball history -- Smith contended that Rivera was in the super-elite of great baseball players, whereas Bayless said Rivera wasn't one of the top fifty players ever. That may sound like a semantic difference, and really, arguing over the fake placement of a yet-to-be-retired pitcher on a fake list is pretty silly. But good lord were these men yelling at each other, Smith especially. It was the most passionless, loudest, nauseating three minutes of television I had seen in a long time, and by the time I changed the channel, I felt like I needed to take a cold shower.
Now, before I get into the crux of this piece, let me confirm what you, your grandma, your dog, and everyone else on the planet already knows: First Take is fucking awful. It's a dreadful show. It traffics in outrage; its hosts intentionally say crazy outrageous, borderline-offensive things to rile up its viewers. It's the epitome of "style over substance." You know how they say you should pay attention to a girl's mom when you go out with her, because in 30 years that's what she's going to look like? I think the same is going to be true with Pardon The Interruption. I think in 30 years, when Wilbon and Kornheiser are in hospice care, PTI is going to look just like First Take: two terrible pundits screaming at each other, with no chemistry whatsoever, at a volume so unbearable most would conclude they overcompensate for their lack of intellect.
But you know what? First Take, as far as atrocities go, isn't that bad. First Take is easily avoidable; all you have to do is change the channel and it's essentially out of your life forever. What fascinates me is that the show gets the rapt attention it does. I can't go a single week without hearing someone compare Skip Bayless to a troll, or Stephen A. Smith to a cartoon character, or hear that something one of them said was uber-stupid and dumb and we should all shake our fists at them. I would compare First Take to a reality show in that people may watch it to feel glee at the expense of the subjects, except with reality shows, there usually is a contingent out there who actually root for the JWoww's and Snooki's and Honey Boo Boo's, whereas with First Take, anyone who doesn't feel abject hatred for the hosts is in the deep minority. Not only that, the people who hate Skip and Stephen don't actually appear to revel in their viewing of them; they appear to despise every second of it.
Truly, First Take must have the most unusual following of any show on television. (Okay, that can't be true because of the existence of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. But still...) It's a show that basically exists so people can criticize it and complain about how bad it is. And yet for all the angst its causes, it somehow manages to retain the viewers it pisses off, who in turn go right back to it and get pissed off all over again. First Take has done what I would have thought was impossible; it's actually so hated by people that the scale does a complete one-eighty and people love hating it and become obsessed with it. If the hosts were 50% nicer, 50% more intelligent and 50% less offensive, I dare say the show would be irrelevant.
What I don't understand is why so many people feel drawn to this thing they absolutely can't stand, when in every other aspect of life, people abandon things that they think are wrong, mean or shitty. For instance, if you didn't like that I just swore -- if that's something that bothers you -- your natural reaction is going to be to stop reading. An unnatural, insane reaction would be for you to form your own blog called reetaesucks.blogspot.com in which you would devote a thousand words a day to how much you hate me. Unless you're weird, you're not going to subject yourself to the thing you dislike over and over again, ad nauseam; you're going to cut it out of your life. How First Take bypasses this basic human reasoning is beyond me.
A few days ago, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman went on First Take and contributed to a segment that was so uncomfortable that ESPN guru Bill Simmons tweeted that it was "awful and embarrassing to everyone involved" and "just don't watch it." The Simmons tweets garnered a swath of attention, with people looking to it as validation that even ESPN's own consider Bayless and Smith a joke. To me, the bigger story was that Bill Simmons was watching the show at all. Simmons has criticized Skip Bayless for years, and in The Book of Basketball, he wrote that Stephen A. Smith "answered the question 'What would it be like if somebody argued about sports with their CAPS LOCK on?'" So it's not like Simmons was innocently fumbling through the dial when he landed on the Sherman piece, genuinely thinking he had settled on some quality programming; he was watching knowing, maybe even hoping, that it would be awful and embarrassing. When he wrote "just don't watch it," I translate that to: "Hey, I watched it, and I know deep down I shouldn't have watched it, so I'm telling you not to, but oh my God, you should totally watch it too so you'll know just how horrible it was!"
The only thing I can compare First Take to is one of the scarcer concepts from the incredibly prescient book Nineteen Eighty-Four. In it, there was a ritual described as the "Two Minutes Hate," in which citizens of the fictional Oceania gathered around a monitor and watched images of a person called "Goldstein" that they were told to hate. For two minutes, the people watching were encouraged to display as much vitriolic hatred as possible, the more spazzing and spitting and cursing and histrionics, the more loyal they were to the dictatorial government. First Take is essentially the Two Hour Hate. To dislike the hosts and format of the show is so fucking easy, and is a sentiment shared by everyone who lives and breathes, that regurgitating how awful it is maybe the safest, least-contentious opinion a sports fan can form in the year 2013. So fans keep on saying it, and saying it, and saying it, because it's a really cheap and easy way to get people to agree with you. It's a way for even the Bill Simmons haters to support him, because they'll go, "Hey, he hates Bayless too! Maybe that Simmons fella isn't so bad."
Ultimately, I too am not fond of First Take, but I don't care about it either. I don't actually watch the show so I'm incapable of hating it. What I absolutely cannot stand though are the people who feel the need to marinate in every ill-informed, ignorant opinion that comes out of Skip Bayless' mouth as though he isn't the sports equivalent of a strawman. If you really want to get rid of Skip Bayless and First Take, stop watching. Your viewership is the only tangible thing that can affect whether or not the show exists; your hatred is actually meaningless.