Jason Sklar on Cheap Seats’ Legacy

Supercult profiles the obscure, the offbeat, and the feverishly celebrated pieces of comedy which deserve more recognition.

From 2004 to 2006, the Sklar Brothers skewered the socially awkward and the feverishly pompous of the sports world from the sidelines with their ESPN Classic series Cheap Seats. Culling from the network’s massive library of Rose Bowls and Dog Shows alike, ESPN’s own Statler and Waldorf provided running commentary as they watched, along with us, some of history’s greatest sports embarrassments. There was Steve Garvey on skis, Deacon Jones on a rope, and a shirtless Reggie Jackson. And, of course, Rebecca Sealfon.

Waiting in the wings as featured guests was a murderer’s row of comedians. Jon Glaser, Jon Benjamin, David Cross, Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn, Kristen Schaal, Doug Benson, Michael Ian Black, Zach Galifianakis, Jerry Minor, Kerri Kenney, Eddie Pepitone, Andy Blitz, Jim Gaffigan, and Eugene Mirman all made appearances during the course of the series. For a modest production nestled deep in the 400s of a deluxe cable package, Cheap Seats boasted some of the best comedic talents of the last three decades.

But it was to the Sklars’ advantage that the show was relegated to ESPN Classic. Flying under the radar, the team was able to subvert sports legends and cultural icons without fear of reprisal. The show’s offbeat format and cult fanbase complemented the esoterica of an obscure channel. However, as the twins attest, a stronger and more visible advertising effort that comes standard with a major network would’ve been nice.

Although bearing a format comparable to Mystery Science Theater 3000, stylistically, Cheap Seats transcended a mere rehash of the Comedy Central classic. Whereas Joel, Mike, and the Bots adopted an “in-theater” aesthetic of sitting behind sarcastic moviegoers, Jason and Randy were those same moviegoers had they been hired to do play-by-play and color commentary — essentially adapting their off-camera personas. Tonally, the jokes and performers were much different, but Cheap Seats generated that same rolling laughter — where laughs quickly snowball without giving the viewer a chance to rest — that MST3K famously evoked. No wonder the MST3K team did a guest spot.

But perhaps Cheap Seats’ greatest achievement was its ability to cater to both the Sklars’ existing fanbase and the errant ESPN viewer. The twin’s sensibilities and their overlapping, rapid-fire dialogue appealed to two ostensibly opposing demographics: the comedy nerd and the sports fan. They not only hit that tiny sliver at the center of the Venn diagram, they turned both groups into dedicated viewers — as well as introduced those unfamiliar worlds to either side.

While the series has been off the air for years, Jason and Randy Sklar continued their sports comedy appreciation with the online series Back on Topps and the fantastic podcast Sklarbro Country. For fans of Cheap Seats and the Sklars themselves, both come highly recommended.

I spoke with Jason Sklar about the history of Cheap Seats, connecting with sports and comedy fans, and how he and Randy hooked up with the MST3K team.

How did the show come about? Did you pitch to ESPN or did the network approach you?

Kind of a little bit of both. It’s actually an interesting story.

In the summer of 2002, we were in New York City for a wedding and met our very good friend Gary Belsky, who’s an editor for ESPN Magazine. The magazine was the best component of all the ESPN entities at the time. It was really a wonderful and innovative magazine. And because it was doing so well, ESPN asked Gary and fellow editor Neil Fine to generate some ideas for shows. And one of their ideas that ESPN liked was a sort of “watch us watch the games” show which involved some of the weirder content that ESPN had. But they weren’t sure if they wanted to do a Mystery Science Theater-style show with commentary running throughout or a Dinner and a Movie-style format where, in between segments, right before they went to the break, they would break down what you just saw and teased what was coming up.

So Gary said that they pitched that idea and that it was probably going to become a show. Then he was like, “We just need two guys who love sports, have really good chemistry, and are funny to host it.”

Cool.

No, he didn’t say anything at that moment. We were like, “Gary, are you not asking us for a reason?” And he said, “Oh, I didn’t know you guys wanted a show on ESPN Classic!”

At the time, we were in between stuff. A couple pilots we did hadn’t worked out, and we were just looking to work. And as we got into the idea a bit more, we realized this actually would be perfect because ESPN Classic was the kind of place that would let the show grow and develop since they needed the programming. Even back then, on Comedy Central and certainly network television, if something wasn’t a hit out of the gate, the clock was ticking and you were living on borrowed time. And we knew that this was a chance to create the show we wanted to create and let it develop a cult audience, which it did.

Obviously, there were times where we wished that a larger promotional machine was behind the show so that a lot more people knew about it. I feel like so many more people would have loved it had they known about it. But the people who did see all 77 episodes and loved it have a sense of ownership over the show. They felt like it’s personally theirs. They were like, “This is a show that I know and my friends know, and we share it.”

So after Gary said they were interested, we showed them our stand-up specials and kind of pitched “us” to them. Then we went to ESPN Magazine to pitch to 40-50 ESPN executives, ESPN Classic executives, and magazine people. We sat in this meeting at a U-shaped table and pitched like 100 different ideas for segments for the show. And we told them that the best opportunities we’ve ever had were situations like this — where an idea is so deep and rich that we can’t stop thinking up possibilities for it. We knew this was fertile territory.

We also told them that we were huge fans of MST3K and didn’t want to do a cover version of them. We wanted to do our own thing and make it different. However, at the same time, we really appreciated what they did. So of those two options, Dinner and a Movie or Mystery Science Theater, the latter offered way more opportunities to add comedy to the show. And as comedians, we wanted to want to make this the funniest show.

They were impressed by what we pitched. And again, it was great that they weren’t a Hollywood network. They didn’t have us come in and do a test show to see if they wanted to do it. They didn’t have us audition with 30 other people. They knew what they were doing.

So we shot a pilot even though we knew the show was going to get picked up. We shot in DC, off to the side of the Pardon the Interruption set. We had our buddy Brad Meltzer, who’s a friend from Michigan and best-selling author, come on and do a character — which was later played by Matt Walsh of the Upright Citizens Brigade. He played the guy who left the 1982 Stanford-Cal game too early. We did a bunch of really fun segments and we thought to ourselves, “This has the potential to be a really, really funny show.” We just had to figure out how to do it.

Once you had the show, how were the writing sessions structured?

Basically, our producers in New York — Todd Pellegrino, Ed Butler, Omar Reid, Jordan Kranis, Jason Weber, and Jory Hirsh — would scour the ESPN library for the weirdest stuff they had. They would screen those tapes in advance, and cut them down from three to four hours to the most palatable 30-45 minutes so they would fit the episodes. Our original episodes were an hour long, but we soon realized that was too long. We didn’t have a full-time writing staff. We just didn’t have the infrastructure. So we decided to do a half hour show.

After cutting down the show, the producers would write jokes based on what they saw. From there, they would send us videotapes — back when we used videotapes — in the mail. And without reading their jokes, Randy and I would screen the tapes and improvise our own material as we went along. You know, stopping and starting, so we could record what we came up with. We tried to watch the show as much as possible first and see what came naturally. That generated a lot of material. And then, we would send those packets to other friends who would graciously add their jokes on a for-hire basis.

I actually knew one of your writers, Seth Reiss. We were both contributing writers for The Onion.

Yeah, he was great. He added great jokes to it. But I mean, a lot of the times, we didn’t really know the guys that well. We would get a packet complete with everybody’s jokes, including our producers’ and all the other comedians’. Then Randy and I would sit down as executive producers and head writers, piecing together the jokes that we really liked into the script. And a lot of the times, we would all hit the same moment, so we would look through all those jokes, and we would pick the best possible jokes that would allow for the most possible jokes. So sometimes we would have to let go of a really great joke because if we did another one, it would allow us to do two or three. It was all dependent on the timing. It was very much like putting together a giant puzzle. We were trying to pick what we felt like the absolute best, hardest-hitting jokes mixed into opportunities to do the most jokes. We went for quantity and quality combined. We were trying to find the point on the chart where those things met in the middle. It was almost like writing by committee by proxy.

The other part of the show that had to have a written element studio bits. Which we’d do together with writers out here in LA — Eric Friedman, Matt Price, and Anthony Del Broccolo. We would get together for like a whole day and write the studio portions of the show. The running bits that would run throughout the whole show. That was really fun.

Could you tell me more about the show’s brief experiment with a studio audience? Was that your choice or the network’s?

No, that was not our choice at all. At the end of season two, they forced a studio audience on us. We felt like the show needed to move at a faster pace. And they were like, “The show needs something. The show needs a studio audience.” I don’t know, it became a series of bad decisions. We tried to make the most of it. But the only plus that came out of that, since we were doing the show in New York, we convinced them to hire a head writer to handle the studio audience. We needed someone with late night TV experience. We got to hire our friend who we love, Jon Glaser.

Yeah, Glaser’s amazing.

He is so funny and talented. He added so much to the show. But we convinced them to get rid of the audience by compiling all the negative emails and feedback we got from our fans and we made a huge push to eliminate the studio audience after only six episodes. Which, out of 77, is not a ton. So it felt more like a blip than anything else. But we never told them to get rid of Glaser.

We ended up keeping Glaser after that, and he would serve as a head writer even though what we did, when we would come to New York. We’d pitch him all the new stuff. And he’d help us rework that and make it right and make it the best possible thing for the studio stuff. For Seasons Two, Three, and Four, we had Glaser on board, which was awesome. He would play characters like Beamy, the alcoholic beam on the wall. He did so many great things on the show. The Score Settler. All these great characters. We’d have this incredible sketch player, amazing writer in our arsenal which I think made the show so much better.

I have to give you credit for actually making sports humor funny. The majority of sports humor I see is, like, athletes in a chorus line or Terry Bradshaw in a wig. And since so much of the show is centered around sports humor, was there worry about not connecting with your fans who weren’t into sports? Or that your natural style wouldn’t connect with sports fans?

Yes, there was. However, what we said was, when we started the show, we set out to make the kind of show that people would say “I love Cheap Seats. I also love The Daily Show. I also love Late Night with Conan O’Brien. And I also love Arrested Development. And I also love 30 Rock.” We didn’t set out to make a show where people would say “I love this show. And I love SportsCenter and Pardon the Interruption.” I mean, those are great shows, but you’re right. A lot of time in sports, when they try to connect humor to sports, it is very basic, broad, and in our opinion, unfunny. A sort of hackneyed territory. Our attitude was like, let’s try to do a different type of sports show. Let’s do a show where comedy is the goal. Where it is, first and foremost, a comedy show. Sports is the backdrop. So you’re never beholden to the sport when it comes to writing the joke. The jokes are more important than the sporting event, the people, the history, everything. The joke is the most important thing in the show. So if you start from that premise — that this is a comedy show first — you can create a sports comedy show that has a specific comedic point of view, which comes from where we do stand up. By the time we started that show, we’d been doing stand up for over 10, 12 years. And now it’s been 17 years.

And we came up in the alternative comedy movement, and we were fans of things like Mr. Show, Arrested Development, The Larry Sanders Show, and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. Yes, Seinfeld. And yes, Letterman. We were fans of shows that surprised you, that came at you from an angle that you didn’t expect. And so from our perspective, we wanted to make comedy that was specific, that true comedy fans would love. Our goal, secretly, was that we wanted non-sports fans to watch the show. Even if they didn’t get the references, they’d still love the show.

You know, I can’t tell you how many people have told us, “Cheap Seats was my entry into the sports world.” Their spouse, their boyfriend, or their girlfriend in some cases, was a huge sports fan. And they hated sports. But they got them to watch our show, and since we laugh at sports and not take it too seriously, that was their entry in. And they’d bond and connect.

And that’s another reason why you do comedy. You do comedy so people can connect and unite around an idea and laugh at it. That was our goal. And who cares what kind of channel anything’s on anymore. I mean, do you really set your TV to BBC America to catch The Office? Cheap Seats shows up next to anything you have on your TiVo or DVR. So we were super-cognizant of the comedy we wanted to create. And that’s another problem with a lot of sports shows. The comedy isn’t coming from a specific point of view. We spent years developing our comedic voice, and we applied that voice to sports. Yes, we happen to love sports. Yes, we happen to know a lot about sports. And the subject matter is very specific to sports. And you will miss some references. But I have to admit, I watched Ricky Gervais’ Extras and they’d be at the BAFTA Awards. They’d make three jokes about shows in England that I don’t know, but I know the joke is funny. I don’t know who the guy is that they’re making fun of, but it doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t make me not like the show.

So if we make a joke about Gorman Thomas’ “Stormin’ Gorman’s Storm Doors,” you don’t need to know who that is. You can conceptualize that a former baseball player has to have a storm door company. That’s funny. Now if you remember who he is, kind of a portly guy who played center field for the Milwaukee Brewers, then you like it even more.

Getting back to Mystery Science Theater, how did you hook up with them for their appearance on the show? Who contacted who?

We were asked to participate in Sketchfest in San Francisco, maybe nine years ago. We moderated a symposium with the Mystery Science Theater guys at Cobb’s Comedy Club. We actually had Cheap Seats in the works, but it wasn’t on the air yet. So when were backstage with them, and they knew who we were from the Minneapolis comedy scene. And we said, “We’re in the process of creating a show for ESPN Classic which has some of the basic tenets of your show, namely running commentary over bad television. In this case, bad sports. And we’re concerned that people will see it as a ripoff of what you guys do. We just want you to know that it’s not that at all. It’s a tribute to you. We’re huge fans of what you guys have done. And I don’t think what we do will even come close to what you guys do. It’ll be different. But we know what you do, we respect it, and we’ll try to honor it with what we do.”

And there attitude was, “Uh, there was a film called What’s Up, Tiger Lily? by Woody Allen, so it won’t be a problem.” They said, “We like you guys. We trust that you’ll do a great show. And we’ll watch it and we’ll like it. And we’ll be on it if you want us to.”

And we’re like, “Seriously? You’ll guys will come on it?” And they said, “Yes.”

So we said, “OK. That would be a tremendous moment to have you guys on our show, commenting on us commenting on sports. It’ll be like an M.C. Escher painting. It’d be ridiculous. An M.C. Escher painting of comedy.”

So from our perspective, when they kinda felt on board with what we were doing, at least on some level, they were willing to endorse it, we’ll definitely take advantage of that. And at the same time, that meant the world to us. That we could move forward and just not worry about that. Because we were a little concerned at the beginning. Their shows were genius. A very specific difference with a bad movie versus a bad sporting event. In a bad movie, every single choice people make is an editorial decision. Language, characters interacting, visually everything is a choice. With sports, in some cases, yes. There are a lot of choices being made. In a sport like “Superdogs! Superjocks!” there’s a lot of comedy to be mined in every moment. But then we did baseball, and we did football, some major sports where the sport itself was not inherently funny. There wasn’t a lot in the actual setup. We had to find moments and then exploit those. It was just a different ball game for us.

And that’s why I feel like our Spelling Bee episodes were probably the best ones we did, or at least the most popular ones we did, because it was often a conversation between the kid and the pronouncer. Or the child and himself or herself. And then we could enter the conversation and “communicate” with them through jokes — as well as the audience through observations of what was happening. It just gives you an extra thing to comment on and make jokes about. I feel like that’s why those episodes were so successful. They were the closest to Mystery Science Theater.

Did you ever come into contact with [breakout star of the Spelling Bee episodes] Rebecca Sealfon?

No. But the guy who spelled “doyen” wrong, the guy who tried to pull the French pronunciation and walked away after he thought he nailed it, he actually nailed the correct spelling the word. But he nailed the feminine spelling. It was such a technicality that the guy got out on. It was a disaster.

Wait, he actually spelled one of the forms right?

Yes, he did spell it right. But had he asked for it in a sentence, they would’ve specified that they were looking for the masculine form instead of the feminine. But because he was so cocky, he thought he knew what it was.

Oh my God.

That is such BS. For the rest of my life, I’d be talking trash about Scripps Howard if I were that kid. But he’s a great kid. Really funny. He sent us a picture of him in a Star Wars outfit. I loved him. Phenomenal guy. And he had a great sense of humor about everything. I do think we took Rebecca Sealfon to task, and I don’t think she’d be psyched to meet us. [Laughs] Who knows? I feel bad for her, but she went to Princeton. I’m sure she’s doing great right now. I wish her the best.

Honestly, our attitude with Cheap Seats, and this is also why I think the show was successful for a long time, is because Randy and I aren’t mean people. And often, we don’t like mean humor. It’s not what we do. Our attitude was, unless the person was a douchebag, we’d make fun of people’s decisions and not people.

Didn’t you meet comedian Michael Floorwax?

We did get in touch with Michael Floorwax, who handled it beautifully. Michael Floorwax, rising comedian from the [Steve] Garvey specials, probably the most beloved and laughable characters from the entire experience. He was great. He’s a morning time DJ, has probably the most popular morning time radio show in Denver. He helped promote a new season of the show. And you know what he did which was brilliant? And this is why I forever love this guy. He invited us on his radio show after we trashed him on our show. And he laughed it off in front of his fans. I mean, we were on his radio show. He could’ve easily gone after us and had the support of his Denver audience. They’re like the most popular morning drive-time DJ team, Lewis and Floorwax. He could’ve trashed us, and we would’ve had it coming to us. We would’ve had to sit there and eat it. But instead, he treated it like we were old buddies busting each others’ chops. And as a result, I just love the guy.

Since then, we’ve become friends. You know, professional friends. We did a “Comedians of Chelsea Lately” show in Denver and they needed a bunch of tickets sold. And when we got into town, we went on the Lewis and Floorwax Show. They let us come on the show and stay the full three hours. He promoted us up and down. He said, “You gotta see these guys.” And we ended up filling the place we went to. And I think it was due to the fact that he was so supportive of what we did and made us feel like we were in the family of his show. I just respect that. He let it all hang out on the Garvey specials. His mullet and everything. And we busted his chops. But in the end, he was a great sport about it. I just hope that everyone out there who we poked fun of on the show, I hope they’re good sports about it, too. And can laugh about it and say, “Man, I was ridiculous. That whole experience, that time in my life, was ridiculous. That show was absurd. I’m glad someone found humor in it.”

You never heard any negative feedback from someone featured on the show?

No one. No one so far. Either they don’t care or haven’t really seen the show. I mean, there’s a big possibility that they haven’t seen it. The show was not watched by 40 million people. I’m guessing they never saw it.

In its initial run, the show aired from 2004 to 2006. That was a time that was pre-Facebook — on a big scale, at least — and pre-Twitter. And a little bit DVR. A lot of people had it, but it wasn’t like standard on everyone’s cable like it is now. And I think because of that, word couldn’t spread quickly to people. So to our benefit, it shielded some people who got housed by us. But that was to the detriment of the show. It was the kind of show that really strong word of mouth and viral social networking could’ve really spread the word about a show like ours and helped it grow.

Which leads me to my last question: Do you know when the DVDs are coming?

Here’s the deal with the DVDs. ESPN is a giant company and our show is probably at the bottom of their list of importance. However, while it didn’t have a ton of viewers, I do believe an extremely high percentage of our viewers would purchase the DVDs. We get emails, Twitter messages, Facebook messages. We get asked whenever we perform live. We get a ton of people asking about the DVDs. For years, we tried to talk to ESPN to get a DVD situation going, and it’s really hard when we’re out there trying to advocate for ourselves. People have other things to do.

It’s also a tough show to put onto DVD because you have to get a lot of rights and clearances. You gotta clear these old shows and say to these people, “We busted the hell out of your show. We made fun of your production, and we made fun of you. Now let us profit off that.” Unfortunately, not everyone is cool with that. But they don’t realize that when you put something out and puts their show on the air, it’s further promotion for them and whatever they do. And chances are, without our show, no one would want to watch what you did from years ago anyway. But people don’t get that. They have inflated egos and pride, and you have to deal with that.

So in addition to us not being a high-priority show on ESPN, the job to create the DVD is a giant mess. They have to clear a lot of things. We always offered to do all of that work. They started doing some of that and clearing some things for a “Best Of: Volume One,” which is really great. But then people get busy and other things come up.

We’re very lucky, we have on our side Stan Brooks, who has produced a lot of great films like A Season on the Brink with Brian Dennehy. Won an Emmy for Broken Trail with Robert Duvall. He has experience with ESPN in terms of creating a DVD and getting the rights to sell it to a distributor and whatnot. Because I think that’s what was lacking. We were lacking someone with the experience and the contacts to make the job easier for ESPN. Obviously, we care about it and we want to make money from the DVD, but more important than that, we’d love to get the DVDs out there for our fans. To deliver something that could be really special and funny.

We also want to add new material and create really fantastic DVDs. We’d love for the DVD to come out and people say, “This is the best DVD set out there.” We want Entertainment Weekly to be like, “This is the DVD you should get.” We want to add so many great extras which we already have. We want to shoot new stuff. We still have contact with all these comedians and everyone who participated in it. We have a lot of great ideas. So we’re in the process with Stan Brooks to try get episodes cleared and compile a list for a “Best Of: Volume One.” And our goal is to get something out by the holidays this year, as well as produce new extras and put those in and have this killer “Best of Cheap Seats: Volume One.” My guess, I’m gonna be optimistic, and feeling the love from our fans for a while, and say it will sell well if they’re able to get it out in time. And that will be an inspiration to do Volume Two, Volume Three, Volume Four, and possibly do a grand set.

That would be incredible. I can only imagine the extras that are available with Glaser and Eugene Mirman and Jon Benjamin.

Yeah, all those things that we shot with individual comedians came in at like four to five minutes. So we had to cut them down to two and half or three. So there are extras in every single shoot that we did. There’s extra footage in each episode when we cut those down. There’s tons of that. We have the pilot we shot in DC. We’ll do interviews and commentary, and what we want to do is go back into the earlier shows where there was a little bit more time in between the jokes, since we were just learning how to do it, and we want to put in new jokes. More timely jokes, more topical jokes. So that people who were familiar with the old shows will be able to hear new commentary. Hear the old jokes mixed in with the new jokes. That’d be fantastic.

Mike Schuster has somehow molded a lifelong proclivity of crackin’ wise into a steady paycheck. He is a staff writer for Minyanville.com and a survivor of chronic petulance.

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