Heard the one about the sportswriter with the thin skin? Tony Kornheiser ring a bell? Last week, in the process of coaxing emeritus humorist Norman Chad into an interview, we took a swipe at columnist/Letterman writer/actor Bill Scheft. He emailed us, begging mercy, and we told him we’d momentarily take the knife away from his throat only if he would give us an interview.
Little did we know the former Sports Illustrated columnist would be so long-winded. Print this sucker out, and take it to the park and read it over lunch, because Scheft opens up about everything from his days at Harvard, to SI poaching him from ESPN; like any good self-promoter, he shills for himself, his wife, and his upcoming movie. We were tempted to edit this bad-boy down, but as we told Scheft in an email, we laughed harder than we thought we would.
Q: You had an enviable gig at SI, penning a once-a-week jokefest. Tell us how you landed the gig, and what your typical week was like.
Let me just tear myself away from preparing for my annual rotisserie porn draft and answer that…. Okay, seven years ago, I was minding my own business at Letterman when Steve Wulf of ESPN Magazine called. He had read a chuckle-stuffed, semi-snarky piece I’d written on Bill Parcells for the Sunday Times and wanted to know if I was interested in replacing Tony Kornheiser, who was leaving The Magazine to become the Industry Known as Tony Kornheiser. I had started as a sportswriter (two years in Albany, which if you’ve been there, you know is not some of God’s best work) 20 years before and had long abandoned such dreams of having my own column. Apparently, too soon. I suggested running the thing like a monologue — topical, inside jokes on sports. And just jokes. No opinions. Just jokes. We called it “The Monologue” (I’m quick that way), and it ran for two and a half years before Sports Illustrated hired me away in July 2002 to do essentially the same column. The chance to write every week for the magazine I grew up with, and on my own terms, was like Theo Epstein throwing me a glove and asking if I wouldn’t mind playing center field for a while.
So, we changed the name to “The Show” and I had a nice three-year run. Loved it as I loved few things. I won’t lie to you. I was surprised when they didn’t renew my contract a year ago. I was the second most read writer in the book (after Rick Reilly) and far and away the most picked up by other outlets. I know I was loved and loathed, and yeah, envied, but when you write a highly visible column and take your shots, you wear a giant sign that reads “Kick Me.”
My typical week? Up every morning at 7, coffee and six Vicodin, then I would hit my knees and pray Mike Tyson or Mark Cuban did something stupid. I tried to write 50 jokes a week, cut to 35, ship those, and with my editor, Kostya Kennedy, cut and shape to the final 20. I know what you’re thinking: “You mean those were his BEST 20 jokes of the week? Yeesh…” I was always trying to come up with the take no one else would find. When Kostya wanted to cut a joke, he would simply say, “This is something the funny guy at the Milwaukee paper would come up with,” and it was gone. The whole process — reading, writing, polishing, editing, watching games I would normally have nothing to do with, refilling my Vicodin — took almost 30 hours a week.
Q: Among sportswriters, bloggers, and online columnists whom do you read? And whom can’t you stand? Don’t worry, nobody reads this blog.
At SI, Reilly, Tim Layden, Gary Smith. At ESPN, Tom Friend. In NY, Mike Lupica, Dave Anderson, Jack Curry, Phil Mushnick, Anthony McCarron. On the Boston Globe web page, any Red Sox/Patriots coverage, especially Reiss’ Pieces (I grew up in Boston, went to Harvard, majored in Latin, you figure it out…). On the Herald web page, Michael Felge. On the web at large, Sports Business Daily, Deadspin and you boys. Guys I don’t like — anyone who makes themselves the story, or belittles my Scientology peeps.
Q: Are you still boys with David Letterman? And have you heard Evil Dave on the Howard Stern show? That’s funny shit.
Here’s how old I am. I was not familiar with that expression, “boys with.” Where did you get that, from Turtle? I am back at the Letterman show after a two-year hiatus where I finished and sold my second novel (TIME WON’T LET ME) and worked on other projects not nearly as interesting or self-congratulatory.
I’ve been with Dave since 1991. He’s been a great boss and a better friend. He was a giant help when I started to freak about the, ahem, mail I got at SI. I asked him: “Why do they take this so seriously? They’re just jokes.”
And he said, in essence, look, I come out every night, I say some things, sometimes I piss people off, but mostly the jokes disappear into the air and I come back out the next night. When you put a joke in print, it seems permanent and, for some reason carries much more weight. That helped me immensely. Even though I prided myself on the fact the column had no opinions, it had 20 different points of view. Twenty chances to laugh, and twenty chances to get pissed off. And if it was lying by your toilet for a week and you live in Oakland, chances are by the fifth reading you might get a tad cheesed by a line like “Sebastian Janikowski was arrested for DUI. Typical drunken Raider — He was blacked out locally.” By the way, do you remember Tad Cheesed? Sinker/slider/straight change set-up guy with the 1978 Mariners?
And sorry, although I have heard of him, I have not actually sampled “Evil Dave” on the Stern Show because, sadly, I rent my cars from Avis, not Hertz. I hear he’s up for a Peabody Award.
Q: While we’re talking about Stern … you’re in the upcoming Beer League, starring Artie Lange. How funny is movie, and how big is your part?
If I’d know you were going to ask about my film, I would have brought a clip. I play the umpire in the championship softball game, so, like I have to tell you, it’s a crucial role. I have three lines: “Play ball!” “Take your base!” and “Yer out!” I had four, but they cut, “Does this look infected?”
I got the gig because the movie was co-written and directed by my friend and fellow Letterman colleague Frank Sebastiano. I had never met Artie, but we got along great. I was a stand-up for 13 years, so we know all the same people.
Three weeks ago, I went to a screening with my wife. I was v-nervous. I thought, “What have I gotten myself into? Is this going to be 20 minutes of softball and an hour of guys lighting farts?” And believe me, if it sucked, I would have said “Next question” or bent over and looked for some matches. But man, was it funny. Big time funny. Many, many laugh out loud moments and well written jokes throughout. Seriously. I had to sit through “You Me and Dupree” last month and the only time I laughed was last week, when I found out Kate Hudson had actually left her husband because of Owen Wilson. Or Luke Wilson. Or Joseph Wilson. One of them.
Q: What got you laid more – your SI gig, or bit parts on TV shows/movies? And has the line, ‘I write for Letterman’ ever gotten you laid?
You’re confusing me with someone who that might have happened to, like Rupert Jee. Don’t kid yourself. Rupert does very well. Let a playa play. Seriously, he makes Colin Farrell look like the fat guy on “Lost.”
And besides, didn’t you hear me mention my wife in answer to the “Beer League” question? (BTW, my wife, the hilarious comedian Adrianne Tolsch, gave me one of the hippest lines in the history of The Show: “If Andruw Jones was any more shallow, he’d be dating models.”
Q: Hot women with no journalistic background like see Jenn Sterger and Brigid Mullen are getting bylines on SI.com. Your thoughts, please?
I’m sorry, I was too busy downloading naked pics of Claire Booth Luce. What was the question again?