What do Bert and Ernie, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, and Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon have in common? They all remind us of our youthful sides, of how opposites can banter on and on, of what two friends passionate about working together can accomplish. That, and the reminder that a skinny and a round Muppet have helped define our ideas about unique friendships for more that forty years.
About a dozen or more years ago, someone finally did an article that drew interesting parallels between Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street and the late Siskel and Ebert of Siskel & Ebert and The Movies/At The Movies. It helped that Bert and Siskel were skinny, Ernie round, and Ebert rounder. Although Bert was a skinny banana with slightly more hair on his head than Siskel, and Ernie’s body type was built on a really round orange, there were a number of similarities. Bert was the more intellectual one, Ernie the more laid back and fun-loving. Ernie would come up with insane ideas that Bert would shoot down. And then, of course, Ernie would get distracted by his rubber ducky. Siskel, with his generally more critical and conservative takes on films, would balance the slightly overreaching Ebert, who occasionally exhibited the same appreciation for comedies and other zany films as he did for epic dramas of cinematic significance. It was a great combination, cut all too short with Siskel’s death in ’99.
About the only thing on TV that’s replaced the Bert and Ernie parallel in the past half decade or so has been ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption. I had already known about Wilbon, as I’d been reading his reports and columns since the early ’90s. Kornheiser’s stuff, not so much, although I remembered liking his Washington Post columns in the Style section. But PTI wasn’t the first time I’d seen them work together. It was on another ESPN show, The Sports Reporters, where I watched the two of them duke it out with Pope Lupica on a number of occasions. Anyone willing to stand toe-to-toe with that piece of work is pretty good in my book. Remembering all of this was how I came to watch PTI in the second half of the ’00.
As I watched, I recognized how much Wilbon and Kornheiser reminded me of Siskel and Ebert — and by extension, Ernie and Bert. Wilbon brought a sense of the laid back, of charisma and hipness to the table. But unlike Ernie and Ebert, no rubber duckies or falling in love with movies that are so bad that they’re good to watch. Just good critiques, something through the lens of race and class, of sports and related issues in society, although too many comments on the supposed beauty of flat-butt blonds to my taste.
Interestingly, Kornheiser is the more unhinged between the two of the them. Although the slightly more thoughtful of the two — which, by the way, provides the appearance of being more intellectual — in many of his comments about the sporting world, Kornheiser often has to be talked down from his emotional high chair by Wilbon. Maybe that’s a sign of a New York or Long Island upbringing, maybe not. Still, the two of them provide an entertainment that’s rare on TV and even rarer for sports.
Why rare? Because it isn’t fake or planned. It’s spontaneous, it’s completely caught up in the moment, like kids opening up Christmas presents, like, of course, Bert and Ernie, Ernie and Bert. We need more Wilbons and Kornheisers in the media world, not set up to disagree, to juxtapose, to manipulate the biases and passions of the simple-minded folk of our world. No, Wilbon and Kornheiser, Kornheiser and Wilbon provide an education in the art of entertainment as two friends attempting to help us understand a world that many of us can only glimpse. Like Bert and Ernie, they provide the sharp-tongue wit of adults with child-like enthusiasm, tantrums included. For someone who occasionally needs the dessert that entertainment and sports can provide, Wilbon and Kornheiser — my current Ernie and Bert — are my creme brulee many a day.