The critic who became the critiqued

Published November 12, 2006

Fat. Bald. Middle-aged. Ugly. Those are words Tony Kornheiser uses to describe himself. Insightful. Funny. Articulate. Talented. Those are words everyone else uses to describe him. The 58-year-old native of Lynbrook, N.Y., is one of America's best sports columnists, but his popularity soared when he made the jump to radio and television. These days, Kornheiser can be seen most weekdays alongside Washington Post colleague Michael Wilbon on ESPN's wildly popular Pardon the Interruption, a half-hour program during which the two put their spin on the sports topics of the day. That gig, five years running and going strong, led to Monday Night Football tapping Kornheiser to join Mike Tirico and Joe Theismann in the booth. On Monday, Kornheiser will call the Bucs-Panthers game. On Friday, Kornheiser talked about the switch in his career and other topics with Times staff writer Tom Jones.

When you started Pardon the Interruption, did you have any idea that it would become as popular as it has?

No. I thought we would be canceled in four weeks. We had a pretty good deal: two years with an option for a third. I figured when we got canceled in four weeks, I'd get paid for 23 months and I'd be a pretty happy guy. No way did I think two hideous-looking sports writers would find a popular audience.

So why does it work?

The magic in it is a fat, balding white guy and a fat, bald black guy yelling at one another, and we have a brilliant producer who put together a show that others are ripping off all over the country and he hasn't seen a dime or gotten any credit for it. It works, and there was a magazine article about PTI that was the best writing I've ever seen on describing it. ... It's like an old married couple that fights but still loves and likes one another. We yell at each other, but at the end of the day, we go off together. So you like them.

It's obvious you and Michael Wilbon like and respect one another. Could it work if you didn't?

I have no idea. I haven't known any other way. ... The thing is, we've done that show in the hallways (of the Post) for 25 years. Now we just do it in front of cameras. I guess it just proves that you don't have to be the best-looking poodle in the litter to be popular.

How much preparation goes into it? Or are you saying things right off the cuff?

We do it at 4 o'clock. I usually get in around 1. Mike comes in a little after me. So about three hours, more or less.

Your move to Monday Night Football was somewhat controversial - a sports writer going into the booth - and you've been criticized in some corners. You've spent most of your life as a columnist, which is really a critic. How does it feel to be on the other end?

What's fair is fair. You put your work out there and the public is entitled to criticize. Look, certainly, I really like the praise and really dislike the criticism. But people are going to say what they will. Why should I be any different?

Some fans with blogs and those who post on Web sites also have been critical. Has it changed the way you view fans - the people you are talking to, the people you are writing for?

No, it hasn't. They are the reason I have done what I have done and can place my kids in private school. I came along at the right time. Interest in sports exploded and consequently, sports television networks have exploded and I got the chance to go to radio, television and give my opinions. And I understand the fans. If I say, "Your team is bad," fans are going to get mad at you, they're going to dislike you. I would feel the same. I used to feel the same because I was a fan, too. But I can't care what fans think.

Do you feel pressure to carry the torch for sports writers because you are a pioneer when it comes to sports writers making the jump to broadcasting?

Well that's a different matter all together. Yes, I do feel it's important to do a good job. I won't say I'm a pioneer because that's too pious of a word. But I will say that I hope I do well enough that if there is another opening in a national booth or some talk-radio station that instead of it automatically being passed from one ex-jock to another ex-jock that someone out there will consider a sports writer. And really, when you think about it, what's the difference between a 45-year-old sports writer and a 45-year-old jock who doesn't play anymore? ... I can tell you who I think would be more articulate.

Are you enjoying all of it?

Of course, what's not to enjoy? What's amusing to me is that this late in life, I'm getting the chance to do something like this. I'll watch a game on Sunday and listen to the people in the booth and I giggle knowing I'm going to get to do the same thing tomorrow night.

Do you ever watch a tape of the broadcast?


Ever watch Pardon the Interruption?


Do you ever read your column in the paper?

Actually, yes. I do read the column. Because that is my obsession. It's what I've been trained to do. It's what I've done my whole life. I do read it to see if I could have described something better, or used the right word here or the right word there. That is my craft. I'm more proud of my writing than anything I've ever done on radio or television. You got me on that one. I do read what I write.

With all your TV work, you hardly write anymore. If it's your obsession, don't you miss it?

Well, what I'm doing now is exciting and fun. Plus, I often wonder if I've run out of words to write. Sometimes I think I have. I'm a yodeler now. I'm not a writer. I'm just a yodeler.

Let's talk some Tampa Bay sports. What do you think of Jon Gruden?

I don't know him. All I know is what I've seen on TV. He seems to be very animated. Seems like he has a good sense of humor and he seems confident, that he expects to be very successful at what he does. That makes sense, considering he has had great success at such a young age. But I don't really know him. I'm looking forward to sitting down with him for this game.

Speaking of age, what about Bobby Bowden? Should he be fired or coach as long as he wants?

As long as he wants. For all he has done, Florida State should buy him a car just to drive him from his car in the parking lot to his office and from the office to the practice field. He should stay as long as he wants. Joe Paterno, too.

Chuck LaMar, the former Devil Rays GM, is coming up to work for the team in your area, the Nationals. What do you think of the Devil Rays?

Given the team we have been stuck with in Washington, I don't think I have too much negative to say about the Devil Rays.

What do you think of Tampa Bay as a sports market?

Tampa Bay is a part of the last wave of sports expansion, alongside Miami and Phoenix and, in some ways, Atlanta. You've got three of the four major sports so that puts you in elite company. But I've always seen these newer sports cities, especially in Florida, as bad sports cities, by and large. Their teams are not really supported. There isn't an enthusiastic fan base. At least that's the way it has seemed.