Monday, March 10, 2008

Woody Paige Interview, Part II

While going through my archives, I found an unpublished gem: in October 2004, I interviewed Woody Paige for an article about Larry Miller, holder of the ABA' s single-game scoring record (that article was eventually published in the July 29, 2005 issue of Sports Collectors Digest; you can read a reprint of it here). Paige has spent a lot of time--and made a lot of money--convincing people that he is some kind of buffoon but his real personality is nothing at all like the character he plays on ESPN. I've never met Paige in person and I had never been in contact with him prior to this interview but he spent the better part of an hour talking to me about a wide range of subjects in addition to sharing his memories of Miller's record-setting game, which Paige covered as a young beat writer. You can read Part I of the interview here.

One of the most interesting things that I found out from Paige is how ambivalent he feels about the work that he does on television. His comments in this regard provide some interesting insight about the differences between being a writer and being a "personality." Long before Paige began appearing on TV, he wrote for several different newspapers and sports magazines, including Sport, which was arguably the best sports magazine in the country when Dick Schaap was its editor in the 1970s:

Paige: "I was a contributing editor at Sport for a couple of years. When I was a kid it was actually a more meaningful magazine than Sports Illustrated. I always wanted to write for Sport and I did it for a couple of years. A guy by the name of Roger Director was the managing editor. He has gone on to be the producer of a number of TV shows."

Friedman: "Didn't he do Moonlighting?"

Paige: "Moonlighting, yeah."

Friedman: "I remember that. Actually, I used to watch Moonlighting and then later on I got some old issues of Sport and I saw the name and I was wondering, 'Is this the same guy?'"

Paige: "Yeah. I did some work with him on Moonlighting. He had been fired by Sport and I made some calls for him and got him some interviews. He ended up in LA writing for a show called Bay City Blues, which was a spinoff from Hill Street Blues. It was about a minor league baseball team, before that became popular. It sort of died quickly and Bochco started Moonlighting and said, 'While you are out here, Roger, write for this.' That's how that all developed, because Roger was just a sports guy."

Friedman: "I saw this thing that Skip Bayless wrote on where he talked about the interchange that you and he have on Cold Pizza and how early (in the day) that starts and what all is involved in that and how it is a little bit of a different approach for him from being a newspaper guy and book writer and then being on TV. He talked about how when he writes something he composes it and gets all his points in but when he is interacting with you he is never sure if he is going to get in everything he wants to say. It's kind of interesting."

Paige: "Yeah. He doesn't (get in all his points). I think that frustrates him except I would say this--and he understands this--if he got in everything that he wants to say, nobody would watch it. People would get bored because he would have to say 30 minutes worth of stuff. It kind of works out well. At first I was trying to compete with him, but the guy does incredible research and is very passionate about it. Well, I'm not passionate about it at all. He does that stuff and I kind of listen. He never agrees with me. This morning I said, 'You know, you're absolutely right. I don't have anything to add to that. Why would I pile on top of that? That was great.' When he does that stuff, (sometimes) I'm like, 'OK, calm down.' This morning I threw a muppet puppet at him and spilled coffee on him or something. It's interesting. I guess it's like a minor league version of what Kornheiser and Wilbon do. It's a different time and a different part of ESPN and a different kind of show. It's all a different world (from writing) and I don't know if there will ever be the same kind of self-satisfaction in that. I told a friend of mine today that television is an entirely different animal. You'll write a story and you'll go, 'God, I nailed that lead' or 'I really thought that I researched Larry Miller and I know that and I did as well as I could.' Every morning when I get through with Cold Pizza I go, 'Well, I killed another two hours off.' I don't mean that in a bad way."

Friedman: "No, I understand."

Paige: "It's entertaining and informative but it doesn't have the same feeling--and it goes away. It goes away very quickly. At least, you can look a couple days later at your column or your freelance piece or whatever it might be. And at Around the Horn I've kind of become the resident goof on ESPN. That was a problem for me for a while, but today I talked to somebody who is in the hierarchy and that's whatever--well, I did my writing for a long time. I was a beat writer for a long time. People who I work with don't know that I actually covered beats for a long time. I guess they just assume that I came out of the womb writing columns. I did that (beat writing) and I wrote columns. I am doing this because it is another interesting challenge in my life."

Friedman: "Sure."

Paige: "I just think that whatever you are doing in life and what other people are doing, if you just don't try something different--I told somebody at ESPN that this is more important to Skip than it is to me. And I've known him since we were kids. He wants to make his mark on TV. I wanted to see if I could make this work. I don't know if this makes sense to you or not."

Friedman: "No, it does. It absolutely does. He wants to transition from writing to broadcasting. "

Paige: "I guess I'm trying to figure out, more than anything, why do they care if I am on TV? I'm at the end of my career and this is an interesting way for me to see if there is something interesting out there. I don't have to go, 'Wow, I'm now Dick Vitale,' or whoever it might be. I just want to see if there is a way that I can make this all work. Then I can go off and write books or--"

Friedman: "I get it. I understand. It's funny, a lot of times my Mom will watch Around the Horn and they will mute you or you are doing certain things and she will say, 'Why don't they let him talk? He must be so mad' and I say, 'Mom, that's the shtick. That's the way the show works. That's what he signed on for.' That's what you are doing. Like you said that you are the resident goof--that is a role that you are playing."

Paige: "Yeah, this is kind of funny-- I said to a guy today that Burt Reynolds, who does a show on ESPN Classic, said to a Vice President at ESPN, 'Is that guy really as goofy as he seems?' He said, 'What guy?' Reynolds said, 'The guy who is on everyday.' Jason Myers, who is a vice president at ESPN, said, 'Are you talking about Woody Paige? We don't know whether his personality in real life is him or that is really him. We're trying to figure out who is the real Woody Paige.' So I guess the good point is no one really knows whether I am a soft spoken, introspective person or if I am the goof that I play on TV. I create a character. Vitale is not the guy he (acts like on TV)--I don't want to make a comparison because I'm certainly not (as famous). Eighteen year old kids love us both--I don't know what that says about 18 year old kids. I'm doing Dan Reeves and nobody really ever got that. I am doing Dan Reeves and Don Meredith. My writing was an amalgamation of Kurt Vonnegut and Dan Jenkins and some Jim Murray thrown all together. I was trying to figure out how to do this character and Dan Reeves used to do this southern 'You guys' kind of thing--"

Friedman: '''Why do I have to straighten you guys out?'"

Paige: "Yeah. That's a line that Dan Reeves used to say. Dan and I talked about it. I saw him this summer and I said, 'You know, that's the line.' It was a line stolen from Dan Reeves. The guy who does 'Let's get ready to rumble' stole that line from Muhammad Ali and makes $10,000 every time he utters it."

Friedman: "Michael Buffer."

Paige: "Yeah. Dan and I talked about it. He used to say to me, 'Why do I always have to straighten you guys out?' It's a direct steal from him. There's a little Vitale and there's a little Don Meredith, a guy who doesn't seem to really care a lot. You put that all together...Before we go on the air we get a packet of research material and I'll tell my guild assistant, 'You know, I'm only four victories behind Mariotti.' I'm talking to my assistant but I know that Mariotti is listening to me. He'll go, 'No, I have 12 more wins than you do.' Well, I don't even know and don't care and everything else, but Mariotti knows exactly how many times he's been on the show and how many times he's won. Well, that's the character he plays--the character he plays is him."

Friedman: "It's very easy to needle him about it because he is taking it very seriously."

Paige: "Yeah, the guy who is the executive producer said that (Mariotti) is like a human pinata for me. That's really the truth. I can just bang on him and bang on him and bang on him and he doesn't quite get it. You create a character and that's the interesting thing. I was a columnist for whatever (many years) and I thought that I was a good writer and I think that I am still a good writer but I didn't make a national mark--I did as an ABA writer. I think at least as a TV guy that I have created something that is interesting to me. So Skip and I are kind of enjoying this--we'd enjoy this a lot more if we got to sleep. If we got more sleep this would be fun. He kind of needs me to temper his incredible heat and passion, which surprised me. (There are) two things in his life--working out and sports. He said this morning that he had watched every Oklahoma game. Well, I believe that. The thing about me is I've watched maybe two minutes of Oklahoma this year. So we come from totally different perspectives."

Friedman: "Right. He's so passionate and fired up and has got all his ducks in a row of what he wants to say and you are shooting from the hip."

Paige: "Yeah. That's the thing about it. I told him that I tend to work without a net. He does hours of research. I do maybe six minutes (laughs). I go in there and at the end of the program today they say, 'What's your extra point?' I say, 'I don't know. I'll figure it out.' I don't get timed. I do four sentences. He can have my time, because I can make my point in five seconds."

Friedman: "I really appreciate the time you've taken. I appreciate the insights that you have given me into the business and your experiences. I do enjoy watching you on TV. My Mom watches and she's not a sports fan. She always says that they should give Woody more time. She loves hearing whatever you have to say."

Paige: "I really appreciate that and she's absolutely right."

Friedman: "I'll tell her you said so."

Paige: "Great."

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