- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 30, 2003

You have to hand it to ESPN. With “Cold Pizza”, the folks responsible for Brian Dennehy-as-Bob Knight have created a morning show that handily trumps whatever breakfast drivel CBS is serving up these days, to say nothing of Magic Johnson’s ill-advised foray into late-night talk.

Also, it doesn’t star Regis.

And just to be clear: Yep, that’s damning with faint praise.

The best thing about “Cold Pizza” is that it will never inspire a Kelly Ripa sitcom. The second best aspect of the show — which airs weekday mornings on ESPN2 — is probably the program’s title, the sort of easily mocked moniker that gives smarmy television critics a reason to get out of bed in the morning (and you thought it was the incredible shrinking Al Roker). Consider the fish-in-a-barrel possibilities:

“In the manner of a stale pie topped with moldy cheese, ‘Cold Pizza’ is hard to stomach …”

“Fittingly, this ‘Pizza’ also tastes like wet cardboard …”

“‘Pizza’ is the perfect complement to your morning cup o’ joe — assuming that said coffee is spiked with hemlock …”

Cheap shots aside, “Cold Pizza” is aptly named. Calling itself “the morning show with everything,” the program features a messy melange of sports, news, interviews, human interest stories and viewer service pieces — the last dominated by thinly veiled product placement. (“Check out the NBA’s newest jerseys! Now conveniently available in stores everywhere!”)

“This will be different than anything anyone has seen in the morning,” co-host Jay Crawford told The Washington Times recently. “If you’re trying to just see a sports show because it’s ESPN, you’ve got the wrong idea. Sports is absolutely part of it, but we all have other interests.”

Therein, however, lies one of the program’s main shortcomings: Other interests make the show a bit schizo, as jarring as, well, a half-veggie, half-sausage pie strewn with mayonnaise and eel. Pre-work pap or morning muckraking? “Cold Pizza” can’t decide. One moment, a guest weatherman is giving a tongue-in-cheek forecast for the in-arena temperatures at tonight’s NBA games (upper 60s); the next, ultra-perky co-host Kit Hoover is introducing a somber, disturbing piece on high school football hazing on Long Island, N.Y.

Speaking of which: Grisly photos of a beaten-up kid — complete with bloody cleat marks — aren’t exactly the ideal complement to toast and orange juice. Ummm-k ESPN producers? Thanks.

In trying to be all things to all viewers, “Cold Pizza” comes off as the morning show equivalent of a mediocre utility infielder. The “Today”-aping news headlines are watered down. “Regis and Kelly” does frothier, more brain-numbing celebrity interviews. Even ESPN’s own “SportsCenter” provides better game highlights.

Indeed, the oft-mediocre sports coverage is downright puzzling, given the network’s natural strengths. On one recent show, for example, news anchor Leslie Maxie narrated highlights from a Miami Heat game but failed to mention Lamar Odom’s sprained ankle — potentially a big deal to NBA fans, considering Odom’s injury history. A brief update on the California wildfires didn’t delve into the impact on the San Diego Chargers. And oddly enough, the show spent more time on rap and clothing mogul P. Diddy’s sweatshop reports than the FDA’s banning of the designer steroid THG, the drug at the center of a ongoing grand jury investigation involving dozens of high-profile athletes.

To her credit, Maxie did note that the THG story “touches many parts of the sports world.” Which is a lot like Peter Jennings noting, in all seriousness, that the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict touches “many parts of the Middle East.”

Still, as a former Olympic hurdler and television sports reporter, Maxie lends the show immediate credibility, even if she appears to be reading a TelePrompTer while delivering headlines. National correspondent Thea Andrews has the opposite problem: She’s smooth in front of the camera but is better known for playing a jock-seducing reporter on the ESPN drama “Playmakers.” (Surprisingly, Tampa Bay Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice still agreed to appear on “Cold Pizza,” despite some of his teammates’ distaste for the football-themed show. Can a “Playmakers” cameo be far behind?)

For his part, Crawford possesses the unblinking eyes and hepped-up manner of an android programmed to be a game show host, his grating peppiness seemingly hardwired by Cyberdyne Systems. No lie: He actually gives on-air “thumbs up” signs, making him the sort of guy you would undoubtedly buy a used car and/or magic beans from, if only to get out of the dealership ASAP.

The equally energetic Hoover acts as the show’s rejoinder to Katie Couric — pound-for-makeup-pound, she matches up pretty well — and was touted in the show’s incessant promos as “wild and spontaneous.” For all her wild spontaneity, however, she has yet to master Couric’s signature move: the morning-must switch from goofy (“Coming up next: Dean Cain!”) to gravitas (“Another suicide bombing in Baghdad, and now I’m wearing my serious-looking reading glasses.”) Perhaps she needs some appropriate eyewear.

Also: If you need to shimmy on a commercial to establish the fact that you’re wild and spontaneous — well, you’re not.

Like Pizza Hut’s ever-changing roster of gimmick crust pies, “Cold Pizza” ultimately feels forced, a faux-hip contrivance to rival Poochie on “The Simpsons.” Never mind Crawford’s irritating cool-guy habit of playing miniature golf and basketball during the show. Consider the set: street signs, brick walls, bobbleheads, a neon jukebox, a ceramic ABA basketball. In short, all the accouterments of a frat house with a budget, save a fire pole and a kegerator. Think “Trading Spaces,” crossed with “Maxim” magazine. Doesn’t it just scream fun? The wild and spontaneous kind, of course.

The show’s other signature bits are equally stilted. Earlier this week, relationship guru Dawn Yanek offered canned advice on getting back into the good graces of one’s significant other — do apologize (really?); don’t joke about it (you don’t say!). “Sideline reporter” Zach Leibowitz interviews Crawford and Hoover midway through each show, rehashing a bit that was much funnier as a “This is SportsCenter” commercial. And although the program’s practice of having a different guest weatherman works well as a spoof of inane morning show weather forecasts — a giant blue arrow is about to hit Philadelphia! — it’s otherwise a waste of time. Sort of like Crawford’s cliched interjection into Yanek’s already cliched segment.

“Guys never admit we’re lost,” Crawford said, drawing on at least two decades of tired standup comedy. “And we never admit we’re wrong.”

Ugh. Still, “Cold Pizza” isn’t all bad, particularly for a show that’s been on the air for less than a month. Some of the feature stories, like a recent piece on an Olympic fencer, are fresh and intriguing. So are many of the guests, such as boxer Roy Jones Jr. and Redskins beat reporter Jody Foldesy of The Washington Times. Oh, and Yanek does justice to a short skirt, a fact that shouldn’t be discounted in light of the program’s young male target demographic.

Given time to jell, the show might develop into something worth watching. Meanwhile, pizza remains best served hot.

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