He’s Baaaack!

Keith Olbermann Makes Hilarious Return to ESPN, But For How Long?

Keith Olberman returned to ESPN2 in damn fine form. Lloyd Grove asks, how long before he gets KO’d this time?

Frederick M. Brown/Getty

It will be nice if Keith Olbermann manages to stay for a while in his latest job before quitting or being fired in a blast of invective and recrimination, because it sure looks like he’s having fun.

“As I was saying,” the host of ESPN2’s 11 p.m. program, Olbermann, began his Monday-night premiere—a teensy joke referring to his most recent enforced hiatus from cable television, having been fired a year and a half ago from Al Gore’s Current TV after being suspended and then separated from MSNBC a year before that (although even now Olbermann can’t resist confiding to The Hollywood Reporter that the former vice president, who gave him a job and an equity stake and paid him $10 million a year, is “a clod”).

On his return from the television wilderness to ESPN2—the Bristol, Connecticut–based cable channel he helped launch 20 years ago, contributing greatly to its success, only to depart the ESPN family a few years later in typically toxic Olbermannic fashion—he looked darned good. Keith, or KO, as he was frequently identified in camera-ready graphics, was svelte in a royal blue three-piece suit, a light blue shirt, and a blue and white polka-dot tie. It seems that, at age 54, he’s been taking care of himself.

“Good evening. Welcome to the end of our careers,” he quipped—which turned out to be doubly, and possibly triply, self-referential, as a video snippet played near midnight revealed that it was actually the same quip from KO’s inaugural 1993 performance on ESPN2; Olbermann, ostensibly a show about sports, but really a journey into its namesake’s psyche, is nothing if not self-referential. It is also, judging by Monday night’s debut, damned entertaining.

Full disclosure here: I have not been one of KO’s favorite people. When I was a gossip columnist at the New York Daily News and wrote something he didn’t properly appreciate, he publicly suggested that I be fired and named me one of his “worst persons in the world”—a feature he has adapted, to enjoyable effect, for ESPN2, calling it “Worst Persons in the World of Sports.” Also, I know next to zero about sports; in fairness, make that zero. And yet, that disability didn’t stop me from delighting in KO’s on-camera antics.

He spent the first 11 minutes of the show mocking, ridiculing, and otherwise lampooning Daily News sportswriter Manish Mehta (maybe it’s just something about that newspaper)—and indeed mounted a slashing critique of the rest of the local and national sports media—for suggesting that New York Jets coach Rex Ryan ought to be fired for playing Mark Sanchez as an exhibition-game quarterback and inevitably exposing him to preseason injury. KO also lavishly praised New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for labeling Mehta an “idiot” and a “dope.” Then KO performed a granular and hilarious deconstruction of Coach Ryan’s postgame press conference.

Now, admittedly, I have no idea what any of this was about, but KO had me at “idiot.” I even admired his Lucille Ball impression.

ESPN columnist Jason Whitlock showed up on the set—whose backdrop, through a picture window, was a rain-slicked Times Square—to contribute wry commentary on the Sanchez-Ryan situation, adding a reference to fallen basketball star (and estranged Kardashian husband) Lamar Odom, as proof of the sad state of affairs in our press-driven celebrity culture. “We’re all just fodder to be eaten, for someone to prop up someone else’s relevance,” Whitlock told KO, who enlarged the conversation to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington, the role of professional sports in the fight against racism, and the heroism of track star and 1968 Olympic bronze medalist John Carlos—he of the defiant Black Power salute. “There should be a statue of John Carlos in every city,” KO opined.

The best part of a fast-paced series of video clips, titled “Keithlights,” was of tennis player Francesca Schiavone, losing pathetically to Serena Williams in the first round of the U.S. Open while shrieking “Ahhh-eee!” at every hit (KO couldn’t help shrieking along). After one sad point, she sought comfort from a sheepishly grinning ball boy, wrapping her sweaty arms around him for an awkward length of time. “Ewww,” KO narrated, “she’s all sticky!”

And so on and so forth. Dallas Mavericks owner and tech billionaire Mark Cuban—a notorious, frequently fined loudmouth on the court and apparently the Keith Olbermann of pro basketball—contributed a moment of rich humor when he started his on-set interview by greeting his host, “Welcome to the Skip Bayless network!” It was a reference to an ESPN2 personality who decidedly is not Keith Olbermann. The shocked look on KO’s face, as though he himself had been KO’d, was priceless.

Anyhow, Olbermann’s first outing was a jampacked hour of well-produced television—and he has set expectations pretty high for his five-night-a-week burlesque, satire, and sports-news program.

“What, we’re doing this every night?” KO wondered at one point.

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Absolutely—until he isn’t.