The sports television personality Stephen A. Smith spent the early aughtshanging around the fringes of the national media, but when the producer Jamie Horowitz paired him with Skip Bayless on ESPN2’s “First Take” in late 2011, Smith and Bayless became national stars. That era of “First Take” primarily revolved around Bayless’s obsessions — LeBron James is a choker, Tim Tebow will succeed — and Smith’s oddly captivating, deeply silly shouting style. The ratings success of the show Peter-principled Horowitz to the highest levels of television, leading directly to gigs running the “Today” show, where he was fired before he started, and Fox Sports 1, where he was turfed over a sexual harassment scandal. The three men didn’t invent competitive sports shouting, but they rode the morning debate show to levels of unprecedented fame and wealth. Today, Bayless makes over six million dollars at year at Fox Sports 1, and Smith is now ESPN’s single best-known on-air talent, making millions of dollars a year.
These days, thanks to the sports media landscape that Horowitz et al. helped create, Smith turning Lamar Odom’s crack addiction into a viral screaming moment is now just a normal day in the self-perpetuating cycle of on-air hot takes.
The voice they created is so ridiculous, so far removed from how normal humans talk, that it blurs the line between parody and reality. And it runs both ways. Smith once believed an Onion story about him was real, and no piece of writing has captured the essence of Smith, Bayless, and what they represent better than the canonical Stephen A. Smith parody tweet by David Roth in 2012:
PF Chang's waiter: "[Recites specials] Stephen A. Smith: (Acts surprised) "To me, that's preposterous. Crab Rangoon, things of that nature."
— David Roth (@david_j_roth) June 13, 2012
As of 2014, there are now two canonical Stephen A. Smith parody tweets, and the author of each insists the other’s is better.
STEPHEN A: Skip I want to ADDRESS this issue.
You KNOW I am sensitive to the Holocaust
STEPHEN A: BUT!
— Aileen Journos (@Hegelbon) July 25, 2014
@Hegelbon, aka video game writer and podcaster Trevor Strunk, prefers crab Rangoon to the Holocaust. To Strunk, Roth’s tweet is so good because “it presupposes Stephen A. Smith goes through his entire life as his persona, getting as riled up about crab rangoon as he does about, say, James Harden…[Roth’s] was a more cohesive joke.”
Roth, a talented sportswriter who was idiotically laid off by Vice Sports last week, but who is also wrong here, believes Strunk had the better viral Smith tweet. “His is actually a critique of how terrible that show is, and the specific type of terribleness that it embodies, where mine was just funny sounds.”
It’s important to note here that Smith is, in his way, a genius. No one is better at shouting for money, if you strip the shouting of any intellectual or journalistic principle. (For proof, just watch Smith utterly destroy Fox News hosts in a bizarre guest appearance there in May.) An ESPN on-air personality told me,
Stephen A. is an absurd character, but also the most gifted performer on television. He is incredibly good at delivering lines with a gravity that the subject doesn’t deserve…The idea of him reacting to a random obscure menu item like that is the perfect sitcom version of him making his way in a world where everything is so much less important than how he talks about it.
The image of Smith about to burst while he just cannot wait to rebut the man sitting across the desk from him is an undeniably fun part of “First Take.” It’s even more fun to picture Smith twitching in his seat at a P.F. Chang’s, silently shaking his head and rolling his eyes while an exhausted minimum-waged teenager nervously reads off the menu. SB Nation editor-at-large Spencer Hall explained why Roth picked the perfect setting, writing in an email that Roth strikes the “right notes of ersatz mall culture and correct price point, and endearing shittiness of the familiar.”
From “acts surprised,” Roth has Stephen A. nailed. As Hall said:
It’s not just that I know Stephen A. Smith’s voice, or his way of saying things, or even his expressions — it’s that David and everyone else watching him has such a huge data set on Stephen A. Smith that you can sim him saying just about anything. Probably because, after years of doing this, he probably has said everything possible, and yet can still feign surprise every time. That’s why he has the job: Either he can fake surprise on cue and with great enthusiasm, or he’s a broken robot incapable of doing anything but being on First Take, all the time, forever.
That binary — Smith, Bayless, and their legion of imitators are either incredible actors, or incredibly broken — is the defining characteristic of “First Take” and its spiritual successor on Fox Sports 1, “Second Take” (trademark Deadspin, real name “Undisputed”). Do those men really believe the things they say?
The duo was first paired together in late 2011, and at the outset of that era of “First Take,” it seemed clear that both men were cynically exploiting political and racial fault lines in sports for ratings — that they were playing characters like everyone else on TV. But as Bayless’s fame caught and surpassed Smith’s in 2012, a rash of soft-touch profiles started coming out that suggested that as absurd as their behavior on the show was, it may have been largely genuine.
At their best, that run of profiles showed how horrifyingly sad it is to be Skip Bayless: he’s so devoted to the Take Life that he holes up and eats the same chicken and broccoli five days a week. At their worst, they uncritically scooped up the story that Bayless was selling about himself. Roth said he believes that the former is probably actually the case for Bayless, who
is a guy who’s got a couple of things broken in him. Which, to me, is significantly more poignant than whatever Stephen A.’s malfunction is…
Stephen A., I think — it’s hard to diagnose it from afar, and I don’t want to get closer to figure it out either — but I guess because he’s more stylized than Bayless, it does open up the possibility that he’s a little more in command of his instrument. The instrument is a kazoo that makes fart noises or whatever; I don’t want to overstate it too much. But there’s a possibility that he switches off.
Does it matter whether Stephen A. Smith believes women are to blame for domestic violence, or if he’s just saying it to get a rise out of people? Which one would be worse? Roth said he wasn’t sure, saying, “It would be a lot harder to pretend to be Stephen A. Smith all the time than to just be Stephen A. Smith all the time. And I don’t imagine it’s very easy to be Stephen A. Smith all the time, either.” The ESPN on-air personality said that Smith threads the needle, that he’s sometimes “winking while also being fully sincere, and he’s gotten a lot better at that the last few years.”
What Roth believes about Smith—and, I’m so sorry for bringing this person into this blog—but also Donald Trump, is that they are innovators in starting sentences without knowing how they’ll finish. Which brings us to “preposterous” and “things of that nature.” First of all, yes, “preposterous” is an inherently funny word, particularly when imagined in Smith’s voice. As Hall put it,
You can hear Smith, that second syllable is PAH, and he hits it with a super-hard plosive. Blowing a six-dollar word like preposterous on a menu item is also inherently funny, as is getting mad at the PF Chang’s menu, but Stephen is a broken robot, and everything is on his personal hot take menu.
But “preposterous” could be substituted for any of the unhelpfully long latinate words that Smith loves so much. The truly irreplaceable part of the voice that Roth captured is “things of that nature.” LeBron James has begun sprinkling the phrase into his press conferences the last few years; Rangoon devotees log on to tell Roth every time it happens. The same accidental push notifications go to Strunk, who says that “we hit on memorable words that memed up the tweets well beyond either of us expected. When Stephen A. makes the news…the tweets act as a little unintentional news alert.”
but in the same way, Trump will oftentimes lose track of what he’s saying and then just do the thing that he does while he goes back and tries to find the thread again, which is to just make the sentence more and more grandiose and larger in every possible way. By the time you get back to the end of it, you’re just saying like, ‘the biggest, greatest, most outstanding, most ridiculous traffic study that has ever existed.’ The circularity and the grandiosity together is a really risky combination. It’s [Smith’s] job to take strident positions, but it’s a weird stylistic tic where every time he forgets what he’s talking about, the stridency goes up another ten percent.
Smith’s most embarrassing moment of the last two years is probably his October 2015 run-in with Kevin Durant. Smith reported that the then-Oklahoma City Thunder star was leaning toward signing with the Los Angeles Lakers (he ended up signing with the Golden State Warriors the next summer, nine months later); Durant called him a liar. Smith responded a few days later by turning to the camera and vaguely threatening Durant.
Roth understands what Smith has to do above all else: fill airtime. Claiming you have better sources on Kevin Durant than Kevin Durant himself does is, Roth said, “an embarrassingly stupid thing to have to say.”
[Smith’s] job is to take eight minutes to say it. So, he was really leaning into it, like ‘YOU’VE MADE A POWERFUL NEW ENEMY.’ Like Lex Luthor, but like if Lex Luthor were narcoleptic and kept forgetting where he was. ‘And furthermore!’ Which is amazing. Watching him get wound up and find the thread and lose the thread — obviously it’s a lot less scary when the guy doesn’t have nuclear codes.
So, we’ve addressed the issues of P.F. Chang’s, acting surprised, “preposterous,” and “things of that nature.” But what about crab Rangoon itself? Roth admits he’s never eaten it, despite going to a Chinese restaurant every Friday in lieu of Shabbat during his childhood. It’s almost as fun to imagine Smith saying “Rangoon” as it is to watch him scream about Phil Jackson. As Hall put it:
Again, you can hear him absolutely fucking HAMMERING the syllables here, right? The word Rangoon is inherently funny, and I have to agree, it’s not even a Burmese dish and putting cream cheese with seafood is an abomination worth considering…preposterous.
All great sports media pairs must go their own ways eventually. Bayless loves to say that he never lost a debate to Smith, and the post-Bayless “First Take” is less debate and more a Stephen A. solo act. But rather than flailing without Bayless — though the ratings have taken a hit — Smith has shown that he’s his best when paired with a patsy. Of course the platonic sparring partner for Stephen A. is a P.F. Chang’s waiter.