Stephen A. Smith and the Philadelphia Inquirer recently parted ways for a second time. Let's remember the good ol' days, when Stephen A. was an emphatic, multi-platform media nuisance, and Will Leitch was just another guy in his studio audience.
We finished up with the site early yesterday not because we're lazy, but because we consider Deadspin a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week job. (Oh, uh, except for weekends.) We wrapped up our Monday posts in record time, because we had to hustle downtown, because we had the hottest ticket in town: Audience seats to see Quite Frankly With Stephen A. Smith, the show that proves it actually is possible for an ESPN show to garner worse ratings than billiards. When we got there, as you can tell from the photo, we got our moment in the sun, a chance to talk to Stephen A. himself, on camera, mano y blogo. Well, it wasn't exactly a "confrontation," but it was an experience nevertheless. After the jump, join Deadspin for the tale of our class trip to see Quite Frankly With Stephen A. Smith. Quite frankly, that's all you need to know.
Last week, we emailed our ticket requests to see Quite Frankly to firstname.lastname@example.org (get yours today!), and we received a response within the hour, giving us a choice of, well, any day this week. We chose Monday, and our RSVP came back to us immediately, letting us know not to bring digital cameras, cellphones, picket signs, all that. It told us to be there at 2:30 p.m. for a 4 p.m. taping. We hopped on the subway and headed to 33rd Street in Manhattan.
We initially took a wrong turn and ended up here, Peep World, right across the street from Quite Frankly studios. Fortunately, we had about 15 minutes and a couple of quarters to kill.
We arrived at the studio at 2:30, as requested, and quickly realized our mistake: There was no one there.
We stood in line for about 15 minutes, talking to no one except a very kind elderly black woman who offered us a cough drop, even though we weren't coughing. During the show, she will end up coughing uncontrollably, but, sadly, she had run out of her drops.
Around 3 p.m., an audience coordinator arrived and, upon seeing the four people in line, actually whistled. But she was saved quickly; through the side door came about 40 black high-school aged students, from the Eagle Academy on the Bronx, all dressed up in ties and herded around by a serious-looking man with a shaved head and a piercing smile. "We're on a class trip," he said, nervously, wishing he had a lasso or something. "These young men are going to be very well-behaved, aren't they?" The boys all nodded in unison, with military precision. We wish this guy would have taught us when we were kids.
We were all led by the audience coordinator into a waiting room that showed ESPN highlights and bloopers and were given free popcorn. A pimply kid with the worst internship ever told us that if we wanted to ask Stephen A. a question, we should write it down on an index card. The best questions, the ones selected, would be read by their author on air. "Make sure the questions are about football," he said, voice cracking. "Tonight's show is about football." And suddenly, our little assignment had a thickening plot.
That was our question. We thought it was the one most likely to get us on the show, considering the Colts-Rams game was on ABC that night, corporate synergy, all that. We watched another ESPN video and then, at about 10 until 4, the intern came back out. "OK, those whose names we say need to come up front now for our special question seats," he said. "You'll get a chance to be on air with Stephen A." fingerscrossed fingerscrossed fingerscrossed ... "Will Leitch?" Success!
We took our seats as we strategized internally. Should we try to make a joke? Maybe just starting making fun of him? Naw, wouldn't work: The shows are taped, and they'd just cut it. But we had to let him know we were there, maybe stick a bug in his ear about the site. Or maybe the battle was just being there. What would maximize our screen time?
Fortunately, we had a lot of time to think. The actual taping of Smith's hour-long show — the "Q&A" was the last segment — takes, on the whole, two hours. This is mainly because of the reshoots. Smith, who was a not-terrible NBA reporter before turning into the ESPN monster he is today, is anything but loose on camera. He stutters, he stammers, he talks too loud, he talks too soft ... he's no natural. The "3 & Out" segment that starts the show — in which Smith screams angrily into the camera about the news of the day — took three reshoots while we were there, and they weren't just of the "flub" variety; he took different approaches each time, like he was still feeling out the process. It was, at times, uncomfortable to watch.
Not nearly as uncomfortable, however, as Smith off-camera. Whereas some "live" hosts banter with the audience at their tapings — Jon Stewart is the master of this — Smith is ill at ease, wary, suspicious, like the audience is a wild dog loose in the room. He also has a bad tendency to betray the real reason he's in sports "journalism;" he bragged several times about "hanging with A.I." at a Reebok party that evening and snickered to guest James Hasty that ESPN.com columnist Michael Smith — who appeared on the show via remote — was a "TNT type of guy," whatever that means. When an audience member asked him how she could make it in journalism, his answer was depressingly direct: "Network. You have to know the right people to get to where you need to go. That's the truth."
After an endless amount of reshoots and long, long-winded segments, it was time for "Q and A." Jamal, a kid from the school, went first, and cutely trickled out a nervous question about Tedy Bruschi, before Smith responded with intensity that scared not only Jamal, but all of us. Then it was our turn.
We decided to play it straight: We were on the show, after all, and there was no reason to push our luck. (We really just wanted the screenshot, honestly.) "Yeah, Stephen, I'm Will from Deadspin, I wanted —"
"From where?" Stephen spat.
"Oh, Deadspin. Deadspin.com. It's a Web site."
"Oh, OK. Ya'll should have come up with a better name than that."
We nodded, now completely terrified, and asked our question, wondering if Stephen A. had time to go home and check out the site after the Iverson party.
And then we were sent home, with a souvenir: A Quite Frankly fridge magnet.
We will display it proudly, quite frankly.
Story originally published Oct. 18, 2005