It’s 7:40 a.m. on a Monday, and I’m on a leafy corner of Northwest Washington, D.C., clutching my tablet and a cup of coffee from the nearby Cosi. I am trying to gain entrance into a local neighborhood restaurant and my anxiety level is spiking. Twenty minutes previous, I had attempted to breach the same establishment and it had gone poorly. I’d opened the front door, encountered the proprietor behind the bar, and in my nervousness began jabbering insanely: “I am a reporter, and I’m here to watch the podcast!” This was mostly true, but functioned badly as an opening gambit. The proprietor was a tough looking man, wizened and grimacing, apparently in no mood for mischief. He strongly intimated that I was early. It was true that I was early, but a certain amount of journalistic experience told me that it never hurt to be. Not this time. I re-calibrated. I got the coffee. I tried again. This time the door was locked.
My quest to be present for The Tony Kornheiser Show‘s first podcast from their new studio, situated in a long-running Friendship Heights dining establishment recently re-christened Chatter, nearly ended there. I got troubles enough without the cops getting involved or me getting my ass kicked by a Telly Savalas-look-alike bar manager. Peering through the large ground floor windows that surround the studio, I made plaintive eye contact with a few of the people setting up microphones. Somebody talked to somebody and a gesture was made and eventually I realized someone was coming to the door to let me in. I surmised this was Michael Kornheiser, Tony’s similarly gifted son who is a regular on the show and with whom I’d made the most tenuous of arrangements. Relief mixed with dread. This was going to happen! This was going to happen.
Woolly-headed from the events and hour, I was escorted down a corridor and walked up the small staircase to the studio. A tall, reedy man greeted me at its precipice in a manner both gracious and businesslike. He was attired in a handsome johnnie-O shirt and Washington Nationals cap. It took me longer than it should have to recognize him as Tony.
For those not in the know, Tony Kornheiser is the co-host of the enormously entertaining ESPN juggernaut Pardon The Interruption. Prior to that, he was a sportswriter for the Washington Post and later a columnist whose penchant for norm-breaking sarcasm made him a kind of sports-centric David Letterman. As the host of a popular D.C.-based radio show since the early 1990’s — briefly interrupted by his stint as color commentator on Monday Night Football — he has built a large and loyal national following, engaging a revolving cast of characters in a free-flowing discussion of sports, politics, and entertainment as experienced through the prism of Kornheiser’s endearingly cranky sensibility. In keeping with current trends in broadcasting, Kornheiser recently took his show off terrestrial radio and began making it available as a sponsor-driven podcast. Somewhere along the line, he and a handful of other investors (including former Maryland basketball head coach Gary Williams and Maury Povich) purchased the restaurant Chad’s and changed the name, with the intention of giving the podcast a permanent home. Those are the events that led me to be standing in front of the man.
Taping was schedule to start at 8 a.m., and I was ushered into the studio and provided a chair a few feet from the table where the broadcast would occur. Tony introduced me to the show’s guests for the day, which included long-time D.C.-radio personality Gary Braun, CNN political reporter Chris Cillizza, and Nigel, the mysterious and much conjectured about Englishman, who is the closest thing the show has to a producer. I watched as Tony fretted (“Someone get me a napkin! I need to do something with my hands.”), and Nigel attempted in vain to reach Michael Wilbon — Kornheiser’s dear friend and PTI partner — by phone for his usual Monday segment. Meanwhile, the other participants greeted each other and engaged in some jocular sparring (Cillizza: “No breakfast for me today! Two people said I looked fat over the weekend!” Braun: “Only two?”).
Just before the broadcast, Tony looked across the room and made eye contact with me: “You’re about to witness something truly dreadful.” And with that, the show’s familiar theme song commenced, the principals took their positions, and Kornheiser acknowledged the triumphant occasion with a bit of prologue (“In the words of Keith Olbermann, welcome to the end of my career.”)
What followed was a typically enjoyable episode of the Tony Kornheiser Show, beginning with an animated discussion of the second round of the NBA playoffs (“The Los Angeles Clippers choked their guts out.“), the Nationals explosive offense the day after a 23-run outburst (“What, did they miss an extra point?”), driving from Delaware to D.C., gas station wine, and the catastrophic Fyre Festival. At a certain point, the renowned political reporter Howard Fineman walked in, and then back out and then back in again, finally sitting in for a segment dedicated to Trump’s sundry bumblings. A crowd began to gather in the restaurant area and Kornheiser stopped between segments to greet them. Outside the window, traffic whizzed by on Wisconsin Avenue, and curious pedestrians stopped to look in on the broadcast and take pictures.
The “Old Guy Radio” segment began with Graham Nash’s “Our House” followed by lengthy explanation by Nigel as to the songs original inspiration. While little is known about Nigel or his connection to Kornheiser, he is said to have deep roots in the Swinging London music scene of the late ’60s and may have had an early management stake in the Hollies. Eventually, after some difficulty, Wilbon was tracked down in Los Angeles where he was covering the NBA playoffs for ESPN. (“He was probably up all night with Magic.”) Even with one party on the phone, it was thrilling to watch the two PTI hosts ease into their crackling chemistry, with Wilbon providing hilariously spontaneous riffs on the Chicago Bears head-scratching draft maneuvers, and Tony egging him on to ever more entertaining echelons of irritation.
Soon, roughly an hour of cheerful chatter had passed and the show-closing mailbag segment commenced with its triumphal jingle (“Here comes Tony’s mailbag / Got your e-mails, faxes, and your notes!”). Kornheiser signed off in his accustomed fashion (“Please, always remember to wear white.”) and the assemblage said their goodbyes and began dispersing to their various day jobs. Tony once again thanked his fans and patrons and offered me one last handshake.
“So what was it like actually watching the show?” he asked me.
As a longtime acolyte, what could I say? It had been an absolute delight. I took a moment to reflect and gave what I felt to be the only appropriate answer: “Very disappointing.”
“Good to know,” he replied, seeming pleased. And then he was gone.