Host Mike Hall (full disclosure: friend of the blog) and correspondents Charissa Thompson, Jordan Klepper, Steve Waltien and Tim Baltz are once again primed to introduce us to the players, students, fans and faculty that populate Big Ten college towns throughout the Midwest.
Blending sports and humor isn't always the easiest thing, but the FNT crew has managed to find a way to do it consistently each fall. Perhaps it's because each of them (including Hall) are improvisers in Chicago's famed improv comedy scene.
In honor of FNT's premiere (Fridays, Big Ten Network, 8:30 p.m. ET), we caught up with Mike this afternoon to talk about the improv effect, changes to this year's show and generally distract him while he was busy at work putting the final touches on tonight's show:
Mike Hall: We added a new correspondent. Last year, it was Jordan Klepper and Steve Waltien on the road. This year, it's Steve on the road becoming the senior correspondent and Tim Baltz with him as the junior correspondent. Jordan moves into the studio to do some segments with me.
SP: Will you guys still follow the same basic format as the first two seasons?
Mike Hall: Yeah, we'll go to different campuses every week. We've got 12 shows so we'll go to every campus once and then the 12th show will be the 'championship.' The running theme throughout the show is that we're trying to find out which Big Ten campus is the best that season. Then that campus will be revealed in the last show of the season. We originally thought that wouldn't mean that much to anybody, but we were in Iowa a week ago and they have the 'Tailgate' trophy prominently displayed at the place where we presented it last year, so we were kind of surprised.
SP: Going into your third season, how have you tried to evolve and grow the show?
Mike Hall: Year one, we had two correspondents on different sites. That didn't work very well. It had its moments, but we found that putting the two correspondents together lets them play off each other. The correspondents are improvisers, so it's a huge help to them to be in the same place. The other thing is, coming out of these bits with the correspondents, we do a live talkback with me. In year one, we planned everything. It almost always came off dry. So last year, we just improvised it. Our bosses were OK with that and they had faith in us. That's been a lot better and it's led to some great moments. That's really the fun part of the show.
SP: Most Big Ten football fans probably don't realize that Tim, Jordan and Steve are all very accomplished actors in the famed Chicago improv scene.
Mike Hall: We're incredibly luckly. I've been allowed to be part of the decision process in bringing these guys in. You could make an argument that we've brought in the very best improvisers in Chicago, which is the improv capital of the world. I thank all of them have had Second City touring company runs. Tim and Steve, in the last year, have been the top substitutes for the Second City mainstage. They're well respected in the sketch world, well respected in the improv world. If you run through the list of shows these guys are in, they're all top-of-the-line.
SP: What been the best thing about being a part of "Friday Night Tailgate"?
Mike Hall: You know, I think the best thing is being surprised by how many people have a fun and playful side to them that you wouldn't normally expect. For example, we do this segment where Jordan does a Colbert-style interview with a famous alum where he pretends it's a "60 Minutes" interview, but really it's him asking sort of playful/ridiculous questions. We sit down this week on tonight's show with (former Michigan coach) Lloyd Carr who's one of the most stoic people you'll ever meet. He sounds like Walter Cronkite ... But he opens up with Jordan and totally gets it and totally plays along. At the end of the interview, Jordan plays a game with him called "Go Blue" where he challenges him to see which of them can get the saddest. For 20 seconds, it's respected football coach Lloyd Carr and Jordan Klepper fake crying, no words. It's so wonderful.
We also have a teammate game where we bring actual teammates on and goof around with them and ask them questions about each other. Last year, we had Arrelious Benn on it. It was so funny to watch him play around because usually these players and coaches are so business-like. There's so much riding on every game, but it's fun to show that these guys have great personalities.