Note: a few days ago, our colleague Frances Martel of Mediaite accidentally came upon an airing of intentionally strange ESPN2 program Dan Le Batard is Highly Questionable. Between the bizarre quick-cutting camera and Le Batard’s dad being there (mostly the latter), it was love at first sight. And especially since the show is switching time slots today and therefore somewhat newsworthy, we thought we should share Frances’ thoughts on the program.
Have you ever had the experience of looking up at the television and being presented with a surrealist reinterpretation of your childhood?
Sure, gringos, you’ve had your Arrested Developments and your Home Improvements (that was a show, right?), but short of the bilingual classic ¿Qué Pasa, USA?, no program on national television has quite captured the Cuban family experience in as delightfully confusing a way as Dan Le Batard is Highly Questionable.
As only a casual observer of select sports and fairly avid consumer of Spanish-language media, I assumed the channel had been changed to Telefutura the first time I heard Papi yelling through the fourth wall. It hadn’t. There was Dan Le Batard’s dad, apparently seated in a Miami kitchen, the cafetera unseen but implied, with that accent I had spent the better part of a decade keeping in check myself.
There was no explanation of why this man was there, except for the host calling him Papi. There was no attempt to deny he was the star of the show. The few things he said that did make sense were the words “Forrest Gump” and “Tom Brady,” kind of. The show became the premier outlet for all your drunk Pat Sajak news last week, and ended last Friday with Papi talking about Forrest Gump becausewhynot. It has the aesthetic sensibilities of Spongebob Squarepants. Did I mention this is a sports show?
Further viewing did not erode my first impressions of the show as a work of genius, intended to thrust upon the audience and imposing and chaotic cultural background that makes it difficult for those unacquainted to realize there is serious talent here. Like any Cuban household, it is an intentionally uncomfortable environment, except for those who “get it.”
One can only imagine that the name “Highly Questionable” came from comments overheard in the upper echelons of ESPN’s headquarters as they greenlighted this project — with what reasoning, I cannot say. Somehow, this professional sportscaster had convinced a group of money-grubbing executives up high in the network HQ to let his comically, warmly sloppy dad just hang out on the set of his program. One conventional advantage the show enjoys, though, is that Le Batard is one of the best interviewers on television. He doesn’t even bother to entertain the idea that he cares about what his guests do for a living and instead corners them into talking about their personalities and attitudes, and the experiences that shaped them to be who they are.
Politicians are lucky that Le Batard seems to keep to entertainers and sportspeople, because this guy would do quite a number on Newt Gingrich. And in what feels like a strained attempt at professionalism to curb concerned suits, Papi does not usually partake very often in serious interviews, though — usually when the interview is too comfortable — he does get a question in to antagonize the guest or merely ask how he proposed to his wife.
It is fairly easy for the casual Anglo observer, I assume, to believe that this behavior, these jokes, these colors on the program could not be anything but an exploitative stereotype of Latinos. Sure, there are no scantily clad ladies on the program or blaring, incongruent salsa interludes a la Rick Sanchez’s old CNN program (well, most of the time). But scenes like Le Batard’s father trying to smash a racquet or complaining that “men don’t wear earrings” taken in isolation could lead one unacquainted with the culture to believe that there is at least some exaggeration going on here.
For someone who grew up around elderly Cubans, however – who did not know the value of speaking in full sentences or the existence of the “indoor voice” before moving to college – it is the startling genuineness of this set-up that captures one’s attention. Sports shows should be valued for their insight into the sports they cover, for their fascinating interviews or accurate predictions. There are people better equipped to speak to that dimension of the program than me, though having watched many a non-sports interview in my day, I can say with confidence that this is one of the program’s strengths.
But they should also be valued for bringing a unique perspective to the sports world, for being as unique and authentic as they are original and risky. Can it be argued that there is a more unique, authentic, original, or risky take on this television genre than a sports host legitimizing the Cuban experience by having his dad and his outrageous accent comment on, for example, football — a sport he would barely know existed if he wasn’t in exile?
For political reasons — the incorporation of the Cuban experience into the American, both in the understanding of sports and of family — as well as for reasons of pure entertainment/confusion value, this thought experiment passing off as a mere “sports show” should be sociological must-see TV. For the Americans that have no idea what is going on half the time, it is at least a healthy exercise in culture shock and a hearty introduction to the disarray as artform. And as for me, the next time anyone asks me to explain just how tight-knit a loving Cuban family can be, I’ll reference Dan Le Batard and say, “We can’t even have our own TV shows without co-hosting with Mom and Dad.”
Frances Martel is an editor at Mediaite, law student, and Cuban.