Always making fun: improv duo Al Samuels (left) and Kevin Fleming
In a recent episode of NBC’s Sports Action Team, Bulls power forward Tyrus Thomas signs up for “broadcasting boot camp.” He’s supposed to learn a lesson in portraying emotion—in this instance, how to embody lust. “What are you thinking?” asks his instructor, a woman in a low-cut shirt. There’s a beat; then Thomas deadpans something about hot, fresh Krispy Kremes.
Those are the kinds of surprises to expect from Sports Action Team, an ESPN-style spoof created by local Second City alums Al Samuels and Kevin Fleming. The semi-improvisational series combines confessionals inspired by The Office with skits heavy on Reno 911-style buffoonery. When it started airing in September 2006, Sports Action Team was filler for the post-Sunday Night Football slot on the West Coast; since then, affiliates in more than 40 percent of the country (and Mark Cuban’s HDNet) have picked up the show. (Catch it on NBC 5 in Chicago at 11:45 on Sunday nights.)
Filmed primarily around Chicago (the boot camp episode was taped largely at Northwestern’s Ryan Field), a typical show features Samuels and Fleming as bumbling sports reporters. In one, Fleming botches an interview with Chicago Fire player Jon Busch. In another, the entire Action Team—all played by local comedians—stage an “intervention” when Fleming gets too attached to former Notre Dame football star Jeff Samardzija. Other high-wattage guests include Mike Ditka, Conan O’Brien, and Danica Patrick.
Fleming, a former Sporting News Radio cohost, says that humor is inherent in sports broadcasting. “The characters we play are D-list, wannabe ESPN guys. They’re low-status losers but they’re completely self-important,” he says. “They take themselves so seriously when they analyze players, but they have no real skills themselves.”
While an MBA from Stanford and a Bradley degree in public relations aren’t the typical credentials of a rising comedy duo, Samuels, 41, and Fleming, 34, aren’t interested in the typical path to stardom. Illinois natives (Samuels hails from Flossmoor; Fleming, from Oak Forest) and vets of the improv troupe Baby Wants Candy, they resisted the lure of the coasts in favor of their hometown, an unusual choice for comedians hoping to hit it big. “The great gift of the show is that we film it here,” says Samuels. “In the back of my mind I always thought I wanted to be on TV, but I knew I would have to go somewhere else to do it. I’m still sort of in disbelief that this thing that was always just out of reach—actually filming a show in Chicago—is happening.”
Photograph: Chris Strong