I caught Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole on very good days.
The Saturday afternoon that I spoke to Onrait came the day after he'd just taken his girlfriend to Disneyland, and the Monday I talked with O'Toole, he was staring at the Alberta rockies from a hotel before playing in a Hockey Alberta golf tournament with Onrait. Still, you get the sense that these two are about as Canadian as it gets (i.e. polite and generally jovial) most of the time. They just happen to be two of the funniest men on sports television.
If you're on Twitter, follow or talk to someone from Canada, or just know hockey fans familiar with their work (Onrait's dadaesque trade deadline show appearances for TSN always appear on the NHL Network in America), the buzz about Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole can seem a little bit like the promotional effort for Gabbo, the television puppet rival to Krusty the Klown in one episode of The Simpsons. Other than some YouTube best-ofs, they are almost complete unknowns to American television.
That really seems to be the only risk Fox has made in bringing them to Los Angeles, that they haven't had much experience with the audience they're speaking to. The other way you can look at it is that Fox Sports 1 has landed a sports highlight show with almost a decade of chemistry already set in. The show's still anonymous producer, Tim, has come along with them and the guys swear up and down that their part of the show, Fox Sports Live, will be more or less the same as their TSN SportsCentre.
Where it will be different is that, in between Jay and Dan's segments there will be a panel show, hosted by Charissa Thompson and featuring regular contributors like Donovan McNabb, Gary Payton and Andy Roddick. Those looking for the least diluted version of Onrait and O'Toole, however, will want to check out Sunday nights, where they'll more or less be doing their TSN show, minus the panel.
Both before and after my interviews with them, I have felt that Jay and Dan are Fox Sports 1's safest bet for success. The guys are hilarious, but not in a way that SportsCenter anchors in the 90's -- Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick are often a comparison -- were funny. Onrait and O'Toole aren't very snarky about sports, they generally seem as enthused about the games as you are and just enjoy making it fun. While Fox executives use the word "fun" like its going out of style, you get the sense whenever you watch these two that they are actually having fun.
As I said, I interviewed the two of them in the span of a few days about a week ago. I asked them somewhat similar questions, but there are a couple of places where I strayed from my original path with both.
Steve Lepore: Speaking for yourself, would you have kept going at TSN for years and years had the Fox offer never come along?
Dan O'Toole: I thought that was gonna be my job for the rest of my life. We had a good thing going, we had a strong following, we loved our jobs, we loved our partnership. I just thought, "Okay, this is what I'm gonna be doing for the rest of my life," and I had no problem with that at all. That's how I thought it was gonna play out.
Jay Onrait: Yeah, I think so. That's part of the thing with the Fox offer. We were not, by any stretch, unhappy with where we were. We were pretty thrilled with where we were, to be honest. We had an amazing job that we loved, it's basically what I always wanted to do. Working with Dan was a blast. We worked very few hours per night [laughs], I'm a night person ... everything about it was amazing.
Only a job that was as appealing as Fox, for a company that promised just to let us continue to do what we were doing, that was the only way we were ever gonna come down here. We weren't gonna come down here for just anything, in fact, we really didn't have a desire to come down here because we were just perfectly happy just doing what we were doing. So, roundabout answer, I think yeah, we would've just kept doing what we were doing and we were pretty happy with it.
SL: So what you're saying is ... they will let you dance?
JO: Well, again, that's the only reason we came down. When they first approached us, we were skeptical, because we knew most places would want us to change and to sort of mold to the way that they do things. We'd kind of established ourselves up there, and done things in a way.
That's where TSN deserves so much credit, because they gave us so much freedom to make the show the way we wanted to make it. It didn't happen overnight, it wasn't like one day we just showed up and started being wacky. It was sort of a gradual process, that's something I think that's kinda gotten lost through all this. It was very gradual and TSN gave us the freedom to do that.
When Fox approached us, we said, "We want to keep doing what we're doing." And to Fox's credit, they said, "We basically want to pick up your show and move it to Los Angeles exactly as it is." The biggest testament to that is that they wanted our producer to come as well, to sort of keep the structure of the show as similar as possible, just in a slightly more agreeable timeslot for us so we can go for drinks after the show [laughs].
SL: What about the FS1 offer intrigued you?
DO: A new challenge. About using, as I keep saying, new toys. There's so many new things at our disposal. Not that we'd become complacent in our old jobs, or bored of them, but I think everyone in life is always open to a new challenge. It lights a fire under you, and you say, "Okay, let's try this out." That's what intrigued me. What convinced me was when we got assurances from our new bosses that we got to do exactly what we were doing at our old jobs.
SL: How important was it that Tim come along with you?
DO: We openly admit that we don't like him coming along because he's a grumpy, surly man who, when we're on the show, the people in the control room wear earpierces. He breathes extremely loud, it's like the microphone's up his nose. When he speaks to us, it's like nails on a chalkboard [laughs].
I guess the reason they wanted to bring him along, and the reason that our partnership has worked, is that he's the voice of moderation. We'll say, "Hey, we wanna' do this!" and he'll go, "No, you can't do that." Then we'll fight him, and he'll say "no." We've been with him long enough that he knows what can and can't go on the show. I think if we'd gone with another producer, they'd maybe just said "okay, go ahead, do that" and we'd be fired a day later.
It's probably best he's coming along, he knows what we can get away with and what's going too far. He's kind of like the ying to our yang. It's a dysfunctional family but one that works.
JO: For us, it's such a comfort zone situation. I mean, I guess its no different than any late night talk show producer following their talent from late night talk show to late night talk show. Once you get comfortable with a producer, I think -- I can't speak for Tim -- its tough once you get older learning to work with other people.
Having said that, we've got a different executive producer, senior producer, a lot of different producers working on the show. It's not like were only going to work with Tim, but probably the biggest advantage is all of this weird stuff we like to do -- Dan and I are not smart enough or well-versed enough in television technology to communicate how we need that done to our new employees -- so the fact that Tim is there to do that for us is a pretty great advantage and a pretty wonderful thing for us.
I think it's great, and I think we were all ready for something different, a new challenge. We're all really excited.
SL: How's the adjustment to L.A. been going?
JO: Hmm. Well, let me put it to you this way my friend: yesterday, I spent the entire day at Disneyland, how do you think its going? It was awesome. [laughs] No, its been great. Loved living in Toronto; Canada will always be our home, but we were ready to try something different. I will say this, when we were finalizing [the] contract in April, and Toronto was still experiencing the last breath of its worst winter in a decade, I looked around at the city covered in snow and said, "Yeah, I think I can take 300 days of sunshine a year for at least a few years in my life."
Its been wonderful so far, and Fox has been amazing in helping us get adjusted. A lot of forms to fill out. Two technologically advanced G8 countries, you would think that less paper would have to be filled out to move from one country to another. But that's not the case, Steve, you have to fill out a lot of paperwork.
DO: [My family] haven't even arrived yet (O'Toole has a wife and two young daughters). I obviously had a lot of family discussions. The youngest is too small to realize what's going on. She's two, she's just gonna wake up in a new house and just realize, "Oh, this is where I live now." The oldest is going into Grade 1, if you had a chance to start a new school, I think Grade 1 is the one you'd wanna do it in. Everyone's brand new on day one. It worked out that the ages were perfect and my wife's stay-at-home so I just had to convince her that the California wine that she already likes is way cheaper in California [laughs].
SL: Between Canada and America, there's a little bit of a difference in the sports we follow. Have you guys, or you in particular, had to beef up or bone up your knowledge on anything in particular that might help adjust to your new show in America?
JO: Well, I hosted an NFL show on CTV the last five years. I covered the NBA Finals for four years, I've grown up loving baseball my whole life. Maybe the only thing we have to brush up on a little bit is the college stuff, we also covered March Madness at TSN. Maybe college football a little bit, but ultimately we were hosting an hour-long sports highlight show where we had to cover all that stuff too.
There's not much we're going to do in terms of boning up on information. Its more getting used to the fact that we're probably not going to be leading the show with 25 minutes of hockey highlights. I can't confirm that, Steve, but I'm just making the assumption. I'm also making the assumption that we won't have three two-minute CFL pieces every night as well. Other than that, it should be okay.
DO: If we were going to an all-cricket station, or an all-rugby station, then yes, I'd have to be studying. The first thing that Jay and I are are sports fans and broadcasters second, so it's not like we're learning new sports. We watch everything as it is now. Luckily we haven't had to study up on anything. We don't pretend to be sports anchors, that's what we are. We live and breathe sports. We haven't had to do anything out of the ordinary. Unless we start showing cricket, then we're in trouble.
SL: Are you guys aware of the lack of hockey coverage on other networks in the U.S.?
DO: Our bosses know, they want to be different than ESPN, and show hockey. I think people, in small doses, should love the sport. If it's a nine-game schedule, show a goal from each game. Just do a 90-second hockey wheel. Hopefully we can bring over "Bobrovsky!" and we're hoping we can use Simpsons clips for Jeff Skinner.
JO: I mean, that decision's not in our hands. Content is not something that we're in charge of or have any control over. But we're also realistic, and we know where we are and what the U.S. market is, hockey's not -- I mean, it's obvious right? -- quite as popular as it is north of the 49th. Obviously we're not going to be covering it as much.
Having said all that, as Larry David would say, I think that there's definitely a market to add a little more hockey highlights on our show because there's definitely a lack of hockey highlights on other shows. Its something that we can maybe carve out a little niche for ourselves with a bit more hockey highlights, maybe a segment.
We'll see, were gonna try and squeeze in as much as we can, but ultimately we are who we are. Hockey's always gonna be our favorite sport. Hopefully, we can show a little more of it, but we're also realistic. Twenty minutes of hockey highlights off the top of the show might not play so well in Tuscaloosa [laughs], so we'll just temper our enthusiasm and hope for the best.
SL: Your bosses came out and explained what the show is going to be. Do you sort of see the panel mixed with the anchordesk coming together?
JO: I do actually. It's funny, because that was probably our biggest concern, that it's two shows in one so you're kind of figuring out how to meld those two ideas and those concepts. I think the bigger concern is just if you get along with the people that you work with. The answer is 100 percent. We had an all-day promo shoot/photo shoot where we were just dying the whole day because Gary Payton had us all going. Donovan's great, Andy's great, and so funny. I think the rest of it will take care of itself.
I think the way TV works is you just evolve over time naturally. I've been in the business long enough to at least know that you can sort of set a format, I think at times the format sort of dictates itself. I think it'll evolve over time so I'm hopeful, even though I know patience isn't something a lot of viewers have anymore, I'm hoping that viewers will be a bit patient and let us try to figure it out over the course of even a year. Because, who knows, the way the show is now might be completely different a year from now. Which is really kind of exciting. Its nice to do something different and interesting. I think all Dan and I can do is just do what we've always done.
DO: We just met them just the other day when we did our promo shoot, and we had a big Fox Sports 1 unveiling to the entire company, and I said then, "I thought I had fun with just Jay and I on the desk." When all of us got together, just during the photoshoot and during all our promotional stuff in one day, and as much fun as I had with Jay at the desk, I didn't think it was possible to have that much more fun. The dynamic, we could all tell right from the start, that it's gonna be no problem poking fun at each other, no one's gonna take it too seriously, Gary Payton will probably never know my name but I'm fine with it. I said that to him, he's like, "Yeah, you're probably right!" [laughs].
As far as rehearsals, Jay and I have done several; they wanted to work on technical things. Making sure video feeds and all that were working, so we've done a couple shows. Michael Hughes, who's our executive producer, after the first one he said, "Any fears I had, any stress, was just relieved. You guys went out there and did your thing." It was great to hear, but Jay and I ... that's just what we did. We poked fun at the studio, we just had fun delivering sports. We put as much effort into it as if it was a live show. The way it came across, the way the crew reacted was just perfect. I guess it was just one of those moments where you're like, "Okay, everything's gonna be good."
SL: Well Ephraim Salaam said that "we're not ready for what you guys are bringing" so maybe he just meant we won't know your names.
DO: He and I had known each other for a couple hours during the promo shoot. He was sitting beside me on a box, and there was a fly flying around and it landed on his butt. And I saw it, so I reared back and went for the fly ... and slapped him on the butt. But he didn't know the fly was there, so he was just like, "I thought you were the coach, you're in! Get in the game!" Now when he sees me he slaps me on the butt.
SL: Since you're doing the same sort of show you did in Canada, do you have to sort of set a language for the show [for American viewers]? Do you have to initiate people?
JO: It's a good question. I don't think so, because I think -- maybe I'm being a bit presumptuous -- it'll be a bit obvious when we start doing this show, who we are. I mean, if you've seen any of our YouTube stuff, you know we're not putting on an act, it's not a schtick. We just are that weird, we just are that technically inept as broadcasters. We tried to fight it early on, and then we started doing breaks. When we started doing breaks, we collected them in a segment called "Ya Blew It" at the end of the show, and that ended up being one of our most popular segments. It seemed like the more we embraced our mediocrity [laughs], the more people enjoyed.
It's really refreshing, as a younger broadcaster you'd stress so much about mistakes and stuff, and then it was sort of like "be who you are" and people will relate to it, and it seems like that's happened. We will definitely be bringing the "Ya Blew It" segment with us on Fox Sports Live. I think we'll just sort of do the show the way we always did it, and hopefully Americans like it as much as Canadians did. That's all you can really control, you can't really control anything other than that. You do exactly what you're good at, and hopefully people enjoy it, hopefully you're successful.
DO: There's gonna be a warming up period, because we're brand new. I think people, once they watch a couple times, they'll get what we're doing. You can't, obviously, do recurring jokes because no one will get them. No one's familiar with you. It's kinda neat starting with a blank slate and going from there, being part of something that's brand new. It's gonna have that new car smell, we get to test-drive it together, and everyone comes along for the ride with us.
It's exciting, I wouldn't say nerve-wracking, but it's nervous excitement that we have. It's not like we're bringing a new sport, we're doing the sports highlights. And were doing them the way we've done them for the last 11-12 years. People either want to have fun and relax and lose themselves and be entertained, or they just pull out their iPad or whatever and check the score and go on with their lives. We know what sports is, it's entertainment, and that's how we treat it. We just want everyone to come along and share some laughs with us, and figure out what the hell went on with the day in sports.
SL: On a sillier note, who is your favorite Canada-to-America success story? Are you guys going to be Ryan Gosling or Peter Jennings?
JO: Ah, great question. How about Alan Thicke? We just interviewed him on our podcast, he's such a nice guy. He was pretty funny, because when he first came down here, he was a late night talk show host. He had that show, Thicke of the Night and it lasted one season, it was a complete disaster, by his own admission. It nearly derailed his career and then, of course, he went on to do Growing Pains and have a successful career.
He sort of had some hilarious things to say about that because we're coming down in sort of a similar circumstance. The reason he came down here to do a late night talk show is because he had a really successful daytime talk show in Canada in the very early 80's. Someone said "why don't you come down here and do a late night talk show?" and he basically said to us was the only advice he could give us was "don't be something you're not."
He was a great daytime guy, kinda charming, Regis-type guy. But not a comedian, a good host, not a comedian. Then he went and did a late night show which is, as he said, the arena of comedians. He was eviscerated because he was out of his element. So, his only advice was stay in your comfort zone and do what you're good at and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. I thought that was really poignant advice considering our situation. I really liked his sense of humor about it. He was very Canadian about the whole thing, very philosophical about it.
I liked the fact that he came down here, suffered a major defeat when [he] arrived, and obviously he was still okay. That's why I don't think you can get too high or low about any situation, just kinda keep doing what you're doing.
DO: Ryan Gosling's so dreamy and he gets by with saying two words in a movie. If we could do that ... or how about Michael Buble? I'd love to be the next Michael Buble, of the sports world though. Cause he's massive now.
SL: I know your bosses sort of joked that you're responsible for getting Keith Olbermann his job back, but do you guys care whatsoever about the competition?
DO: I grew up on a farm in Canada, so I never got TSN growing up cause I had an antenna. Whenever I'd go to a hotel, I'd get to watch TSN. I'm well aware of what ESPN has done, I know what they are in the U.S. market. I know the brand, they used to be part-owners of my old work at TSN. I have the utmost respect for what they put on the air.
Being given the chance to go against them is fun. Sports is about competing, trying to win. That's what were gonna try and do, we're gonna try our damnedest to get people to click over. Maybe after seeing something on ESPN, they'll click over to our channel and stay a while. Maybe after testing it for a day, a long time, instead of just visiting a bit. The opportunity, the chance to go against a giant like ESPN is something the entire team's excited about.
JO: I never really worry about that, never worry about ratings. I probably should worry about that stuff more but I never really understood why anyone worries about that on my side of the business because there's nothing you can do about it. You might as well just work on what you work on and enjoy it. That's sort of the only thing we can worry about. They've worked hard, and they were in the same position as us 30 years ago. Brand new, hoping that people would click on the channel and stay there.
SL: You've been working together for nearly a decade, why do you think the partnership works?
JO: We just both have a very similar philosophy about how a show like ours should be done in this day and age. We just know that we have certain philosophies about how the show should be done, and not just the humor, even the actual broadcast side of it, we wanna see highlights. We're still highlight junkies. When I sit down at the end of the day and turn on a highlight show, I wanna watch highlights.
We just love reading highlights, both grew up wanting to do that kind of thing. I guess we just have those similar philosophies. The other side of it is, we have both worked with people you don't always necessarily get along with, or have the same sense of humor or chemistry with. We're both a little older and a little wiser, if you do get along with someone, its not something to be taken for granted, it doesn't happen every day. It also doesn't happen overnight.
I think were both grateful to work with a person that doesn't totally drive us insane and still makes you laugh. We're pretty grateful, actually, it's pretty awesome to share this opportunity with somebody you actually get along with.
DO: It's the simple fact that we went to a new workplace and immediately knew someone. It's just like going to a new school, and you've already got a head start if your buddy already goes to that school. I go back to our first couple of rehearsals, it was just Jay and I doing our thing. It didn't feel foreign, it didn't feel like we were reinventing the wheel, it was just great. That's one of the things about making the move, is we got to do it together, it's a lot less stressful than having to get used to a new partner.
Jay and I, at this point, we finish each other's sentences, we crack each other up. We just had a huge lunch and never stopped laughing the entire time. We sat beside each other the entire time on the flight to Alberta, and we just make each other laugh and we enjoy each other's company. It comes across on the air, and that's what makes the partnership work. We both get each other, we know when the other person's having a bad day, and know how to make it better, or when something with the show's not working. We'll talk the other person down off the ledge and remind each other "we ... don't even have real jobs."
It's a perfect partnership and one I always say is a once-in-a-lifetime partnership. I'm so lucky to be working with him and being paired together on the desk. When I go to work every night, my wife says "try to wipe the smile off your face, you're the only person I know that's happy to go to work!" I go to work, watch sports and laugh. I can't complain.