It's Monday, Dec. 7, more than a week since news of Tiger Woods' busted windshield and alleged marital infidelities came out in the press, but the Knoxville sports-talk radio intelligentsia is still finding the story irresistible.
John Adams is musing, casting his sonorous voice on 990 AM's News Sentinel Sports Page: "In Tiger Wood's case, his image has been so positive. He is golf," he says.
Up the dial, at WVLZ 1180 AM, Knoxville's ESPN radio affiliate, The Spanky Brown Morning Show starts Tiger Talk at the 8 a.m. top of the show. "Later in the week, we do have first access to Tiger Woods' Christmas album," the namesake show host remarks easily. The second gibe: a blues rendition of "Hey, Lady, Your Husband Is Cheating on Us" as the bumper music after a break. Then, almost 11 a.m., one of the last callers, J.D., wants to ask a question. "Hey, Spanky? My boy Tiger, is he smooth?"
Brown and his sidekick, David S. Thompson, who goes by "Shine" or "Shinebox" in broadcast situations, and the show's "pilot," 40-year-old Mark Atnip, a veteran sportscaster, crack up. They're still laughing, Brown wiping his eyes, as the caller continues, "You go to his phone and it's, ‘Baby, we missed double-syrup day at the Waffle House.' You know he's not a smooth brother."
Brown's calmed down to a slow chortle. "Right, brother," he says. "First of all, he's a golfer. Second, he's part Asian."
And studio and caller are laughing out loud once more.
Spanky Brown is live, talking to you in your car or living room—and since his debut this past July, unlike anyone sports radio fans have ever heard locally. His 12 years as a stand-up comic, including appearances on BET and Comedy Central, give him a unique "did you just say that on air?" edge; when would you hear Heather and Doc in the morning joshing about a golfer's ethnicity?
"Being a comedian, I can get away with stuff sports journalists can't," says Brown. "I have a black NASCAR correspondent, Mr. Wendell from BET's Comic View. My show sponsors the Old English 800 Cadillac. No other sports talk show could do that and not get hit by Sharpton, Jesse Jackson."
But Brown, a 47-year-old who's originally from Memphis and has the "Who Dat?" and "Ri-DI-cu-lous" vocabulary to prove it, doesn't really qualify as a shock jock. "We're not into heavy sexual innuendo," he says. "I won't make fun of the less fortunate. I feel like there's a difference between being funny and clear, and being shocking. Anyone can write a dirty joke."
His running one-liners, and those of Shine, which tend to have a "dude, where's my car?" tone, and those of Atnip, who is mostly wry and calm, get laughs. So do promotions like "Best of Yo Momma Jokes" and show-paired tweets like "Movies Tiger Woods Should Star In: Who Talkin' Too Much Now? Nappy Gilmore..."
Secondary to the guffaws, loyal listeners are bound to absorb a bit of sports information—factually correct, but with very little serious analysis, lots and lots of nitpicking, song parodies, fake voices from Shine, and cuing up of the "Boo Hoo Song" that get the same points across, but with humor. "Sports and comedy are such a natural mix—these jokes pretty much write themselves," says Brown. "For a comic, sports is like leftovers, like the Tiger Woods story, better the second day. Always better the second day.
"My belief is that sports media in general try to take journalists and reporters and make them humorous. This idea is taking funny people, who are funny for a living, and puttin' 'em with an expert and another fan. Let's mix that up and see what comes out. The other sports talk radio in town, they live on prognosticating, and they do it well. We knew the only way we have a shot is, we're totally different."
Do they have a shot? The three, who co-own the show and purchase time from WVLZ 1180, are not sure themselves. "There's no money in this show right now," says Brown. "Our immediate goal is, it needs to be profitable. We came in at a difficult time. The Arbitron ratings come out in January, and that's when we'll know. Right now, we're basing it on word-of-mouth feedback, and we're getting around three to five new callers each week. And they're cracking jokes."
Shine also holds a second job as a restaurant worker, and Brown still works as a touring stand-up comic, though he's down to six to eight weeks per year. But they pour their all into the three hours per morning, managing to convey the impression of simmering potential, all or nothing, break out in a big way or bust. Brown's talking the Big S, syndication, across the Southeast, be that satellite, terrestrial, or both. That's one of the reasons that, while it would be super-easy to lapse into all-Vol/all-the-time coverage, with a big, built-in local listenership, the guys focus on national topics. They believe the heretical thought that the Vols are not the center of the sports-coverage universe, that people follow other teams and sports, too, that a national audience awaits them—and that part of it resides in East Tennessee. "Everyone in this town is not a die-hard orange-and-white Vol fan. We just want to point out there's nothing wrong with that," says Brown. "We all love UT, but we don't feel like we're cheating on them if we pull for somebody else. We believe those people are here who love UT but would like to hear other stuff and have the sports news delivered not so serious."
The show's sales manager of six months, J.D. Jackson, whose full-time job is as a car-sales finance manager, is wearing a goatee, blue serge suit, and church shoes and says simply, "We're not all UT." Then he finishes his sentence with a quick dance of "The Robot."
The Inside Jokes
Any given weekday finds Brown, Atnip, and Shine posted at the 1180 studios on South Central, in the general vicinity of the parking meters and garages for Gay Street businesses, on the street that leads to the on-ramp for Neyland Drive. This Friday, Brown and Shine are spending the pre-show minutes catching one more smoke outside the salt-box size office, chatting like old friends, Shine with a rainbow toboggan on his head, Brown wearing a roomy leisure shirt and Shaft-style half boots as he comes in and settles into the chair opposite.
Atnip, who neither drinks nor smokes, is already inside his half of the sound booth, wearing an A's jersey, relaxing. He's the seasoned sports radio guy, getting his start at age 16 at WHUB in Cookeville, moving along to Nebraska and then Minnesota, and coming back here 10 years ago. He's in his sixth year as the voice of the Ice Bears. "I think I've also been on every sports station in this town, including a couple that no longer exist," he says. "At KZX, I showed up for work and the doors were locked and we were broadcasting in Spanish."
Around Atnip are three cramped offices, dirty brown carpet, dirty green tile, lots of old-school movie posters like The 10 Commandments, every to-go menu known to Knoxville, some pamphlets on a folding table, two worn chairs in the "sitting room." It could charitably be called a dump, but no one takes any notice of the surroundings; it's all about the voices they'll project through the glass, Atnip cuing music, receiving callers, Shine setting up the camera that will later broadcast the whole thing on streaming video (on ustream.tv), Brown murmuring, "It's time to make the donuts."
They roll. It's quick, chaotic, funny, "Old School Hip Hop Friday." Before the first break: The Boo-Hoo Song played for Alan Iverson. A joke that involves a Muslim and a ham sandwich. "Mundane. I've never used that word on air before." A quote from Brian T. Shirley's Make Love, Not Warts: "When in Rome, do the Romans." Put Adrienne Peterson on the stupid chart. "How can he not know he's going 109 miles an hour?" "Senator, hang on." "Titans Bill, you sound a little congested." Coining the term "swiding" to describe the athletic maneuvers of Ice Bear Kevin Swider. "Back in the day, women would wear a stole. It looked like a live possum." "Look, man, I don't think he went on the web and apologized. He's a billion-dollar man." "First break already?"
Now comes the high point of the morning, every morning, the same in person as it sounds on the air. The reception of five dozen hot donuts from sponsor Krispy Kreme. And though they will have leftovers, they all eat some of the donuts, while they're still warm. Part of the deal is they talk up the donuts on the air, chew and swallow on the webcam; you think Brown would be tired of it by now, but he sounds as fresh as if he'd just tasted his first donut ever and maybe the inventor was someone who would remember Spanky in his will. "People risk their lives for you everyday at Krispy Kreme, just to make your donuts," Shine deadpans.
Brown chimes in: "So be somebody. Eat some damn donuts."
The Start of the Show
How does a Memphis-born, urban comic who likes sports, sure, but as a fan, not a journalist, end up in Knoxville chatting about Tim Tebow and NASCAR? "It's a classic story," says Brown. "Comic meets girl, comic moves to city with girl, comic and girl break up after a while."
Right before Knoxville, Brown was in Los Angeles for about eight months, chasing a dream. "A bunch of twentysomethings run it in L.A., they know what's funny. So at my age, I decided to create myself a vehicle. I wrote a couple movies, wrote a sitcom. But that all takes a long time, and then I broke up with my management and went back on the road. But 52 weeks a year wasn't fun anymore."
Arriving in Knoxville, Brown's biggest thing was, "I wanted to be funny and stay home and do something I love." He initiated a deal with Side Splitters; when that fell through, he started performing an urban comedy night around town. "I decided to buy advertising at HOT 104, and a guy there said in our meeting that it'd be great to have a comedian on. I've got a radio background, but we went around a little bit and couldn't pull the trigger."
Enter local businessman John Hodge. "He told me the ESPN affiliate had time in the morning, would I be interested in doing a sports morning show. I thought about it and thought, ‘I like sports. I know enough about it to talk about it. I'm not an expert but if I was surrounded by the right people..."
Hodge, who had an "amicable" split with the group about six weeks into the show, introduced Brown and Atnip at the station the day they signed on. "Mark Atnip is the most talented man," says Brown. "As a comic, I've done more than 700 radio interviews, and he's still the most talented radio man I've ever met. He drives the show; screens, fixes problems. He's the adult on the set, even though he cuts up some of the time. He's my friend."
Shinebox was already a friend, from comedy club days, and he added another dimension that sets the show apart from other Knoxville sports radio by also making it a videocast (on upstream.com) that people can watch live or later—free. "Shine is the younger perspective, the technical guru who is a sports fan. We don't want to delve into a lot of nuts and bolts, but just in case we do, we've got Mark, a guy who's as smart as anybody. He's the grown-up in the room, who can cut up at times as well."
Some days, it's amazing to Brown that they're still on the air at all. "The first three days, we got nothing but complaints: ‘Where's Mike and what the hell is this?' It was pretty bad. We'd tell callers, ‘Look, we're just new at this, we're gonna try something different.'"
Byron Yeldell's Funny Family
Spanky Brown was once Byron Yeldell, and friends might still call him that. The "Spanky" tag came in at Westwood High School in Memphis, where a group of black guys took on the Little Rascals' names. "I was Spanky because I was the chubby kid," says Brown.
Brown came late–age 35—to stand-up comedy. In high school in Memphis, he thought he'd follow his father, Nokomis Yeldell, into the ministry. Instead, the second youngest of five spent a year at Shelby State Community College, where he played baseball, then "three years of lost in the wilderness. I was messing up, nothing real bad, but I needed to get out of Memphis. At 22, I took the test for the Army, scored pretty well, passed the physical. They were showing me videos of rockets going off and stuff, ‘You wanna do this?' I'm like, ‘Sure.' He said, ‘When do you want to leave?' I said, ‘Today.' Then I cried on the plane all the way from Memphis to Dallas."
Four years in the Army was followed by selling cars, opening up an ad agency, and then doing a radio stint. That's when Yeldell became "Brown." "The first day on the air, they were like, what're we going to call you—Byron's not going to happen, so I told them about Spanky. Then the guy said he used to have a friend named Byron Brown, so that's where we got Brown."
Another suggestion during the radio days led to his late-life comedy career. "My best friend in the world—he's now a Christian comic–Akintunde, he said to me, ‘You gotta do stand-up. You're too funny.'
"I'm like, ‘No, I'm old, I'm divorced, nobody loves me.'"
But stand up he did, and in his 12-year career has appeared on BET, Comedy Central, and in hundreds of clubs. Except for Josh Bridges from Oak Ridge, he is the only Knoxville-based comedian who tours nationally, but his humor comes from his hometown of Memphis—and straight from the family gene pool. Minister Nokomis Yeldell was leader of the Norris Road Church of Christ in Memphis for 50 years and also did a Sunday morning broadcast on TV-5. Brown gets nostalgic, remembering his father as a "master joke teller" and the Sunday his father got in the pulpit and told the congregation, "This may disturb some of you to hear, but today's sermon is, ‘What in Hell Do You Want and Why in Hell Do You Wanna Go There?'"
He's still laughing as he segues to a story about his mom Dollie, the other funniest person he ever met. "I called her and said, ‘I'm on a new diet, counting fat grams,'" he recalls. "She said, ‘Are you counting the ones you already got?'"
Both his parents only came around slowly to the idea of their son as a stand-up comedian. "They didn't care for it, not what I was doing, but where I was doing it—nightclubs, bars. My mom got on board when someone at church said, ‘I saw Byron last night on BET.' It took my dad a lot longer. He finally came around when he saw me perform at a Christian church." Brown's mother died in 2003, his dad in 2007.
No longer a congregation member—he says on stage, "I believe the problem in the world is there's too much religion and not enough Christianity"—Brown still has that "preacher's kid" perspective. One of his favorite routines is titled, "My Favorite Music Is White People Singing Southern Gospel Music," for example, and he created "Reverend Coach" for the radio show, played by Christian comedian Mike Goodwin. "My pastor's from the Fourth Down, Fourth Quarter, Fourth and Long, No Time on the Clock Baptist Church," says Brown. "That last part changes every day—Episcopalian, Buddhist, Kiwanis Club... He calls in every now and then to pray for the stupidness that goes on."
And though he doesn't carry on the ministerial tradition, Brown says he has perpetuated the family's heightened sense of humor—passing it along to his high-school age daughter, who lives in Savannah with her mother, Brown's first wife. "She is hilarious. This is the story she told me once. Her hair is straight, and black, like mine, due to our black and Indian lineage. A boy at her school, about 16, he must have been short, told her, ‘Chelsea, you have hair like you're from Pakistan.' ‘No, she's from Afghanistan,' this other boy says. She tells the first one, ‘You must be from Shortsmanistan.'"
Keeping Up Appearances
The Spanky Brown Morning Show team is doing the "never before attempted," "calling" an NFL game live and uncensored from Ray's ESG. Atnip can't resist backpedaling into his traditional sportscaster role for a few minutes. "It's third and six..."
Shine is also just a little too sportsy, "The secondary, their challenge..."
But Brown, down at the other end of the little table set up in front of the widescreen TV, is completely at ease, sales troubles and future aspirations somewhere in the back of his mind, drinking the shots and beers someone in the crowd keeps sending up, drinking Atnip's, too, chatting to an attractive blonde sitting a few tables back. "You taken?" he's asking her. "Now come up here and sit next to me... You know, I've got my own show."
He's going to do stand-up at half-time, but for a few seconds his humor's on the back burner. "You and I should talk after this." Atnip nudges him. "Oh, yes, you'll need to sit back there while I do this thing," he says.
They're talking sports again, he looks at the screen. "Brett Favre throws like a 75-year-old man," he says, but neither of the other guys takes him up on the remark.
Says Shine: "There's still 35 seconds left..."
"Of his life," finishes Brown. The 35 seconds ticks off.
Says Shine: "Brett Favre is not very impressive."
"And," adds Brown, "he has bunions."