There’s a long-standing stereotype that nerds and sports don’t mix. ESPN’s Michael Smith and Jemele Hill are disproving this myth with their entertaining, nerdy new take on SportsCenter.
Smith and Hill originally partnered up as the hosts of Numbers Never Lie, which became His & Hers. Their unapologetically honest yet fun take on the day’s sports news led to a passionate following, that led to a promotion to the 6 o’clock SportsCenter. They call it #TheSix.
In a phone interview Michael and Jemele explained their take on being the new faces of SportsCenter, why they’ll never change no matter what and Jemele’s controversial Batman theory.
The most noticeable difference between Smith and Hill and other sports talk shows is their authentic friendship and chemistry.
“Some of our conversations we would have as friends, we thought that would make for pretty good television. We thought our viewers would be pretty entertained if they heard some of the things we talked about,” said Hill. “The friendship came first…and long after this TV thing is over, the friendship will remain. The chemistry that people see on TV is just a reflection of the friends that we are in real life.”
“Jemele’s amazing by herself, I’m pretty good by myself, but when we’re together we’re just different. We bring out a side of each other that doesn’t organically come out with everybody else because of how similar we are and how much we have in common both professionally and personally,” said Smith. “It’s a perfect storm that allows us to be ourselves more than most people on television.”
On His & Hers the duo became known for their outspoken views on race in sports, politics and police shootings. When they were offered the SportsCenter job they were concerned about changing their style, but the network immediately put those fears to rest.
“They went out of their way to assure us, they weren’t trying to change us, they weren’t trying to conform us. They wanted us to do what we were doing at 6 o’clock on ESPN but with more resources and more support. Once that was clear, the rest was where do we sign.”
“That was the was the part that mattered most to us, would we be able to continue what we had already established at noon on ESPN 2,” said Hill. “That willingness to embrace who we were and how we like to do television, that’s what sold us.”
Even through all the network assurances, the team was still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“We still didn’t believe them. They told us that it was all good, that we didn’t have to change anything, ‘we want you to be yourselves,’ we were like sure we’ll see. One of these days they’ll be like just playing, go do some hockey highlights,” joked Smith.
Smith is very open about how they can trace their success back to one of ESPN’s SportsCenter legends, Stuart Scott.
“We owe a lot to a lot of people, first and foremost Stuart Scott, in terms of how he was able to be himself in this space,” said Smith. “What gets lost with Stuart is that he was just an amazing broadcaster and he added the style to that substance.”
Scott was one of the first sports anchors to mix real life references, slang and pop culture shout outs into the highlights. This is something Smith and Hill have taken to a new level.
When a recent show fell on the anniversary of Notorious B.I.G.’s death, they spent the whole hour seamlessly working his song lyrics into the program.
“The viewers of TV today, I don’t think it just applies to sports, they want to feel a sense of community and relationship with the people that are on television,” said Hill. “I think when our viewers…find out that we’re into a lot of the same things they’re into or that we’re laughing along with them at a hashtag on Twitter…it builds a stronger community and a stronger relationship.”.
It’s this celebration of Black culture that has given them both a loyal fanbase and a huge number of detractors. However, Michael and Jemele refuse to ever be ashamed of unapologetically showing their blackness on television.
“Jemele and I were going to be damned if we were going to change to make people comfortable, tone it down, not be honest or not keep it 100 just because we might offend somebody,” said Smith. “We’re not here for that. We’re not here to be people everybody’s got to like. We’re not everybody’s cup of tea but we can lay our heads on our pillows at night knowing we were ourselves.”
Without a doubt, the duo’s calling card has become their outrageous movie and TV spoofs. They’ve done everything from Coming to America to Step Brothers to the full anchor fight from Anchorman to their latest endeavour, the opening credits for A Different World.
“It’s one of those things you’re going to rewind and fast forward over and over again. You can freeze frame every single scene and see something different,” said Hill. “If the fun that we had shooting this is any indication, I think this might be number one. It’s tough to say because I think that I’ve said that every single time that we’ve done one.”
The Different World skit was particularly special since they were able to get original cast members Dawnn Lewis, Glynn Turman, Darryl M. Bell and Sinbad to participate.
“We got all these cameos, the production is amazing and it’s A Different World. This is what we grew up on. And we got the cast members,” said Smith. “This is the first time that we’ve been able to get the cameos from the originals. We knew when we did it this was special. We knew in the moment, this is it right here.”
One of their most memorable movie spoofs was the Boyz in the Hood production they did for Halloween.
“Boyz in the Hood was the most special to us. It was last-minute and it was the most holy shit I can’t believe they did that on ESPN moment. I mean Jemele drank a 40,” said Smith.
“And it was a real 40. That was the most for the culture moment we probably ever had on television,” said Hill.
A frequent element of the show are comic book references. Both hosts are fascinated with superheroes and are very clear on who their favorites are.
“Iron Man because we have so much in common. We’re basically the same guy. I’m not a genius, billionaire, playboy. I’m somewhat of a philanthropist, but not at that same level, other than that same dude,” said Smith. “In the Marvel universe I love Iron Man. In DC I’m a Batman guy. I like all the smartasses, Iron Man, Deadpool, Spider Man.”
“Superman was the one I liked that lured me into the comic book world. I love superheroes. The part that I love about them is the inherent personal conflict, so I’ve always loved Wolverine,” said Hill. “My three favorite comic books growing up were Superman, Wolverine and Silver Surfer. Silver Surfer was brooding and moody…and it’s one of the great disappointments that they’ve never been able to make an adequate, appropriate Silver Surfer movie.”
Despite her love of brooding, moody superheroes, Jemele has a controversial take on Batman’s hero status.
“Batman at his core is a really rich dude with a lot of toys,” said Hill. “That doesn’t mean that he’s not heroic, but superhero implies you have some extraordinary abilities. He has no extraordinary abilities physically. He is a trained ninja.”
Her fun take on Batman continued with an unexpected view off the Batman vs Superman dynamic.
“Batman had to beat Superman because we could not create a comic that iconic and have the alien win. Anything in the history of movies, that’s not how it works, the alien doesn’t get to win,” said Hill. “You could run up on Batman and shoot him in the head, you can’t do that with Superman. They made Batman the leader of the Justice League and the one who could bring everything down to make human beings feel better about their inadequacies. Is that not the story of America, the really rich dude wins.”
However, in the end she acknowledged the reason for Batman’s popularity.
“He has taken on a responsibility that he doesn’t have to take on. He could just be rich and be ballin but he chose to save Gotham and as an extension humanity. That’s what makes him appealing, the selflessness of it all,” said Hill.
Conversations like these are all part of the fun of SportsCenter with Michael and Jemele. One minute it’s going to be about LeBron and Steph, the next minute it will be about how great Logan is and then it will close with crazy Twitter beefs in the Doin Too Much countdown.
Michael and Jemele have made it cool to be a nerd and like sports.
SportsCenter with Michael and Jemele airs weekdays at 6pm ET/ 3 pm PT on ESPN.