Crossballs: The Debate Show
Created by Matt Besser, Charlie Siskel
Produced by Charlie Siskel Productions
Aired on Comedy Central for 1 season (23 episodes, 1 unaired) from July 5, 2004 – August 27, 2004
Chris Tallman as Host/Moderator
Matt Besser as Various characters
Mary Birdsong as Various characters
Andrew Daly as Various characters
Jerry Minor as Various characters
“Out of the Crossfire, beyond Hardball, this is Crossballs!”
A parody of political debate shows, Crossballs has comedians pose as experts in their field to discuss the issue of the day and pits them against real life experts who are not aware of the farce debate they are participating in. The comedians argue both sides of an issue, be it ridiculous or not, and mine comedy from taking the issue to absurd lengths and goading reactions from the real experts.
Each episode is moderated by Chris Tallman (as a Chris Matthews type), who introduces each guest debater in a round table discussion about exaggerated everyday issues ranging from finding other ways to get high without drugs, to whether people should be allowed to drive while elderly, to tricks around censorship or the healing nature of pornography. Along with the debates between comedic actors and experts, the show brings in absurd topic-related clips to discuss, such as a presentation on how elderly people are unable to hear or see while driving. There are also added gags in the ticker text that appears at the bottom while the debaters discuss the topic, emphasizing the ludicrousness as seen below.
A year before The Colbert Report would satirize the political pundit and long after The Daily Show made everyday news a regular source of comedy, this was a series that took the platform of basic cable debate shows and made fun of the loudmouthed, highfalutin’, and stubborn-minded “experts” on those panels. The show was conceived by Upright Citizen Brigade sketch comedian Matt Besser and Charlie Siskel, a supervising producer on Michael Moore’s documentary series The Awful Truth. The show appeared to be a branch of Gotcha! Journalism with improvisational comedy mixed in for entertainment. The goal was not necessarily to humiliate the real guests, but more to create comedy from their reactions to the absurd topics which the comedians would present as genuine. The real guests that came out of the conversations had on Crossballs believing that they’d had a legitimate debate is more telling of how absurd the real debate shows actually are.
The television landscape at the time had become prime for this type of irony-layered humor that blurred the lines between reality and entertainment. This series was developed when reality TV prank shows were becoming more predominant, as The Jamie Kennedy Experiment and Punk’d were beginning to take hold, and after reality hoax shows were making a mockery of the reality TV medium itself with The Truman Show-like Joe Schmoe Show and WB’s Superstar USA, a response to the counter culture phenomenon of celebrating the untalented contestants of American Idol. At this point, television was mocking itself but taking itself seriously while doing so.
The first episode, “Reality Television”, actually makes a point to address this kind of television making, with Andy Daly playing an average person wanting to appear on a prank show as a mark. The guest expert, a casting agent from one of those type of reality shows, makes the case that Daly couldn’t be cast because he would already know that the prank was coming and therefore there would be no fun in it, to which Daly insists that he would FORGET. This is the show making fun of what it’s doing yet taking it seriously as a form of entertainment, turning the tables on the reality show casting agent because she is not initially in on the joke. By the episode’s end though, she may have caught on as her remarks afterwards became more amenable to their tomfoolery. This was not always the case, as several guests did not take the deception with good humor after discovering the truth.
The way the producers of Crossballs went about casting guest commentators was through a ploy of presenting themselves as a legitimate debate show under the working title of The Debate Project, which would air on one of MTV’s affiliate channels, never cluing in the guest that the episode would air on Comedy Central, as that would easily give it away. The guest would then appear on the set for a live taping and afterwards be released without being told that the show was in fact a hoax. The producers did this perhaps to ensure that The Debate Project‘s secret identity wouldn’t be made public knowledge, so they could continue the ruse for a second season.
That second season would never come though, as the weight of the stunt proved to be too heavy for the network to handle, with lawsuits being threatened by unsatisfied and humiliated guests, who called for the series to be cancelled. One lawsuit in particular prevented an episode about gun ownership, titled “Pistol Whipped America”, to even air on the network and although it was taped, it has not surfaced to be seen by audiences.
The show unfortunately did not have the staying power of a The Daily Show for Comedy Central and that could be because of the limitations of the premise and the difficulty of sustaining the prank quality that made the show chaotic and entertaining. Having a raised blood pressure in heated conversations was the point of the show and reining in the debate with comedy was what made it so watchable. Could the series have worked without the deception? Possibly, but it was that aspect of the show that made it so unique to television and that could not be duplicated otherwise. The Colbert Report served a similar sensibility with the difference being that host Steven Colbert’s discussions were one on one, with the guest’s awareness that the person that was interviewing them was a purposefully farcical character, making the conversational playing ground even. On Crossballs, the comedians were always in control of the circumstances.
The use of a debate format is what made the show interesting, but it was the improvisational talents of the cast that made it charming. There is Matt Besser, a founding member of the UCB sketch comedy group and purveyor of button pushing humor who is apt at portraying characters that are misogynistic, uneducated, and self-absorbed. A constant highlight on the show is Andy Daly, who is able to bring humor and dimwitted cleverness to his characters unlike any performer you’ve ever seen. There’s also Jerry Minor, then coming off a notable run on Saturday Night Live, who tends to revel in the guests’ reactions to his shenanigans. Rounding out the fake debaters is Mary Birdsong, who is remarkable when she takes on a character with a commitment that truly channels the insanity of the claims she makes with frightening realism. Chris Tallman ties the show together well as the moderator of each episode, playing the conservative-minded blowhard channeling the Sean Hannitys and Chris Matthewses of the world.
Although this show doesn’t necessarily play fair with its guests, what it does do is shine a light on the ridiculousness and abrasive nature of hot topic issues. The news that this show tackled is not exactly timeless, as references made are very much of the time (such as Janet Jackson’s Super bowl incident and the cloning debate), but there is a lot of humor in the discussions that is still funny and issues that are oddly still as relevant now as they were back then.
There are a few highlights worth mentioning. For example, in the “FCC or F-You-CC!” episode, the topic is censorship and Jerry Minor plays a rapper who is named ‘Truth”, who makes a point of explaining why censorship is bad, stating that real drug dealers do not talk like they do on PG television so kids are being completely misinformed with expectations that they say ‘Gosh!’ and whatnot. Minor’s character also has taken to using the phone keypad to encode his profanity claiming that, “If you don’t want to get offended, don’t decipher the code.” In “Driving in America”, the final segment has Andy Daly conferring with the guests via satellite video as an old man who is unwittingly making the case of why he as an elderly person should not be allowed to drive. In “Sex Battle USA”, the idea of gender identity is turned on its head when Matt Besser plays a character going on one of those reality date shows who doesn’t want to be identified as a male but as simply a “person”. On the date, Besser decidedly imposes the responsibilities of chivalry onto his female date explaining to the panel that he doesn’t define himself by his sex gender, but would identify himself as a man when it comes to being cooked for and as a women when the check comes.
There are several other complex and funny moments that aired throughout the eight weeks that the show ran on Comedy Central in 2004, plenty to make this series truly worthwhile, but there have been very limited ways to watch this show post cancellation. There might never be a proper release of this show due to the threat of lawsuits, which is very unfortunate because it featured a very talented cast and was a playground for some interesting and hilarious debates. Crossballs was one of television’s more interesting and unique takes on the reality TV sensibility, one that took a look at debate shows and told it to go 3825 itself, and with that, it marked a fine moment in television history.
Crossballs was very entertaining during its initial run and upon rewatching, it very much holds up. The cast were all on top of their game and have become entertainers worth following, building cult statuses for themselves in comedy scenes in LA and podcasts networks that reach a niche audience, but I’m not sure how many of their fans have come across Crossballs, much less the masses. There really has not been a venue to re-experience this show for a long time and not until it was uploaded to Youtube a few years ago could it have even begun to build a cult audience for itself. Recently, Matt Besser has begun uploading episodes onto his UCB website and that surely must’ve spurred interest from his fan base. Hopefully they do check it out, because it is certainly worth their time.
Matt Besser went on to develop TV movie A.S.S.S.S.C.A.T.: Improv, Very Funny Show, The Backroom and most recently UCB Comedy Originals, as well as host the Improv4humans podcast on the Earwolf podcast network.
Charlie Siskel worked on TV series documentary Dawn Porter, Important Things with Dmitri Martin, La La Land, Tosh.0, and is currently working on Review.
Andy Daly went on to make appearances on Reno 911!, The Life & Times of Tim, Eastbound and Down, Modern Family, and is starring in Review.
Mary Birdsong went on to Reno 911!, Crash & Bernstein, made appearances on The Knick, Review, and most recently had a cameo in Netflix movie Staten Island Summer.
Chris Tallman would later appear on Thank God You’re Here, Chocolate News, Reno 911!, and most recently, Nickelodeon’s The Thundermans.
There are currently no home video release of the show, but you can find 23 (of 24) episodes currently available to watch in SD quality on Youtube.