The Comedy and Tragedy of Football Season’s Return

By  · Published on September 4th, 2014

Summit Entertainment

Summer is a time when many of you go outside. There is plenty to do out there, I’m told. Things like hiking and biking. Something called “floating the river” that includes, to the best of my knowledge, drinking beer and becoming sunburned for a reason that eludes me. Personally, I don’t go out much during the summer. On one hand, I’m still in the midst of a 15-year-strong quest for that perfect beach body. On the other, I live in Austin, Texas, which is 2,083 miles from the equator and a mere 7-feet from the surface of the Sun in the middle of August.

My summer is held inside, where science has cooled the area around my television to a comfortable 72 degrees. My summer Sundays are for movie marathons and catching up on TV seasons I’ve missed. Then somewhere along the line, just as the temperature dips back into the double figures, something magical happens to my Sundays: football returns. And with it not only comes gridiron action, but a wealth of new football-themed entertainment options.

Being from one football state (Ohio) and living my adult years in another (Texas), there’s no escaping the world of football for me (not that I’d want to). And for those who share this passion, this is the most wonderful time of year. College football is already back in session (Go Buckeyes) and pro football kicks off tonight. The excitement, however, began a few weeks ago when EA Sports released one of the most bizarre marketing campaigns for a video game I’ve ever seen. To introduce the world to Madden NFL 15, this year’s edition of a video game series that dates back to 1988 and the Commodore 64, they looked to Kevin Hart (Ride Along), Dave Franco (Neighbors) and one of the guys from Epic Meal Time. With copious input from Hart, it was declared to be “Madden Season.”

In all my research and attempts to contact EA, there’s no word on who directed this gem. However, it feels like an extension of Kevin Hart’s style. Whether it’s his stand-up or work alongside Ice Cube in Ride Along, the guy does like to do things loud. For a kick-off to football season, loud is good.

A week or so later came football season’s rite of passage, a fantasy football draft. In two leagues, I will mix it up with movie-loving and sports-obsessed friends alike. For the uninitiated, it’s simple: you pick a team of players from the NFL as your team. You give your team a sweet name (in my case, “All Hail Megatron” to represent my movie nerd prowess and because I picked Detroit Lions receiver Calvin “Megatron” Johnson in the first round). Then you play against others in your league each week, your players accruing points based on their real-life performances. Winning brings the adoration of friends and family, bragging rights for the following week (or year, if you win your league) and if you’re playing in a serious league, cash money.

As it turns out, you don’t need to know any more than that to enjoy the FXX show The League, which is about fantasy football. Well, it’s not so much about fantasy football as it’s about having competitive relationships with friends. Led by indie darlings and power couple Mark Duplass and Katie Aselton, The League sports one of the most dynamic comedy casts of any show on television. Nick Kroll, Paul Scheer, Jon Lajoie and Stephen Rannazzisi play a group of friends whose league is a way of life. In five seasons, the show has charmed audiences beyond a football-loving core with its edge and wit. Appearances from guest stars such as Seth Rogen, Adam Brody, Glee’s Jayma Mays and Sarah Silverman haven’t hurt, either.

In the season 6 premiere of the semi-scripted comedy, which aired last night on FXX, the gang must attend the funeral of a friend and accomplish their fantasy draft on the same day. Not ones to run away from the chance to desecrate a corpse and disrespect a dead friend, the group goes to great lengths to pick their teams and avoid the ire of other funeral attendants (which includes the NFL’s scariest man, Houston Texans’ defensive lineman J.J. Watt).

While a healthy knowledge of (or general interest in) pro football helps, The League doesn’t require such things to be enjoyable. It has plenty to offer. Mostly raunchy humor. You can get a little taste for yourself in this clip from season one, in which Taco (Jon Lajoie) sings a very special birthday song to his niece:

Thanks to The League, football season comes with plenty of comedy. However, there’s also sadness. You see, I’m a native of the great city of Cleveland. It’s a town whose sporting follies are so abundant that they can be categorized and shaped into long Buzzfeed-esque lists of bad moments with ease. The Cleveland sports curse, as it’s known to some, is a span of 156-season in which our pro sports teams (the Browns of football, Indians of baseball, Cavaliers of basketball and for two years in the late 1970s, the Barons of hockey) have gone without a championship. There are individual teams out there that have gone without winning the big one in decades (like the Chicago Cubs), but no other city comes close in the totality of its failure. To be a sports fan from Cleveland means starting in a place of pessimism only to be jolted by misplaced optimism when one of our teams gets good for a while, only to have your heart ripped out in the end. Yes, I’m looking at you 1997 Cleveland Indians who were one out away from winning the World Series and then BLEW IT! You ruined my childhood.

Hollywood, to its credit, has mined plenty of comedy from Cleveland’s long history of sports failures. The Major League franchise (the first two movies, at least) still ranks among the best sports comedies ever made. It’s also the height of young Charlie Sheen before he grew up into a crazy person. Yet Major League still proves that even when there’s comedy, all Cleveland sports movies are inherently sad.

This year brought us another entry into the sad Cleveland sports movie tradition with Draft Day, the Ivan Reitman directed film about the ongoing drama of an NFL team’s front office on the day of the draft, when the futures of about 250 young men are decided. The film revolves around the sordid affairs of Sonny Weaver Jr., played by the ageless Kevin Costner, the General Manager of the Cleveland Browns. He’s got a workplace romance (with Jennifer Garner) that’s teetering on taking the next step, he’s living in the shadow of his late, legendary father, and he works in Cleveland, which means the hopes of the aforementioned factory of sadness are pinned on his every move. Oh, and he has to decide what to do with the #1 pick in the draft. No pressure.

As was the case with The League, this isn’t all about football. In fact, Draft Day is more about the stunning and sometimes jarring world of an NFL executive. The very real pressures of the job are compounded by the frantic energy Reitman and co. create with tricks of editing and score. The authenticity is in the whirlwind of decisions that Sonny must make as the big day progresses. The outside pressures from owners, fans and his existing players are a very real part of what NFL GMs face, especially in Cleveland. The logistics of Sonny’s world and his execution as master strategist are well done, almost enough to make me wish Kevin Costner was in charge of the real Browns.

Of course, being a studio sports film means that Draft Day can’t escape becoming a bit schmaltzy and in some moments over-the-top. But it’s fun, in its own way. And its respectful to its subject while being entertaining. On the Costner Scale of sports movies, it falls somewhere in between Tin Cup and Bull Durham. And that’s probably mostly because the inner workings of an NFL team are more interesting than golf by default.

A well-timed release, Draft Day hit DVD, Blu-ray and VOD this week. If you haven’t seen it already, here’s a trailer:

There we have it. It’s football season and it’s not just about what happens on Sundays (or Thursday and Monday nights and Saturday if you count college – which I do). Football season permeates all walks of entertainment. And it isn’t only for those who enjoy the game. There’s comedy and drama to be found for everyone else, too.

As a thank you to those of you who read this far, thus humoring me and my need to talk about my love of the game, I’ve scored three Blu-ray copies of Draft Day from the folks at Lionsgate Home Entertainment. All you have to do to enter is (a) be over 18 and a resident of the United States and (b) head down to the comments area and give me your best movie-themed Fantasy Football team name. Bonus points for puns that involve real players. For example: The D’Brickashawshank Redemption.

A winner will be chosen on Sunday, 9/7.

Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)