Tribeca Film Festival review: Mike and the Mad Dog

Mike and the Mad Dog...Sports Radio 66, W-F-A-N
They're talkin' sports, goin' at it as hard as they can,
It's Mike and the Mad Dog on the FAN
Nothing can get by 'em, turn it on and try 'em, Mike and the Mad Dog, W-F-A-N
The roar of the stadium crowd has nothing on this catchy theme song jingle from the 1990s.

There have been thousands and thousands of home runs; hundreds and hundreds of heartbreaking shots with double zeroes left on the clock. But there’s only been one tune to introduce Mike and the Mad Dog.

The iconic afternoon drive sports radio program that featured Mike Francesa and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, and took New York City by storm from September 1989 through August 2008, is the subject of the latest ESPN 30 for 30 documentary set to air July 13.

Director Daniel H. Forer’s film, which made its premiere at the TriBeCa Film Festival April 21, chronicles how the show beat the odds — and its hosts low expectations for it — to become a religion for not only New York fans, but fans across the country.

Simply put: Without Mike and the Mad Dog, the never-ending cycling of sports broadcasting wouldn’t be where it is today.

What would our country look like if these two Long Island natives never clashed with each other on the air? It’s an interesting question to entertain, even if it serves to inflate the already-swelled egos of these two revolutionary — and legendary — broadcasters.

Like any great sports team, the split between Francesa and Russo was inevitable. No team can last forever.

However, the magic that they created in their star-crossed, 19-year run was something that will never be forgotten. And that’s a point of emphasis for Forer, who dives into the hundreds of Mike and the Mad Dog imitations spawned across the country, none of which come close to replicating the talk show’s format.

Maybe it’s just the phone calls from listeners in the New York metropolitan area that gave this duo such an impenetrable formula.

But the documentary isn’t about cheap answers to the complexities of sports and fandom; rather, where Mike and the Mad Dog thrives is how it establishes why the radio show mattered so much and why it resonated. These guys sounded like their listeners and, most importantly, wanted to share opinions about the city’s teams.

With a pulse on the city, the film concentrates on the passion the two brought into the studio, as well as an encyclopedic sports knowledge they brought to their various bouts.

It doesn’t get much better than watching footage of Francesa rifling off pitching statistics to combat one of Russo’s explosive tirades.

While fans spent two decades listening to these guy go round and round in the ring, the documentary opens the viewer's eyes to the emotional toll these fights inflicted.  

For every laugh in Mike and the Mad Dog — and there are plenty of them, the film touches on plenty of petty arguments and grudges that over time accumulated to the point where the friendship between hosts was nonexistent.

Where this documentary becomes an essential viewing though isn’t with the on-air comedy or the drama off it; instead, it’s in the fleeting, compassionate moments depicted in between, like when Francesa’s brother committed suicide during the show’s early stages or when Russo’s dad called in to say goodbye.

The final phone call melts the exterior tough Francesa, and pushes him to the verge of tears. He’s never shown that much emotion on the air, and never will again.

It’s a special moment that an audience member can’t help but look up on YouTube to watch the entire seven minute clip.

Unfortunately for Forer, he’s only got 55 minutes to work with here — and a lot of subject matter to cover, and the show’s legacy both locally and nationally.

Of course, it’s a brilliant nostalgic trip for any sports fan and faithful listener. It also provides a bevy of history lessons (for example: who knew a radio show could force a baseball team’s hand and make a trade for an all-star catcher).

History aside, Mike and the Mad Dog succeeds in doing more than just highlighting the origin story, the rise to fame, and the ultimate demise.

It humanizes these two media giants, and gives them the appropriate send off they were incapable of granting each other when they broke up a decade ago.

As the saying goes: time heals all wounds.