How the 'ManningCast' Improbably Became One of the Best Comedies on TV

"It really bugs me how funny you are."

Bill Burr knows funny when he sees it, whether it’s in another comedian, or in a pair of Super Bowl winning quarterback brothers who have become an unlikely—and reliable—source of humor every week.

Last Monday night, the Cleveland Browns were rolling a surprise upset victory over cross-state rivals, the Cincinnati Bengals. There was absolutely no reason for anyone outside of Ohio, gamblers, and fantasy football players (thank you, Tee Higgins!) to be watching the final minutes of this 32-13 blowout—unless you were watching the ManningCast. While most announcers struggle in a lopsided game, Peyton and Eli Manning thrive.

The Mannings were always supposed to be great football players. The second and third sons of Pro Bowl quarterback Archie Manning were star high school players, standout college players, and No. 1 overall draft picks in the NFL. Peyton broke records and won two Super Bowls; Eli broke New Englanders’s hearts and won two Super Bowls. Peyton is already a Pro Football Hall of Famer and considered one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time, while Eli will be the center of much debate when he comes up for Hall of Fame candidacy in a few years.

Off the field, the brothers may have both, separately, hosted Saturday Night Live!, but no one was really ever talking about Eli Manning, the comedic genius. Meanwhile, Peyton's comedy skills have reached far past the sports world, from a famous SNL! sketch where he mocked his charitable personality, a SNL! return earlier this year to share his love of Emily in Paris, a well-reviewed ESPYs hosting gig, and countless commercials. (Eli recently joked that Peyton has ruined chicken parm for him). So you can imagine why, upon his retirement in 2016, Peyton became the biggest free agent in sports media, with networks hoping to secure his commentating talents.

But, unwilling to make the travel commitment and be away from his family, Peyton rejected all those overtures, instead opting for a production deal with ESPN where he’d host a football-themed documentary series, Peyton’s Places. (Eli later got his own college football edition, fittingly titled, Eli’s Places). Then, inspired by his colleague Kirk Herbstreit calling a game from home due to COVID, Peyton pitched ESPN on the ManningCast, an alternate Monday Night Football broadcast, in which Peyton and Eli would remotely analyze the game (Peyton in a state-of-the-art setup in a Denver warehouse; Eli at his New Jersey home), while adding their colorful commentary and welcoming guests from the world of sports and entertainment. Debuting during the 2021 NFL season, the ManningCast now airs during 10 games a season on ESPN2, opposite Joe Buck and Troy Aikman's coverage on ESPN. The main Monday Night Football Broadcast is still ESPN's moneymaker, but the Mannings's season debut managed to nab 1,502,000 viewers, up 86 percent over their debut year. (For reference: those numbers are competitive with ratings for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel Live!)

Surely originally conceived as the ultimate viewing experience for the diehard football fan, the ManningCast has improbably turned out to be appointment viewing for those who could care less about the actual outcome of the game. "I find you guys to be distracting; you’re too funny," explained Monday’s guest, Boomer Esaison. on why he can’t tune in. Eli cracked, "That’s our crowd: We want people that want to be distracted."

Call it what you want—distracting, amusing, maybe even scarring?!—Monday’s Halloween installment of the ManningCast showed exactly what the hell this three(ish)-hour block of TV has morphed into: one of TV's best sitcoms. The broadcast kicked off with Peyton dressed up as a referee and Eli as his viral sensation persona, Chad Powers, except this time with some horrific mask work. "Eli, I gotta admit, it’s really hard to look at you tonight," Peyton admitted. "It’s a combination of Mrs. Doubtfire and Jason from Halloween” The Manningcast's secret sauce is that big brother and little brother ribbing, a familiar type of dynamic that's multiplied by about a millioj when when your big brother might be the best to ever do the same thing that you did. "Dad told me I had to let you win every now and then," Peyton remarked when Vince Vaughn asked who wins the non-football activities. When Peyton couldn’t get a direct answer from Eli, whom he affectionately calls “E,” about whether it was four-down territory, he quipped, “25 words or less: yes or no?”

Peyton may have most of the accolades in the family, but the Manningcast's true comedic revelation is Eli. With Peyton, the seeds for an impressive media career were already there, whereas we weren't sure if Eli would become a welcome fixture on our TVs each week. Despite his Super Bowl success, he was often a target of criticism in his home playing market of New York, and never really garnered laughs as anything other than a meme. But he’s managed to master the art of the awkward, goofy, dad humor. (That is, when he isn’t flipping the double bird!). Catching Burr yawning as the ManningCast went to commercial, Eli quickly joked, “He looks excited!” Later in that week’s installment, with Vince Vaughn now on as a guest, Eli gave a hilarious recreation of Vaughn’s Wedding Crashers football scene.

At some point, sure—the football takes priority. The guys lock in on X’s and O’s moreso when it’s just them, no guests. But the brothers' pure excitement, enthusiasm, and disgust over the play on the field often leads to some of the best laughs. Take Week 1's bout between the Denver Broncos, and the Seattle Seahawks. The brothers were joined by another media personality and Bronco great, Shannon Sharpe. With under a minute left, the Broncos were down 17-16 and driving, but they seemed to be in the opposite of a rush. As the clock continued to wind down. Peyton feverishly signaled for his old team, the Broncos, to take a timeout. In fact, he called for a timeout 62 times in the final minute. They didn’t listen until only seconds were left, deciding to settle for a 64-yard field goal attempt, leaving Peyton appalled. He stood up and watched in disbelief as the kicker blew it. For Peyton, it was agonizing, but for us? We were like an audience at an AMC theater, where, somehow, heartbreak feels good in a place like this.

That was just one of the best moments from the early life of the ManningCast. The attention is even attracting lesser imitators (Alex Rodriguez and Stephen A. Smith have gotten their own ManningCast-type broadcasts), a SNL! season-opening spoof featuring Miles Teller as a surprisingly great Peyton, and an A-list guest list that has included the likes of Charles Barkley, LeBron James, Tom Brady, Marshawn Lynch, Jon Stewart, Kevin Hart, David Letterman, Snoop Dogg, Dwayne Johnson, and President Barack Obama. And we haven’t even mentioned their recent contract extension and Emmy win.

Don’t be surprised if they win back-to-back TV honors, at least if Eli follows through with the clip from this season that he suggested will be his Emmy submission. During the early Oct. showdown between division rivals, the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers, play was stopped due to a fan running on the field. Traditional broadcasts never show such events, with the camera instead just focusing on the players waiting for security to do their job. But calling themselves the "B-team," the Mannings suggest they should be allowed to run the footage, and they soon get their wish, doing play-by-play of Rams linebacker Bobby Wagner tackling the clothed-intruder. After praising Wagner’s "veteran play," the brothers had a very important conversation. "How would you tackle a streaker?” asked Eli. Peyton responded, "If he's totally naked... you don't wrap up."

Well, Burr better just hope they don’t start taking this show on the road.

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