Picture your average Sunday morning NFL pregame show. No matter the channel, it is built around large men wearing large suits and very serious facial expressions. These men tell you what's going to happen in a mostly meaningless AFC South game in portentous, Meet the Press tones, but at something like three times the volume. Occasionally there are weird bursts of laughter, and sometimes Frank Caliendo pops in for whatever reason. It may not be appointment television, but it's the only NFL pregame show we've got. It wasn't always this way, though.
Once upon a time, two Canadians hosted Flag on the Play, a weekly NFL preview show filmed on a ludicrous set built by hand in someone's basement. Instead of insights from camera-ready former players, Flag on the Play offered a different kind of analysis from its hosts, like this opening monologue from the Week 14 show in 2011:
"Ever wonder why the Packers always get to play the easiest schedule in the NFL? Ever wonder why the Raiders have to play the Green Bay Packers this week, while the Denver Broncos get to play the crippled Bears? Ever wonder why you get bank fees? The Illuminati and rich people are trying to kill you, Flag Nation."
It was, in all seriousness, the best NFL pregame show ever made.
Flag on the Play ran for three years, previewing the week's slate of games in the 2011, 2012, and 2013 NFL seasons. Then, just when the show seemed to reach its creative peak, with a full cast of characters and a fleshed-out universe, it suddenly ended. I wanted to know why, and how it was that two guys from Halifax of all places made the best football analysis videos on the internet. So I found co-hosts Paul Doucette and Hugh Stewart, and also Evan Elliot, the show's director and editor.
Like the invention of the microwave or Silly Putty, it turns out Flag on the Play found greatness accidentally. Doucette, Stewart, and Elliot were big basketball fans and originally had a similar "two guys talking sports and conspiracies" show about the NBA called Full Court Press. Right as they were getting ready to film a more episodes, however, the NBA lockout happened. It turned out to be a fortuitous bit of timing.
The lockout also coincided with an explosion in pirate streams of NFL broadcasts. "Once streaming sort of became a thing and you could watch any game you wanted without having to pay for a satellite dish or Sunday Ticket or something, we just watched more football," Stewart told me.
The NFL schedule also worked in their favor. The problem with Full Court Press, according to Stewart, was that the NBA season didn't lend itself to the turnaround time it took to produce an episode. Football's slower season gave the trio more time. Flag on the Play was born.
With their newfound football knowledge, Doucette and Stewart took on the personas of the two men who could tell you what was going to happen in the NFL that week, just like the beefy, shouting guys of FOX and CBS's round tables. Flag on the Play aped its more mainstream inspirations down to the product placement. Every episode featured an Arizona Tall Can Pick of the Week, which involved Doucette and Stewart toasting a team and imparting what they hoped would be a psychic boost with the power that comes from taking a dollar can of Arizona Iced Tea to the neck.
"One-dollar iced tea cans were the least glamorous thing we could think up to sponsor the show," Stewart said about the weekly Arizona chugging. The "sponsorship" also acted as an allegory. "It was fun to think up new and disgusting ways to make Paul chug a whole tall of sugar drink. I think it was really hard on his body, which is also a good parallel to draw with the NFL," Elliot said.
Flag separated itself from the competition by looking deeper than the officially sanctioned reasons for success or failure in football. As a result of Stewart's fascination with the bizarre call-in show Coast to Coast AM—a long-running safe space for people who believe the Bavarian Illuminati or giant reptilian aliens control everything—the show discovered the angle that would ultimately set it apart from its peers.
"When we started doing football, I didn't know any team names, I didn't know any players, so I just had to make things up," Stewart told me. "So if I made the facts up by saying they were conspiracies, then at least it sort of provided me some cover. Or if I said, 'Oh, wizards did this,' it was a good way to sound like I knew what I was talking about. Because I knew a lot about conspiracy theories and nothing about football."
Being a sports fan means entrusting a good percentage of your emotional well-being to people who are themselves at the mercy of officials, weird bounces, backup quarterbacks, and inexplicable hot or cold streaks. So is it that crazy to say the real reason the Detroit Lions are on a winning streak is that the dark god Moloch is manipulating them to prepare the world for his return? Maybe Matthew Stafford's improved performance after a particularly productive film session was the evil god working His dark powers. At the very least, it didn't seem worse or much less convincing than the attitude held by other pregame shows.
"I find with all of [the pregame shows], it's just a bunch of dudes speculating, one guy speculates about what he thinks might happen in this game," Eliot said. "It's like, it's gonna go however it goes and they know it."
Surprisingly, this emphasis on talking about, say, how the Patriots built a Large Hadron Collider underneath Gillette Stadium so that they could see the future managed to anger more dedicated football fans as the season went on.
"Real football jocks would give us flack, for sure," Stewart said. "Guys at the coffee shop would get into it with Paul like, 'Pfft, he can't even name the backup tight end for the Giants ,what a loser.'" Doucette pointed out that they also got flack for not knowing their conspiracies well enough to convince true watchers of the Illuminati.
"You have to be a really specific kind of person to get into it," said Stewart in describing the show's audience, and he had a point. You needed a basic familiarity with NFL football—or at least it helped—but you also needed to take the game unseriously enough to be OK with, say, the sole analysis offered on the Buffalo Bills being that the wizard Carnifax had been spotted at Ralph Wilson Stadium, which was disallowed by the 1943 Wizarding Accords. You especially had to be a casual enough fan to deal with half the week's slate of games being dismissed as quickly as possible in something the two called "The Who Cares Report." It involved Stewart reading off a list of terrible games while Doucette yelled, "Who cares?" while also, say, making a pie and then destroying a chair with an axe or filing his nails.
If you were that specific type of person, though, you were rewarded with something so much livelier than a mere football show. It was on this foundation that Flag on the Play built its universe.
"We wanted to write our own stories about these two guys doing that show," Doucette said. The annual Halloween episodes featured more elaborate storytelling and improved production values each year. The two hosts were kidnapped by Hugh's doppelganger and replaced by a hockey-based version of the show. There was an episode with a plot line ripped from The Fast and The Furious running throughout. Another episode acted as an allegory for the addition of Thursday night games: viewers saw Doucette get run over by a car when the "suits" at Eastlink, the Canadian cable company that picked up the show midway through 2012, wanted more Flag on the Play content.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission mandates a certain amount of Canadian content to be broadcast on the airwaves to protect the local entertainment industry from the behemoth to the south. It means there's a lot of Rush and Bachman Turner Overdrive on classic-rock stations, I was told. It also means that when Eastlink was desperate for homegrown content, they turned to Flag on the Play.
"They pursued us," Stewart said, "which is hilarious." The wooing began after he ran into a friend from middle school who worked at Eastlink and knew about the show. The need for something—anything—Canadian also meant that the show made the transition from web to actual TV basically unchanged, in the middle of the 2012 season.
Eastlink only asked two things of Flag when they picked up the show. One was to ditch the copyrighted background music of popular instrumental hip-hop tracks, even though Elliot proudly recalled it gave the show the quality of a weekly mix tape. Also: "We weren't allowed to swear as much and we couldn't tell people to go blow up airports anymore," Elliot said, referring to an episode in which Doucette, not any more unhinged than usual, suggested that the Denver airport had to be blown up, as it was both the seat of the Illuminati and the place from which the Tebow Era Broncos drew their dark powers.
"We were forbidden from having calls to action," Stewart said.
Stranger than Flag being on TV at all, perhaps, was that its lead-in was the ratings powerhouse of local hockey, the most-viewed show on the channel. It was as if The Chris Gethard Show followed Monday Night Football every week. "Right after the hockey game was on, they would have the local announcer down there on the ice and he would interview a player and then he'd have to introduce our show. I don't know if he did, but it always seemed like he hated us," Stewart said, laughing. "He was always saying, like"—Stewart switched to an exasperated voice—"'Coming up next, Hugh and Paul and Flag on the Play.'"
Even after the jump to television, Flag on the Play was most definitely a triumph of the DIY spirit. "If you were a camera operator, you were just using your own camera. That's how camera ops were decided," Elliot said. The soundman was friends with Doucette, Stewart, and Elliot, and the lights originally came from a friend of Elliot's who ran a lighting equipment rental house. The show's increasingly sprawling cast was comprised of friends who loved the show. "Art weirdos were gravitating toward us," Doucette said, and the three put those art weirdos to use, casting regular performers like local comedian Cheryl Hann as Ken the Eastlink producer; Geordie Miller, a local poet and Bills superfan, as the show's No. 1 authority on the Bills; and Everardo Ramirez as the Who Cares Demon.
The DIY nature of the show was most immediately visible in the set that the crew constructed. The show was filmed in Doucette's basement, and looked it. If you didn't know it was a comedy show, the set combined with the quick cuts of two men yelling about demons and the Vikings using runestones to power up Adrian Peterson might make you think you were actually watching some Canadian Alex Jones acolytes. Stacks of TVs and VCRs were piled behind the hosts, looping all manner of strange media—old movies, weird sports, random video games.
"Initially, building the set was like, let's just take all the garbage in Paul's room and set it up in the basement," Elliot said. People would give them old sports stuff; they also got to raid the supplies used for a show by Hann's sketch comedy group, Picnicface, after it was canceled.
Despite the lunatic look of the set, actually producing the show was a professional grind, eating up a week at a time for each episode. Sundays were for watching football. Mondays were for writing. Filming took two and a half hours every Tuesday, followed by Elliot editing for the rest of the week before dropping the show off on Friday. "We were organically growing as a thing that was making a show every week. It became a well-oiled machine," Doucette said.
I was one of the weirdos looking forward to the return of that well-oiled machine at the beginning of the 2014 season, but as the weeks went on, there were no new episodes and no announcement about Flag on the Play's future. I wondered whether the general overarching bummer of the NFL—the mounting concerns about domestic violence, the CTE and concussions, the general skeevy greed of the league's ownership—was finally becoming too much to joke about, but that wasn't the case. "We kind of needed the NFL to be a bummer for Flag to work," Doucette told me. "Hugh and I couldn't be the truth fairies if the NFL wasn't dark to core."
If anything, the moral quandary football presented was the reason for the show, Elliot said. "It felt good to offset the ugliness that goes along with something as blown-up as the NFL by just making a big joke about the whole organization. When people would get mad that we don't take it seriously enough, I felt satisfied that we were doing our job."
Doucette and Stewart still watch football. Even though the NFL is a giant bummer, Stewart told me, "like clothing from H&M and Nike sneakers and everything else in the world, there are no ethical choices for consumption under capitalism. I'm stealing the games off the internet anyway, so I look at it like that evens it out a little bit."
No, Flag ended for more prosaic reasons. A lark that began in a post-graduate era for the three was starting to eat into their actual life responsibilities and careers. And while Eastlink gave them total creative freedom, the company did not provide financial or technical support.
They also lost the basement studio. The house Doucette lived in was something of an art space, Stewart recalled, but then a new owner renovated it, and that was that. "Not being able to walk down in your basement and have a whole studio kind of light up and have everyone know where you have to go" hurt the prospects for the show, Doucette said.
"I like the idea that the NFL silenced us," Stewart said. "I wish that was the case. It's much more mundane what really happened."
All three still work in entertainment: Stewart and Elliot are at production companies, and Doucette moonlights as a standup comic. "We've known each other forever and we've been making films together since high school. I feel like we were a band or something," Doucette said. "I know I have the last Arizona [Iced Tea] from the basement, and I think it has some magic power, like Scrooge McDuck's first dollar."
In other words, just as the dark god Moloch is always waiting in the shadows, there's always the possibility of resurrection.
"I don't think you've seen the last of Flag on the Play," Stewart told me. Despite what the Illuminati wants, Flag Nation may just rise again.