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Meet The Power Duo Tackling The Culture At ESPN’s “His & Hers”

Jemele Hill and Michael Smith are trying to find their happy place. It’s 11:20 a.m. in Building 4 on ESPN’s Bristol, Connecticut campus and the unfiltered tag team are Googling and highlighting notes while deciding on the best opener for their daily noontime talk show His & Hers. Their rundown is a blackboard covered with square, colored Post-It notes, indicating segments that could shift at a moment’s notice. When New England Patriots star Tom Brady’s suspension was overturned post-Deflategate in September, the verdict came in around 11 a.m. and they “blew up the whole show,” according to Ed Eck, one of the show’s producers.

This gloomy September morning is not as stressful. On a slow news day by Internet standards, the top contenders for their “Did You See This?” segment are Vine videos of Golden State Warriors MVP Steph Curry dunking twice in the same jump and Duke freshman Brandon Ingram’s crazy vertical leap. They settle for the Ingram clip, with Jemele quoting Drake rap affiliate ILoveMakonnen in the intro and flipping his hit song into, “Let’s go up on a Wednesday.” This is the everyday routine for the His & Hers squad: sifting through the online weeds for clickables that fall in line with Hill and Smith’s personalities, which could range from the latest Fetty Wap song to Rihanna shutting down Memphis Grizzlies player Matt Barnes on Instagram. “Jemele and I are in constant communication, texting or sending articles that we’ll see, different videos that we wanna react to,” says Smith, peering over his cubicle with his wide-rimmed glasses, as casual yet matter-of-fact as his TV persona. “The show has evolved into a reflection of us. We don’t share a brain, but we think along the same lines.”

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Seeing Hill and Smith’s vision was a harder task for others. Before the fall of 2014, His & Hers was the fantasy football show, Numbers Never Lie, which featured Smith, fantasy football wiz Matthew Berry, pro-football analyst Herm Edwards, and sportscaster Charissa Thompson. The lineup eventually became Smith and insert different partners here, which included Jalen Rose and a controversial stint with Hugh Douglas (Douglas allegedly threatened to beat up Smith after reportedly hurling racial slurs at him). Rated the no. 2 show to First Take on ESPN2 on Mondays and Tuesdays, NNL’s format centered on a host, two athletes and a guest analyst serving up their hot takes with one definitive statistic to settle the debate, a “dirty word” around the His & Hers crew, according to Smith.

When he and Hill, who was also the occasional guest analyst for NNL, initially pitched the idea of the two being an on-air duo, the concept didn’t shoot to the top of ESPN’s priority list. “Nah, that’s just not the jumpoff,” Smith says of the real-life reaction he and Hill received from unnamed producers. “That’s a quote.” Hill would often travel from her former place of residence, Orlando, Fl., to be a guest on NNL or record her and Smith’s podcast called His & Hers, a passion project they did for free. “Part of the reason the podcast originated is that we had become frustrated enough,” says Hill. “We [were] tired of begging producer X, Y and Z to put us on a show together so we said, ‘We’re just gonna go and do it on our own.’”

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Having a DIY attitude has brought blessings on blessings for Smith and Hill throughout their individual careers. Smith, a Loyola University grad who celebrates 11 years with ESPN this year, was a sports reporter and copy editor for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and covered the New England Patriots from 2001 to 2004 as a reporter for The Boston Globe before heading to Bristol. Hill, whose alma mater is Michigan State University, landed bylines as a sports writer for the Raleigh News & Observer, Detroit Free Press and Orlando Sentinel before occupying the hot seat as a debator and occasional host on ESPN’s First Take. Hill and Smith first crossed paths while covering the Celtics-Pistons playoff series in 2002, where their mutual colleagues tried to set them up on a date. “They got the bright idea that two young 20-something, black, single people should just hook up,” says Hill, almost smiling and shaking her head simultaneously at the thought before Smith playfully adds, “That’s when hook-up meant something different.”

After watching the 2002 Tobey Maguire version of Spider-Man at the movies with friends, Hill asked Smith over the phone to show her around Boston. “I actually wasn’t thinking romantically, but [I was thinking], ‘If something happens, you never know,’” recalls Hill. Smith’s response: “Aw naw, I’m sorry, I just started playing Madden and I’m in franchise mode.’”

In Smith’s defense, franchise mode is serious business for Madden junkies. For those who may have never touched a controller, this mode of gaming allows the player to become the team owner, finesse their roster, customize the look and feel of the franchise and boss up for the regular season. Smith will also be the first to admit that unlike his fervor for sports and video games, he wasn’t a wiz with the ladies. “The story haunts me because people watch and see us everyday and go, ‘Dude, you’re an idiot,’ and it’s not a reflection of Jemele. It’s a reflection of what “franchise mode” met in the early 2000s,” explains Smith. “Madden kind of fell off a little bit, but that was intense. I was trying to turn around the Arizona Cardinals and this was before [head coach] Bruce Arians. This was important.”

The more significant time marker was the start of Hill and Smith’s non-romantic relationship. While no Madden date followed, the seasoned journalists eventually became colleagues at ESPN. In 2012, they launched the His & Hers podcast after approaching the ESPN Audio department, creating the platform they weren’t being given. “We never imagined the day would come where A) when it was Numbers Never Lie, we would get to do TV together,” says Hill, looking back on the uphill battle with gratitude. “And on top of that, we get to do [our show] our way, which is a major, major difference.”

https://youtube.com/watch?v=tMVoePmPmR4

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“This is what we call professional on top, party on the bottom,” Jemele jokes as she pulls a beige blazer over her black tank top with jeans and boat shoes still on. Michael follows suit with a blazer, dress shirt and tie, but still comfortably rocks black Converse sneakers and denim. The His & Hers anchor desk hides the casual portion of their ensembles, keeping their on-air appearance polished but their demeanors relaxed. The studio (once home to NNL) feels like the inside of a refrigerator. Several staff members mention it’s the coldest studio on the ESPN campus, which boasts 17 buildings. The stationary cameras, which literally stay frozen in place, allow for no-fuss transitions between live takes and only requires one camera man to handle the equipment.

In front of the lens, though, the conversation is heating up. When you watch Smith and Hill tape their show, they feed off each other’s energy, especially when they butt heads on topics like comparing Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to Michael Jordan. But that was yesterday’s show. Today’s hot topic is the poor Yankees fan who failed to catch three foul balls. In the video, the woman sitting with the fan can be seen burying her face in her hands after his third attempt, almost embarrassed to be associated with the guy during a national broadcast. Smith sticks up for the fan, though, blaming the botched catch on the stadium lights and a poor throw. “The ball boy deserves more blame for the third one because [the throw] was short, so lay off my man,” says Smith, defensively like a big brother. Jemele fires back with the female POV. “I’m not saying she needed to be with somebody who can feel like Derek Jeter in his heyday but there are just certain things that men need to be able to do.” This launches into a passionate, seven-minute discussion (three segments were scrapped, including a Michael Vick bit) about “gender hypocrisy” and the specific relationship requirements men and women have. Smith then drops a close-to-home story of how cooking wasn’t a prerequisite when he dated his wife, who he has been married to for 10 years and shares three kids. “If a man says I need a woman who can cook, you and others get upset ‘cause we’re putting you in a box,” Smith counters to Hill. “Why does a man have to catch a foul ball?”

Putting the relationship spin on what would be considered sports-based topics is His & Hers mission statement. Even the show’s format is reflective of Smith and Hill’s usual jargon, like their “About Last Night” spotlight and the “#DoinTooMuch” countdown, which has included an Orlando bar giving away free beer until the NCAA college football team, UCF Knights, won a game (to note, the bar ran out of beer and opted to serve free liquor instead). It’s this laidback, millennial-friendly environment that makes guests like His & Hers regular and former NFL star turned ESPN analyst Ryan Clark comfortably calling out his ex-Pittsburgh Steelers teammate, Willie Colon, for having the funkiest body odor. “Everything we do on the show from the topic bars is always an avenue to get Michael and Jemele’s opinions and personalities out there,” says producer, Eck, after the show wraps. “We’re not beholden to any AP Style rules that other shows are because we’re willing to take it there. It’s a party that I think everyone can be attracted to.

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His & Hers isn’t the first small screen foray to pair a woman and man on-air. Just look at Live With Kelly & Michael, where actress Kelly Ripa and retired NFL defensive end Michael Strahan cater to the stay-at-home moms with service-y segments and celebrity interviews, or The Boris & Nicole Show, where real-life married couple, actor and actress Boris Kodjoe and Nicole Ari Parker, discuss the highs and lows of love, life and work. With Hill and Smith, their lengthy friendship and pop culture savvy offers a chemistry—sans romantic ties and producer matchmaking—that can’t be casted. “What makes our relationship unique is that Mike and I are more than just coworkers or colleagues, we’re really good friends,” says Hill. “There are plenty of TV pairs in this business who are really successful, where they’re really not good friends or come to work, do whatever they do and go home. We’re in a different situation where we’ve known each other now for 13 years.”

Being a special case has allowed them to call the shots as the quintessential work wife and husband. Before the podcast transitioned into an ESPN2 show (the podcast audio is still ripped from their noontime broadcast), their discussion on the Steubenville rape case in Ohio gained traction internally, specifically floating to the ears of company president, John Skipper, who suggested they change the name from Numbers Never Lie to His & Hers. If they don’t feel a genuine connection to the segments on their show, it’s left on the cutting room floor. Without a target demographic (they are planning on bringing a focus group later this year), the playing field is wide open for Smith and Hill to test what works rather than reach for ratings. The show taped at Comic Con earlier this year in San Diego (Smith’s superhero mugs often make cameos on the show) as well as Howard University during homecoming weekend. A hot pink Post-It note on their rundown even reads, “WE R NOT A NEWSPAPER” as a daily reminder to keep it real.

“Everything we do is stuff that a year and a half, two years ago, would have been frowned upon. An entire conversation about someone’s body odor would have been like, ‘Eh,’ or going off on a tangent or pop culture references would be weird,” says Smith, who once did a spoof of the Eddie Murphy classic Coming To America with Hill. Even if the show was cancelled tomorrow, both hosts are proud they didn’t follow someone else’s playbook. “We took a chance and made the best of it,” Smith says. “The show is now us for better or worse.”