Chris ‘Mad Dog’ Russo on Getting Bumped by David Letterman, Reuniting With Mike Francesa, and a Scary Experience at 35,000 Feet
Unleashed host also talks all things sports, including Tom Brady’s Super Bowl win and the Kevin Durant-Michael Rapaport feudApril 6, 2021
It’s been nearly half a decade since Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo graced the Stern Show with his presence, so when the sports radio star and host of Sirius XM’s Mad Dog Unleashed joined Howard once again Tuesday morning he was eager to make up for lost time. The past few years proved transformative for the Long Island native. He made peace with being snubbed by the Radio Hall of Fame, learned to live (and broadcast) without sports during the early stages of the pandemic, and endured a nearly catastrophic trans-Atlantic flight which resulted in him and his golf buddies making an emergency landing on a remote Canadian island.
“In June of 2019, I took 11 guys to Scotland to play golf,” Russo told Howard. “Five of us were on a British Airways [flight] … that left Kennedy [airport] at 6:30, and at 8:30 at night the pilot comes on and says … ‘We have an emergency.’” There was a power failure. Heat started blasting out of the overhead compartments. The pilot told Russo and his golf buddies to get in “crash positions” while the plane attempted an emergency landing in Gander, Newfoundland—the last airport they’d pass before crossing the ocean.
“It’s 46 degrees and raining in Gander, but he gets the plane down,” he said, explaining there were firetrucks on the ground and the pilot received a standing ovation. “When I went through that a year and a half ago, I felt that maybe God‘s going to give me a few more years. That was pretty scary. That’s the scariest it’s been for me.”
“What went through your mind?” Howard asked.
Russo said he found solace in his friends and then prayed to God. “I said, ‘God, you gotta get us out of this,’” he recalled.
Chris, who admitted he sometimes gets sick of sports, said he’s also gained perspective from the ongoing COVID-19 quarantine, which last year forced most sports leagues into a lengthy and unplanned hiatus. “The pandemic has actually broadened my horizons,” he said, explaining various books, documentaries, TV, and late-60s rock filled the sports-shaped hole in his heart (and on his radio show). “I didn’t have any sports to do, so I had to go on there every day and do three hours of radio,” he said, explaining the shift in topics resulted in one of his favorite interviews ever, a sit-down with Byrds frontman and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Roger McGuinn.
Afternoon Radio, Late-Night TV, and Getting Snubbed by the Hall of Fame
Russo started his radio career in the mid-80s but didn’t find fame until 1989 when he teamed with Mike Francesa in 1989 for their WFAN afternoon sports-talk show Mike and the Mad Dog. Their partnership was a hit which dominated sports radio for nearly 20 years, but all that ended in 2008 when Russo left terrestrial radio to begin anew on Sirius.
“I thought [Mike and the Mad Dog] was a perfect pairing,” Howard said, adding, “The two of you together made life easier for one another.”
“You’re right, there is a chemistry there and you have that perfect grouping. It’s like a perfect harmony,” Mad Dog agreed, explaining the two make such a great team he’s had Mike on his show several times in the past few months.
But Howard lamented the fact Francesa seemingly didn’t value Russo enough when they were co-hosts.
“I think there’s a lot to that … I do think Mike understands now, after all this time, that the team was a super team. Mike’s just not gonna come out and do accolades on Chris Russo. That’s just not Mike’s way,” he said.
“I do think that what we had as a team was very significant. That’s why me leaving, trying here, was a hard decision to make,” Russo continued, telling Howard, “But I wouldn’t have come if it wasn’t for you.”
Francesa was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 2018, but his former partner has yet to be recognized. Howard believed it was an oversight. “Why have you not been inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame, and do you care about it?” he asked.
“First off, the fact that I’m not inducted and I have you to talk about it … it’s almost better off that I don’t get in,” he said, “But three years ago it bothered the hell out of me.”
He nevertheless assumed the Radio Hall would one day change its tune. “Eventually they’re going to put me in the Hall of Fame,” he told Howard with a laugh. “I hate to say that. It sounds cocky, but eventually they’re going to run out of people.”
While on the subject, Russo revealed the person he’d want to induct him if and when the time came. “I have a dream that if I did get that honor—you know you gotta have somebody do a little speech for you?—you know who I’m going to ask to do it, don’t you?” Chris said. “You.”
“Now I dream you never ever get into the Radio Hall of Fame,” Howard joked, explaining he thinks Mad Dog is a top-notch broadcaster but has little interest in inducting anyone into anything, ever again.
Russo and Howard discussed a few others who could do the honors, including Francesa, fellow broadcaster Joe Buck, and master impressionist Sour Shoes, who phoned into the Stern Show on multiple occasions to wow listeners with his spot-on Mad Dog impersonation.
Howard then suggested retired late-night host David Letterman, who’d welcomed Russo on his own show a number of times over the years. Mad Dog loved the idea and had plenty of fond memories about his many “Late Show” appearances. “To be on Dave, it was a tremendous thrill,” he said.
One of those fond memories from 2003 involved Dave bumping him from the show twice in a row.
“One day I go in there and he’s got Demi Moore on, so I get bumped—no problem,” Chris recounted. “I come back … maybe a couple weeks later and Courtney Love is in, and I get bumped again. I think nothing of it. This is David Letterman.
“About a week or so later, I’m driving to work … and I get a phone call, and it’s Dave … He says, ‘I want to apologize for bumping you twice. Unforgivable on my part,” he continued, adding, “From that moment on, he always gave me two segments, not one. He put me on at 12 instead of 12:25.”
“How about that?” Chris continued. “He didn’t have to apologize—he’s David Letterman.”
“He respected you. That’s why he picked up the phone,” Howard said.
“I was really impressed by that,” Mad Dog concluded.
Despite broadening his horizons, Russo was plenty happy to talk Howard’s ear off about the wild world of sports. He weighed in on everything from the best game of the year so far—Gonzaga’s recent overtime victory over UCLA in the Final Four—to the reason why the Nets are better than the Knicks (star power). He also said plenty about Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady winning his first Super Bowl without the help of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
“You know what Brady’s great at? He can win the game by himself or he can manage the game properly. He does what he has to do to win that particular game,” Mad Dog said of Brady, a now seven-time N.F.L. champion who Russo thought was one of the greatest winners in sports history along with 11-time N.B.A. champion Bill Russell.
“Does Brady’s success take away from Belichick’s legacy?” Howard wondered.
“A little bit,” Russo responded. “[Brady] went to Tampa as the Hall of Fame quarterback without the Hall of Fame coach and still won. Belichick lost his Hall of Fame quarterback … and he has yet to prove that he can win without the Hall of Fame quarterback.”
“Belichick will never quit. He’s 68 years of age. He loves it, and he will win another one. He is going to be motivated because Brady won without him,” he continued. “Don’t you think I wanted to prove that I could do the show without Mike? It’s the same principal.”
Where’s the Beef?
Mad Dog also discussed the recent controversy between N.B.A. superstar Kevin Durant and “Atypical” actor Michael Rapaport, which began as a terse private exchange between the celebs and then spilled over to the public domain after Rapaport published screenshots of their conversation on social media. Ultimately, the league fined Durant $50,000 for using “offensive and derogatory” language.
“Was Rapaport wrong?” Howard asked.
“Yes!” Chris said. “First off, it’s almost like he’s using Durant to up his own thing.”
“Second thing is what are you getting involved with Durant for?” he continued. “Does Durant have some issues? Yeah … but, you know, you release that and make him look bad and get him a $50,000 fine and make Durant look like a bad guy? Why would you do that?”
After repeatedly praising his guest’s ability to articulate a strong and clear opinion on any subject, Howard had Russo briefly comment on subjects ranging from Aaron Rodgers guest hosting “Jeopardy” (“it’s a little much … know your lane”) to which “Godfather” movie was best (“the first one”). Here are just a few of his answers:
What’s up with Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez?
“A-Rod needs J. Lo more than J. Lo needs A-Rod because J. Lo, she’s fine. She’s got a million fans, she can do movies, she can do anything she wants, [but] A-Rod can’t play baseball anymore,” Russo said. “So, if I’m A-Rod, you know what? I stay together with J. Lo.”
Better actress: Charlize Theron or Nicole Kidman?
“Kidman was very good in that HBO show ‘The Undoing,’” Russo said. “[But] I’d have to say Charlize.”
Greatest TV show of all time?
Chris named several, including “Ozark,” “Breaking Bad,” and “The Sopranos,” which led to a follow-up question about the latter show’s infamously ambiguous series finale. “‘Sopranos’ ending: Good or bad?” Howard asked.
“Bad ending,” Mad Dog said. “You wanted someone to walk in and knock him off … That was a bad ending for crying out loud, but I love the show.”
Are baseball cards a good investment?
“I never did the baseball cards when I was a kid. I don’t like the idea,” Chris said. “There’s gotta be a better way to make a living than selling a Honus Wagner card from 1910.”
Mad Dog is renowned for his revved up personality, but he told Howard he enjoys slowing things down every once in a while with the help of an edible. “You know what I occasionally do to mellow out a little bit? The gummies,” he told Howard. “It doesn’t have all the aftereffects.”
“You’re a high-strung guy,” Howard noted. “When you’re on weed do you totally just veg out?”
“Yes, I veg,” he said, adding, “I get goofy. I laugh. I do silly things. That’s what it does. I feel good … I take it after a show on a Friday night sometimes.”
Howard wondered what might happen if Mad Dog ate an edible just before going on the air. Would he turn into “Mellow Dog” or maybe go berserk and get naked?
“I’ll tell you one thing I’m going to do,” Russo responded with a laugh. “I’m going to play Bob Dylan songs until the cows come home.”
Get more Chris Russo on Mad Dog Unleashed, weekdays at 3 p.m. on SiriusXM channel 82.