Scott D. Pierce: Joe Tessitore is having ‘a blast’ on wild, wacky, wonderful ‘Holey Moley’

The ESPN sportscaster and Rob Riggle make an amazing comedy team on the ABC miniature golf competition.

The last time I talked to sportscaster Joe Tessitore one-on-one, we talked about college football. BYU. Utah. The rivalry.

When I spoke with him a few days ago, we talked about the insane miniature golf show he hosts, “Holey Moley.” It’s a rather astonishing departure for a guy who continues to be ESPN’s lead sportscaster on championship boxing, who calls college football games on ABC and ESPN, and whose career has included Monday Night Football, college basketball, horse racing and more.

“And now, all of a sudden, I’m sitting there [watching] people fall 20 feet off zip lines into freezing cold water,” Tessitore said.

“Holey Moley” — which returns with back-to-back episodes on Thursday at 7 and 8 p.m. on ABC/Ch. 4 — is weird and wild. Contestants compete on a variety of “extreme” miniature golf holes that include water challenges, bull-riding machines, slippery slopes and electric shocks. One hole forced the contestants to putt after they were set on fire. (Inside bulky fireproof suits, of course.)

“When my agent called and he told me the one-sentence logline of the show, I said, ‘That’s so outlandish that I have to take a meeting,’” Tessitore said.

He quickly signed on to do play-by-play on the intentionally dopey show, which is sort of hard to imagine until you actually see it.

“I think when you tell somebody it’s extreme mini golf, that doesn’t really do it service,” Tessitore said. Instead, he sees as “an alternate universe. Sort of a Willy Wonka competition-reality mixed with a buddy comedy. The extreme mini-golf is just the vehicle for what is a very unique show.”

Most of the contestants appear to enjoy playing along with the wacky premise. There were even a couple of Utahns on the show in Season 2 — Mei Brennan won her episode; Tyger Riggs did not. But the real attraction of “Holey Moley” is the hosts — Tessitore and Riggle may be an unexpected comedy team, but their enthusiasm jumps off the screen.

“The whole key to the show is [that] we’re having a blast. We’re laughing among ourselves, at ourselves, at our contestants, with our contestants,” Tessitore said. “You don’t have to think about this or that. This is clearly about having fun.”

Riggle has become “one of my closest friends,” he said. “You know how there are just certain people that it doesn’t matter what they say — you are ready to laugh? He’s that for me. Since Day One, that’s never had to be forced or contrived.”

And, he said, “Hardly any of it is scripted.”

It’s certainly not what viewers have come to expect from bigtime sportscasters.

“I know for a fact that there are colleagues of mine — the hardened sports guys — who look at me and say, ‘What is he doing?’” Tessitore said. “And I will tell you that I have more fun and enjoyment and pride in this show than anything. … It’s been a blast.”

The humor can be juvenile. “It’s constant sixth-grade homeroom class,” Tessitore admitted, but that doesn’t make it any less funny.

Tessitore said his personal taste in TV can be “kind of highbrow.” He and his wife recently watched seven seasons of a French drama – in French. But when Riggle starts going off about the hole named Uranus, “I laugh my ass off, crying tears with every Uranus joke,” Tessitore said. “The beauty of ‘Holey Moley’ is that everybody has that in them. I don’t care who you are — a professional adult or a 9-year-old — you’re laughing at that joke.”

Changes coming

“Holey Moley” evolves from season to season, and there will be some changes in Season 3. Expect a “story arc” to carry through the season, and — of course — updated and new obstacles.

As they were filming the end of Season 2, producers told Tessitore and Riggle to just start coming up with new holes for Season 3. Riggle said they’d have to bring back Double Dutch Courage — a crazy windmill hole — and when Tessitore asked how he’d make it more extreme, Riggle proposed setting the hole on fire.

“That’s literally what the producers did!” Tessitore said, sounding astonished. “I showed up this year, and I’m, like, ‘Um, I’m sorry. I believe our set is on fire.’ It’s insane.”

(Courtesy of ABC) "Holey Moley" returns Thursday at 7 and 8 p.m. on ABC/Ch. 4.

Holey icebreaker

As it turns out, “Holey Moley” has helped Tessitore in his other jobs. Football players and boxers are fans of the show, which comes in handy when he’s in a production meeting with Alabama football coach Nick Saban, his staff and star players on the eve of a big game with LSU or Florida.

“Those are pressure-packed meetings where you’re talking strategy and depth charts and injuries and everybody’s tense and ready for battle,” Tessitore said. “I’ll tell you — ‘Holey Moley’ has become the best icebreaker there is. ... They’re, like, ‘My kids love it! We watch it every Thursday night!’ … It’s everybody laughing and everybody having fun.”

Could they call a real golf tournament?

If Tessitore and Riggle were to telecast a PGA tournament, I’d tune in, for sure. And Tessitore said his phone pings “all the time” when major tournaments are being telecast with viewers suggesting he and Riggle should be in the booth.

But don’t hold your breath.

“Obviously, we wouldn’t last two seconds,” he said. “Augusta National would have us pulled out in a moment.”