That Holiday Spirit

A blow-by-blow report on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

Show me someone who doesn’t love a parade, and I’ll show you someone with no joy in his heart. But show me someone who will actually get up at eight o’clock in the morning to watch more than two solid hours of a parade on television, and I’ll show you someone with way too much time on his hands.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. I can remember watching it on our big wooden cabinet TV back in the early ’70s; it always made me feel like New York was part of my childhood even though I lived thousands of miles away in the middle of a desert. As I grew into an adult, though, I rarely tuned in. Sure, I felt guilty about it — I’m a sucker for the holidays, and not watching the parade seemed like a mean-spirited betrayal of a youthful tradition. But still, I didn’t watch the damn thing.

But the thing is, you’re not supposed to watch parades — not on television, at least. Parades are something you go to, not something you sit around and watch. In person, there’s the energy of the crowd, the fun of seeing the floats in all of their glorious enormity, the excitement of the unexpected and the challenge of braving the weather (not to mention the joy of showing up drunk). Fun for kids and drunken adults alike! But on TV … it’s just dreadful. Agonizing. Tedious. Insipid commentary by two third-tier celebrity “hosts”; asinine cutaways to two-bit sub-stars singing crappy songs you’ll never hear again; endless commercials; and the torturous effort of trying to think of something to say about a Snoopy float so you’re not stuck with 10 minutes of dead air: this is what parades are like on television. It’s the same level of grade-z showbiz schmaltz as Jerry Lewis’ muscular dystrophy telethon, only it’s not even for the sake of a good cause; it’s to sell products. A televised parade is something you have on as background noise while you’re cooking or squeezing into your old football jersey; it’s not something you actually watch.

So, of course, that’s just what I did.

Here follow my notes from the 77th annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, broadcast on CBS starting at 8 a.m. Central Standard Time. This is my Christmas gift to you, dear readers, my burden, my sacrifice: I watched every minute of this crap, so you don’t have to.

0:02:04. Our hosts today are Hannah Storm and Dave Price from “The Early Show,” coincidentally broadcast right here on CBS. Dave has one of those little bud microphones that makes him look like he has a big wart on his neck. As for Hannah, she would clearly rather be back doing NBA broadcasts. They attempt rather unconvincingly to tell us it is a gorgeous day in New York, even though they are both clearly freezing to death.

0:05:33. The broadcast goes to and returns from commercial breaks with these bumpers featuring little trivia factoids about the parade. These bumpers are called “Talkin’ Turkey.” The first one informs me that over 50,000 clowns have “clowned around” in the parade since its inception in 1924. I panic at the mere thought of a hideous army of 50,000 clowns.

0:06:20. Every parade broadcast features one “wacky guy” out in the field who mixes with the hoi polloi and ad-libs painfully unfunny wisecracks. This year, it is Gary Valentine from “The King of Queens.” His first appearance features him bouncing around hyperactively in front of a huge crowd behind a police barrier. He asks how they’re all doing, and they are completely unresponsive. This is Gary’s first appearance in the two-hour-long ordeal of the Macy’s parade, and he’s already completely dying. I am pleased about this.

0:07:05. The fourth and final member of the broadcast team — who’s also out among the crowd, but actually gets to talk to receptive human beings instead of drowning in a pool of flopsweat while trying to be a “wacky guy” in public — is someone called Vanessa Minnillo from MTV’s “TRL.” She interviews a family whose daughter is clog dancing in the parade. She asks dad how daughter gets the energy to clog dance for two and a half miles. He says, “Well, she clogs quite a bit regionally.”

0:08:25. Ed Solczac, an inhumanly bland J.C. Penney executive, is here to tell us about their after school program. He does this by reading a series of cue cards located just to the left of the camera. He also announces Penney’s first “gift to the nation,” which will help kids get the education they need for the future: a small stuffed dog toy called “Afta the After School Puppy.”

0:09:54. Ed introduces a cheery young singer — sorry, “Sony recording artist” — named Cheyenne Kimball. Cheyenne apparently “embodies the slogan” of the J.C. Penney after school program, which is “power your potential.” She then powers her potential by lip-synching an interminable novelty holiday-themed version of “Joy to the World” while a gaggle of multi-ethnic children shaking sleigh bells dance next to her. This goes on forever.

0:13:29. The Macy’s parade does not have sponsors; heavens, no. Nothing so crass for this festival of cheer. No, it has people who provide “production assistance.” For instance, at this particular moment, “production assistance (is) provided by Tylenol.” I’m not sure, but I think “production assistance” is a technical term for “writing a big check.”

0:14:18. A Penney’s commercial comes on and I have to hear Cheyenne Kimball sing “Joy to the World” again. Did you know that suicide rates often peak around the holidays? This is why.

0:16:15. The Pulaski High School Red Raiders Marching Band from Pulaski, Wisc., plays that undying holiday classic, “Axel F.” At rests in the song, they shout “I love New York!”

0:17:23. The first big balloon of the day hovers into view: it is Jake the Turkey, sponsored by Macy’s itself. It is a replica of a balloon first seen in the 1959 parade and is preceded by a Macy’s banner carried by a bunch of kids from the Special Olympics. The Special Olympians, presumably, were not seen in the 1959 parade.

0:18:01. Dave mentions that a particular float was last seen in 1943. “To give you some perspective,” he adds, “that’s when the first crossword book was published.” Exactly what perspective this is supposed to impart is unclear.

0:23:44. A combination float/balloon (which is called a “falloon,” as the ever-helpful Dave Price informs us) of something called Greendog shows up. I have never heard of Greendog. The ever-informative Dave fills me in: “Greendog is the star, of course” — of course? — “of ‘The World of Greendog,’ as the name would have you guess.” Way to ad-lib, Dave.

0:24:45. The Bloomington North High School Cougars Marching Band from the deeply distressing town of Bloomington, Ind., is here. Dave tells us that they were going to perform Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” but chose not to, for reasons he does not disclose. Instead we are told they are performing a John Cougar Mellencamp song, although it is impossible to tell which one it is.

0:25:39. Here comes a balloon of Nickelodeon’s Arthur character. For the benefit of blind viewers who cannot see the 40-foot-long inflatable character, the ever-helpful Dave describes his outfit in monotonous detail: “And there you see his sweater and jeans and backpack full of books.”

0:26:50. “Talkin’ Turkey” informs me that helium was first discovered in 1868 by a scientist who no doubt did not foresee its use in animating a hideous gasbag in the shape of Garfield.

0:29:15. It’s the Pikachu float! Uncharacteristically, it is not incredibly noisy and annoying and does not constantly harangue children to buy more booster packs. Hannah says Pikachu is “impossible just to peek at.” The lowest depths of television writer hell must be writing the scripts for parades.

0:31:35. Hannah takes a gander at the Lego “Carousel of Imagination” float and says “That’s a lot of Legos.” I have to admit, that’s a pretty accurate comment. Riding on the “Carousel of Imagination” is an unimaginative-looking teen pop singer named Peter Cincotti, who looks exactly like his name would indicate. He does not sing anything, for which I am profoundly grateful.

0:32:23. Back to Gary Valentine, who is talking to two women holding up a British flag.

“Where are you from?”

“London, England!”

“Oh, yeah? What part?”

“London!”

Gary has a real rapport with the crowds, I tell you what. He closes his segment by saying “It’s a good day. We’re all out here. Again.”

0:36:52. The Big Bird float is sponsored by something called “The Sesame Workshop.” Dave seems a bit flustered: “It’s Big Bird! The Big Bird, some would say.”

0:38:51. Another retro set: giant inflatable heads of the Marx Brothers. Dave identifies one of their “classic comedies” as A Day in the Races, and says that “a lot of our youngest viewers might not remember the Marx Brothers.” Gee, do you think, Dave? Given that their last movie was made 57 years ago, that maybe the 6-year-olds in the audience might not remember them?

0:39:10. Nickelodeon’s “Little Bill,” which conjures images of the Geto Boys’ Bushwick Bill but is in fact a cartoon version of a young Bill Cosby, makes an appearance as the first African-American balloon in the history of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Yes, that’s right! It’s 2003.

0:41:20. Yet another retro float: Happy the Hippo. Happy is pink, and, I think, was the mascot of the DTs back in the 1950s. In some context that I don’t catch, Hannah says “I miss Julie Chen!” which I believe is the first time anyone has ever said this.

0:46:32. A balloon featuring the “classic” character who I have never heard of named Angelina Ballerina makes Hannah get a bit weepy. “Angelina inspires kids to work hard and follow their dreams,” she says. She certainly inspires me to follow my dream of drinking a beer before 10 a.m.

0:48:53. “Strike Up the Band Barney” is accompanied by a marching band playing that famous children’s song, “Axel F.”

0:49:59. It’s Gary Valentine! He improvises an unfunny song about Columbus Circle which he claims is from his starring role in an imaginary musical called “Transportation.” If you look hard, you can actually see the stink lines rising off of Gary’s body.

0:50:54. Finally, a float featuring a children’s character I am actually familiar with comes into view: it’s Bob the Builder & Wendy! Dave, reading off the cards like a good boy, says Bob “not only builds things, but also builds character in kids.” Plainly visible on camera for about 15 seconds, directly over Bob’s head, is a very pornographic Jockey underwear billboard.

0:55:19. The Monopoly balloon. Apparently, at some point, Parker Brothers changed the Monopoly mascot’s name from the humorous and creative “Rich Uncle Pennybags” to the utterly dull “Mr. Monopoly.” This is depressing.

0:55:59. A float called “Celebration of New Arrivals” celebrating the 50th anniversary of Marshmallow Peeps goes past. Hannah calls them “those little marshmallow chickens.”

0:58:42. The United States Scholastic Band Association All-Star Color Guard is “color-guarding up a storm,” says Dave.

0:59:35. We’re taken to a taped segment for the first time all parade, a little bit I like to call Kids Say the Lamest Things. A gaggle of multi-racial cherubs are encouraged to tell us what they are thankful for; one girl, who looks like an alcoholic, dissipated dead ringer for Violet Beauregard from the Willie Wonka movie, says “I’m thankful for all the stuff I have.” Halfway home!

1:05:28. The Clifford the Big Red Dog balloon prompts Hannah to make her second leash-law joke of the day, and the always-helpful Dave, who seems to think that at least half the audience is both blind and stupid, to comment that “he really is red at this point.”

1:06:56. Frieda the Dachsund, whoever that is. Hannah asks in an ominous tone, “All right … are you gonna do it?” This intrigues me because it sounds like the first unscripted comment she’s made all day. In response, Dave very reluctantly sings “Who Let the Dogs Out?” There is an undercurrent of menace going on here, or maybe I’m just drunk.

1:07:52. It’s Gary Valentine time again! This time around, Gary pretends to ride a unicycle even though he is not riding a unicycle. He also calls a black man “bro.”

1:08:58. Dave puts viewers on notice that we shouldn’t eat at his house: “Don’t forget, check on the turkey. Keep it moist. Add water.”

1:13:46. The New York Daily News Big Apple float, featuring Bernie Williams and Suzie Castillo (Miss USA 2003), features a papier-mâché skyline of NYC. The float is many years old and I can’t help wondering what they did with the old papier-mâché Twin Towers.

1:14:51. Reminding us that “kids are part of the heart of New York City,” Vanessa engages in this riveting back-and-forth with a 10-year-old girl along the parade route:

“So, what do you wanna see in the parade?”

(long, long pause)

“Uh … I dunno.”

Back to you, Hannah and Dave!

1:15:50. Another studio bit, this one the history of Times Square, “a world of unlimited imagination.” Oddly, no mention is made of hookers.

1:20:40. More retro-balloon action: it’s Harold the Fireman, formerly Harold the Clown, formerly Harold the Policeman, formerly Harold the Baseball Player. I’m not sure, but I think this one is titled “A Tribute to Unemployment.”

1:21:21. Dave is a bachelor and probably doesn’t get a lot of sleep. This may explain why he describes the SuperGrover balloon as both “a brand new float” and “an oldie but a goodie.”

1:23:50. Gary Valentine, who makes my heart hurt every time he comes on screen, walks and talks with someone in a giant banana suit and then pretends to slip and fall. This is so funny he does it twice. Hannah courts disaster by saying “It’s always dangerous marching with fruits.”

1:28:53. In yet another microdocumentary studio bit, we’re shown the journey of the Jones High School Tigers marching band from Orlando, Fla., to New York. The cheerleaders are dressed in cameltoe-inducing tiger-striped bodysuits. Dave describes the “beautiful greens and oranges and yellows” in the garish sequined outfits of the band. There is no yellow in the uniforms.

1:31:40. Dave gives mad props to Lee Iacocca for “rejigging the Statue of Liberty.”

1:37:55. A retro balloon from 1951 called Happy Halibut the Flying Fish inspires Dave to say “just to give you some perspective …” for the eight thousandth time today.

1:38:24. Gary “Flopsweat” Valentine, standing beneath a large metallic globe, claims that it’s a “map of all the places in the world that have aluminum foil.” I am trying to imagine a circumstance under which anyone anywhere would think this was funny.

1:39:58. While describing the Wiggles’ Jolly Polly Pirate Ship float, Hannah unexpectedly uses the word “bailiwick.”

1:46:47. Gary Valentine is shown kick-dancing with some rainbow-wigged clowns. He looks utterly defeated. By the end of the segment, he is yelling at the clowns. I know how he feels.

1:48:12. Here comes Ronald McDonald in his “big red shoe car.” This whole float inspires some scary totalitarian rhetoric from Hannah and Dave: “The crowd loves him. Everybody loves him,” says Hannah. “McDonald’s Corporation is part of so many good things,” adds Dave, “like this McDonald’s float.” Ronald is described, sinisterly, as the McDonalds C.H.O. — “Chief Happiness Officer.”

1:54:53. Yet another exciting Broadway show tune: this one is from something called Nine: the Musical (no, really) starring John Stamos and Mary Stuart Masterson (no, really). Dave calls the song “Only for You,” although it’s actually called “Only with You.” The number consists of Stamos, playing a character named Guido, making out with three hot chicks while singing dopey lyrics (“monkey see, monkey dieu”) in an indecipherable Eurotrash accent. This song is not good.

1:57:58. And now, for the controversial segment of the parade! Noted homosexual Harvey Feirstein rides on the Percy the Poor Little Penguin Float dressed as Edna Turnblad (his character in the Broadway version of Hairspray) dressed as Mrs. Santa Claus. Harvey looks pretty happy; Percy the Poor Little Penguin’s expression is harder to read. Dave pronounces Harvey’s name incorrectly.

2:02:11. The Broadway-the-hick-way demonstration continues: the cast of Mamma Mia! (which is described as a “play” rather than “a bunch of people singing ABBA songs”) lip-synchs “Dancing Queen.” “Dancing Queen” is a good song, but these folks are bad singers and they all look old enough to have been big fans of ABBA the first time around.

2:08:01. You say you can’t get enough crappy Broadway tunes? Well, you’re in luck! Here’s the title song from “Fame.” I don’t remember the TV show having this many flaming batons or tits, but it was a different era. Also, the TV show theme didn’t have a migraine-inducing techno beat; it had Debbie Allen instead.

2:09:27. “Talkin’ Turkey” tells me that Truman was the first president to pardon a turkey for Thanksgiving. It doesn’t mention that Reagan was the first to tell the same stupid turkey story every Thanksgiving, or that George W. Bush was the first to execute a retarded person on Thanksgiving, but I already knew that stuff.

2:10:02. We cut to the NFL Today studio for a very, very long time. One might think that this is less a part of the parade than it is an interminable commercial for CBS’ football coverage and one might be right.

2:21:55. Hannah says that the NFL Today crew are “definitely in the holiday spirit,” which I guess means loaded.

2:30:57. When the Kermit the Frog balloon comes by, Dave says “It’s hard to think of anything more suitable for Thanksgiving than Kermit the Frog.”

2:31:39. Famed American Idol nonwinner Clay Aiken wafts past, riding the Candy Town Factory float and, gratifyingly, not singing.

2:32:09. Dave is so busy telling us about the Garfield balloon (he calls Garfield “Mr. Obnoxious”) and how much lasagna it would take to fill it up that he almost forgets to take notice of Santa Claus.

2:32:58. Santa Claus’ sleigh, at long last. The appearance of Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is a bellwether of the whole holiday season, the point at which Christmas really begins, and is the entire point of the parade. Not only does Dave botch his introduction, but he is on screen for all of 20 seconds after two and a half hours of parade coverage. If I was a kid, I’d be pretty pissed. Also, I think that Dave identifies one of the reindeer as being named Cancer, but the odds are equally good that I’m just hallucinating at this point.
Just when I think the whole nightmare is over and I can get on with my cooking, Hannah fills me with dread by informing me that “We’re not saying goodbye yet … if you like numbers, we’ve got one more Broadway performance coming up, starring Dave and I!” It is at this point that I consider sticking my head in the oven.

2:40:23. Thankfully, Hannah was just bluffing. They’re really just going to say goodbye and thank us for watching, and not in song. Hannah thanks her family, Dave thanks Hannah’s family, Vanessa thanks CBS and MTV, and Gary Valentine kicks a wino in the head. At long last, the parade is over, and all that’s left is to relax, enjoy and note that in the credits, someone was actually responsible for writing this entire show. I’m thankful that I’m not him.