Category Archives: Slice of Turkey

Slice of Turkey 2012: Ed McMahon Sings the Glories of Thanksgiving!

Ed McMahon sings songs for swingin’ turkey eaters

Last year, I wrote series of posts under the banner of Slice Of Turkey, mostly about videos from old Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parades. One of my favorite clips I came across when searching for material for the series was of Ed McMahon hosting the 1981 parade. It featured Ed’s failed attempts to ride a rollerskating elephant and a rambling, red-faced monologue. It was 100 percent mental.

Sadly, that clip has been removed from the interwebs. I hope it shall surface some day so the world may enjoy it again. In attempting to find the same footage elsewhere, however, I stumbled across this clip from 1980, when Ed not only hosted the parade broadcast, but also belted out a turkey-infused ballad about the glories of Thanksgiving. This is a grade-A example of what the Macy’s Parade does every year: Take someone not known for being a singer and force them to belt out, Broadway style. At least Ed didn’t have to wear a Little Bo Peep costume.

In all fairness, Ed’s got some pipes on him. The song is pure treacle, however, lyrically and musically. What blows my mind is that the arrangements, the instrumentation, and the overall sound of this song is identical to songs I heard 20 years ago, and heard 10 years ago, and will undoubtedly hear again this year. That shows some real dedication to anachronism on the part of Macy’s and/or NBC. Do they keep this orchestra on ice somewhere and thaw them out every October?

Note the line where Ed McMahon sing-tells children “don’t be afraid” about Thanksgiving. It has the exact opposite effect. “No one was afraid about Thanksgiving, Ed. Why should we be afraid? WHY SHOULD WE BE AFRAID?! TELL US WHAT YOU KNOW, ED!”

Slice of Turkey: Cornucopia Finale

To wrap up this feature, I figured I’d showcase a collection of Thanksgiving artifacts from years gone by that didn’t quite warrant a post of their own but which deserve viewing nonetheless. First, an NBC parade promo from 1977, which also contains an ad for a Dolphins-Cardinals game, plus a very 1970s Jane Pauley tells us about Anwar Sadat.

Here are a few opening segments from old Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parades. The thing I love about these is that they cram together all the celebrities in no particular order, and in so doing, create an odd potpourri of folks who have almost nothing in common. Stick around for Jim Nabors, Gregory Hines, and Don McLean!

The 1983 parade opener tells us to get excited for Tommy Tune & Twiggy, Ashford & Simpson, Lou Rawls, and Ballet Hispanico! Plus, Bryant Gumbel hosts this year and he could not give less of a shit!

1984 parade opener, featuring a young, mugging Joey Lawrence and a weird, rubber-necked clown. The glory-hogging cast of The Tapdance Kid returns! The cast of V is here, and so is Dom Deluise!

The 1984 parade ended like this, with that weird clown making a kid disappear. Then a litany of sponsors, and Santa Claus tells us Christmas is here, so you better get your ass to the mall.

Not parade related, but certainly worthy of inclusion: Happy Thanksgiving from The Weird Al Show, the parodist’s short-lived kids CBS kids show, circa 1997.

Slice of Turkey: Phil Hartman, 1996

In today’s clip, which I assume is from some sort of Thanksgiving Day parade pregame show, Phil Hartman gives us a bird’s eye view of the parade route from the cockpit of a helicopter. This was back in 1996, post-SNL, when Hartman played Bill McNeal on News Radio.

The video quality is not fantastic and some of the banter is a little weird and stilted, but dammit, Phil Hartman is bulletproof in my book. He’s one of my favorite comedic actors ever, and I’d listen to him read the telephone book, if only he was still around to do so. Gone too soon. Try not to think about the fact that he only had a little over a year to live when this video was made, even though I’ve just put that thought in your head.

Bonus Hartman! A Thanksgiving-themed SNL sketch from 1988, featuring John Lithgow, Fargo accents, and some window-rattling burps.

Slice of Turkey: Double Shot! 1993

While trawling through the interwebs looking for videos of yesteryear, I stumbled across this one from 1993 that said it featured comedian Elayne Boosler singing a song from Once Upon a Mattress. My first thought was, Ooh boy, do I have the nerve to click ‘play’? When I think “Elayne Boosler,” I think “1980s standup comedy boom” and “blazers with enormous shoulder pads and rolled up sleeves.” I do not think “Broadway magic.”

As evidenced by this clip, however, it turns out that Ms. Boosler has a lovely voice. Shame on me for doubting her. Nonetheless, it begs the question: Why was comedian Elayne Boosler asked to sing a song from a Broadway musical, a musical that she did not appear in, and was not even being mounted on Broadway at the time? Did she casually mention her singing chops to someone at NBC, or was it a cold call? “Looks like I picked the ‘Elayne Boosler’ card out of this hat. Guess I have to give her a ring and see if she knows any showtunes.”

It is one of the most baffling things about this parade, as I’ve said before. It’s not good enough to invite celebrities; they must be gussied up in costumes and belting out a song. Keep in mind, this clip comes from the same year that Laugh In alums JoAnne Worley and Ruth Buzzi had to do much the same thing. In Little Bo Peep costumes no less, the poor bastards.

Maybe the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is just an elaborate, expensive session of celebrity karaoke. But instead of a dark bar serving overpriced Sapporo, they get to do it on national TV while donning frilly dresses.

Elayne Boosler’s song stylings were not a disaster, but the 1993 parade had plenty of other ones. That year, winds whipped at 20 mph and wreaked havoc with handlers’ abilities to control the balloons. In this clip, you’ll see a dinosaur balloon violently bite the dust when he collides with a lamppost and splits down the seam. You will also see the vinyl corpse of Sonic the Hedgehog slumped on the pavement, covered with a large sheet to maintain a modicum of dignity. Oh, the inflated humanity!

Slice of Turkey: Ed McMahon and Regis Philbin, 1981

Most of my youth, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was hosted by preternaturally gleeful souls like Willard Scott or Matt Lauer. Morning people, through and through, with orange juice and low-octane coffee running through their veins.

Apparently, t’was not always so. In this clip from the 1981 parade, Ed McMahon is your host. You know, Johnny Carson’s affable sidekick. Ed was more of a night owl, if you catch my drift, and boy does he show it here.

McMahon looks woefully ill equipped to be awake and outside at this early hour. He was supposed to arrive on the back of a rollerskating elephant from the Big Apple Circus (!), but after five minutes on the beast’s shaky back he could take no more. So he stumbles out from behind a red curtain, trembling and breathing heavily, and literally pushes his way past two lines of Rockettes to begin his opening monologue. And if you can follow that monologue, you and Ed must speak a special sidekick twin language. Individually, all of his words make sense, but they don’t quite add up to a cohesive whole. It’s like a verbal clearance bin.

McMahon eventually throws things over to “NBC’s newest morning talk show host,” Regis Philbin. Reeg engages Ed with his usual rapid-fire Regis-isms, then switches gears to wax nostalgic over the Thanksgiving parades of his youth and his alma mater, Cardinal Hayes High School. It’s weird to hear a somewhat solemn, subdued Regis Philbin, since I don’t think he’s been able to lower his voice below Shout Level for the last 20 years or so. My theory is, at some point he became confused over where Dana Carvey’s impression of himself ended and the real him began.

After a brief commercial break (McDonalds and an awesome windup motorcycle I kinda want right now), things end on a sour note, as we get a glimpse of the rollerskating elephant. The poor thing totters unsteady on the pavement, moving gingerly. It looks like the unhappiest animal on the planet. Good thing PETA didn’t exist back then, or the Big Apple Circus would’ve gotten a big bucket of red paint in their faces.

UPDATE, 11/19/2012: The original video I shared here has been removed from YouTube by people who hate our freedom. You can, however, get a brief glimpse of what was described above from the clip now posted below, which includes the very beginning of NBC’s 1981 parade coverage. The quality of this video is not fantastic and you will only hear a tiny piece of Ed McMahon’s rambling monologue. However, you will still see Ed almost run over a couple of Rockettes.

Just for laughs, here’s the old link, on the off chance it is restored some day. Courage!

Slice of Turkey: ABC News, 1980

I’ve written before about how terrifying I found the local news when I was a kid. In the 1980s, local NYC newscasts were catalogs of horror. Race riots. Crack. Serial killers. Bernie Goetz. Rock and roller cola wars, I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE! (tips over burning table)

That’s why I find feature on the 1980 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade done by the local ABC affiliate so endearing. Not one mention of an elderly woman beaten to death or a kid stabbed for his sneakers! In it, anchorman Roger Sharpe and his adorable two year old son (I assume?) take in the parade together. There’s a buffet of greatness packed into these two and a half minutes. We get some nostalgia-riffic shots of the balloons and paraders. A clown terrorizes Sharpe’s young child. Sharpe notes that Smokey the Bear can’t quite float straight because “he was out with Grimsby last night.” Roger Grimsby was another ABC anchor with a rep as a lush. That must have made the end of this segment awkward, since it throws back to Grimsby in the ABC News studio. (Ooops).

But the best part comes at 1:50, when Sharpe asks a bunch of kids what their favorite part of the parade was, and one highly advanced 11-year-old says “the women.” This would be funny enough, but Sharpe’s attempts to get this young man to explain himself compound the hilarity. That’s why Sharpe got paid the big bucks, to ask the tough questions.

Slice of Turkey: Forever Plaid, 1990

One evergreen feature of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade is to feature the cast of a Broadway musical performing a number from their show. The effect is often weird, since the actors, singers, and dancers are asked to complete a routine in an area a fraction the size of an actual Broadway stage. It’s like asking Michael Phelps to breaststroke across a bathtub. Not to long ago, I wrote about Starlight Express, which is an extreme but representative example of this phenomenon. Starlight Express was bonkers even at its full scale. Reduced to tiny TV dimensions, it was practically suicidal.

I’ve chosen this clip that features the original cast of Forever Plaid for a few reasons. For one thing, it is a rare case where it seems that no reduction in scale was necessary, nor did it endanger anyone’s life. It’s also pretty amusing. I was genuinely impressed by the insane showmanship on display here.

But mostly I chose this clip because it triggered an ancient memory. My freshman year at NYU, one of my roommates was a pleasant enough person with whom I had no problems with at all, except that he loved to belt out songs with wild, unbridled enthusiasm, particularly early in the morning while showering. It bugged me, but I dealt with, because when it comes to putting up with petty annoyances (as opposed to actually confronting their sources), I have Herculean strength. I will exhaust any and all contingencies before asking someone to knock off whatever they’re doing.

My roommate was painfully, blissfully oblivious to how loud he was, until one morning after I’d invited several girls to crash in our room. (Nought but crashing went on; it was, for all intents and purposes, a slumber party. I only mention this to emphasize how awkwardly chaste I still was at age 18.) I was used to my roommate’s performances and just buried my head under a pillow. The girls, however, thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. They all tried to shush each other but couldn’t help breaking out into chortles at his thoroughly earnest crooning.

He eventually emerged from the bathroom, wearing nothing but a towel, to find several girls (who’d escaped his notice before, apparently) sitting up in their sleeping bags, giggling. One told him she liked his voice. She said it sincerely, but he looked mortified. “You could hear me?” he asked, incredulous. I have no idea how he could not have known we could hear him. The whole dorm could.

From thereon out, his singing was far more subdued and infrequent, which was good for sleeping in but bad for my conscience. Annoying though it may have been, I felt awful for making him feel so self conscious about his shower singing. He also became a bit leery of me, suddenly thinking I was this super macho hetero dude because I was bringing over multiple girls to our room. Even I found this to be ridiculously funny, because the most exciting thing that happened that night was watching the “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Regardless of reality, he now saw me very differently, and we were never quite “cool” again.

Before this incident, however, Forever Plaid was in heavy rotation in my roommate’s repertoire. I’ve never seen the show or learned much about it; according to Wikipedia, it seems to be a proto-jukebox musical with an oddly dark premise. On the rare occasions where I hear/see it mentioned, I think of my freshman year roommate and how I accidentally crushed his fragile spirit with my irrepressible manliness.

Slice of Turkey: Jim Henson Tribute, 1990

Jim Henson passed away not too long before the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade of 1990. In one capacity or another, Henson had been associated with the parade for quite some time, whether it was the Kermit balloon or some of his many creations appearing on a float. And so Macy’s saw fit to pay tribute to the late creative genius with a brief montage of some Henson-created moments from parades past.

There are a few unfortunate touches here, such as Willard Scott referring to Miss Piggy as “that shameless pig” (don’t be a dick, Willard). The instrumentation for the backing track of “Rainbow Connection” is also painfully Casio-esque. Even for 1990, the tone is pretty brutal, and I have to think they could have done better.

In aggregate, however, this is an understated but sweet tribute to someone who was taken too soon. Look, I never said all of these posts have to be snotty, okay?

Slice of Turkey: The Joker, 1989

From the same parade that gave us ALF’s running commentary comes this bizarre artifact. 1989, you may recall, was the year that Tim Burton’s Batman came out. It’s suffered a hit in reputation of late, thanks to the newer, far superior Batman reboots. But if 1989’s Batman doesn’t completely measure up to those high watermarks, it’s still an enjoyable flick. It has requisite Tim Burton dark playfulness and mostly avoids some of his usual crimes, like relying heavily on Johnny Depp. I like Depp and I like Burton. (It’s been a while since he put out something decent, with the possible exception of Sweeney Todd, but I’ll forgive a lot from the man behind Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice.). However, if I were teaching them in elementary school, I’d make those two kids sit at different tables for a while.

One of the big reasons for Batman‘s success was Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of The Joker. Now that we also have Heath Ledger’s version, the bite of Jack’s performance is not quite as sharp in comparison, but again, it remains eminently watchable. Wanting to keep pace with the zeitgeist, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade thought it would be fun to have a Joker “drop in” on the proceedings. The conceit of this segment is that the Clown Prince of Crime has arrived unannounced to ruin the party. Oh Joker, will you ever learn?

But rather than release toxic chemicals or run people over, The Joker just belts out a very Broadway “bad guy” song called “The Joker.” It comes from a 1964 musical called The Roar of the Greaspaint, The Smell of the Crowd, and was introduced by Athony Newley. So…well, just connect the dots, okay? (Truth be told, my own impressions of Mr. Newley are limited mostly to Tom Servo’s impression of him on Mystery Science Theater 3000. “William Holden’s coming overrrrr…”)

Did I expect The Joker to poison parade goers or shock them with a 20,000 watt joy buzzer? Of course not. But I also didn’t expect him to sing a song with an awful lot of slide whistle (any slide whistle is an awful lot, I’d say), while accentuating dopey lyrics by mannerisms that make Tommy Tune look butch, topped off with some corny jokes at the Caped Crusader’s expense. What are the odds Bruce Vilanch was somehow involved with this? I place the over/under at 117%. In fact, I would not bat an eye if you told me this scene was written and scored by Rip Taylor.

But the weirdest part of all might be the end, when we cut to a studio somewhere and a prerecord bit reveals to us that The Joker is actually comedian Fred Travalena and he wishes us all a happy Thanksgiving. As if we were all in a great deal of suspense wondering about the identity of this fake Joker we met almost two minutes ago. I WAS ON THE EDGE OF MY SEAT, NBC. DON’T YOU DRAW REVEALS OUT LIKE THAT!

What is the point, really, of dressing these celebrities in bizarro costumes for no reason if you’re going to say, “Just kidding, folks, this is the real me and I wish you a happy non-Joker holiday” Was Mr. Travalena pulling a diva move and insisting his identity be acknowledged? “Oh no, no way I’m singing this fruity song in white makeup at 8 in the morning when it’s 23 degrees out and go unrecognized. Do you know who you’re dealing with? I’M FRED MOTHERFUCKING TRAVALENA. There better be a hooker in my trailer when I’m done, too.”

Slice of Turkey: ALF, 1989

As I’ve said many times thus far for this series, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is almost painfully earnest and free of irony. It doesn’t have a huge amount of self awareness, or any at all, really, because the slightest drop of reflection could bring the whole cloying house of cards tumbling down on itself.

Witness this clip from 1989, wherein sort-of co-host ALF shows off his comedy chops. I loved ALF as a kid, but in that kid way in which I basically loved anything that was on TV and popular. ALF was one of many shows I watched religiously yet haven’t seen in years and could not tell you what happened in a single episode. (See also: Family Ties, The Cosby Show, and virtually every other NBC show of that era.) So I have no idea if the show holds up or has gathered moss.

I do know that I stopped watching it at some point, probably around the time everyone else stopped watching it. Which, oddly enough, coincided roughly with ALF’s appearance at the Thanksgiving Parade. By 1989, ALF’s star was definitely on the wane. Was this NBC’s last-ditch attempt to inject life into a dying franchise? If so, it didn’t help; ALF was canceled the following year, despite having a cliffhanger ending.

ALF’s function during this parade was to stand in a window of a nearby building and make sarcastic comments and corny jokes about the proceedings. If the results are any indication, my decision to stop watching his show was a wise one. But ALF really kicks it into high gear when the Garfield balloon shows up. You see, ALF’s alien race ate cats, and so he sees this as his turn to shine.

The problem is, once you introduce a MST3K-Lite element to these proceedings, they begin to crumble before your eyes. The Thanksgiving Parade demands the cheerful, wide-eyed tunnel vision of Willard Scott and Katie Couric, not the jaundiced, cat-craving gaze of ALF. As a result, the whole thing feels kind of cheap and wrong. Good job, ALF, you RUINED THANKSGIVING.

Bonus ad! This brief McRib ad aired during the original broadcast of this parade. Also, CHAWMP.