Tag Archives: 1989

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.

Ghosts of Thanksgivings Past: Marvel Floats

As a kid, the highlight and lowlight of every holiday season for me was the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was the highlight because, duh, huge balloons. It was the lowlight because, even to a child, it had some truly cringe-tacular moments.

For some strange reason, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has always (or at least always in my lifetime) simultaneously tried to appeal to both kids and Broadway aficionados. Why did they try to do this? I don’t know, because Times Square is sort of close to Herald Square? Makes as much sense as any other explanation.

They also tried to shoehorn various celebrities into the festivities. Some were established, or at least recognizable. Some were clearly being foisted on the show by some agent hoping to establish a client. (If a singer was “performing” his/her “smash hit single”, it was a virtual guaranteed said single hadn’t even been pressed yet.)

Regardless of their status, said celebrity would probably be inserted into some sort of float or setpiece in which their presence was superfluous at best. And often asked to sing, even if (often especially if) they were not known as a singer. (“Here to perform a medley from Damn Yankees, please welcome Abe Vigoda!”)

This was extremely frustrating to a little kid. When you’d see the opening credits for the Parade and see something you loved teased as coming up soon, naturally you thought that said thing would be presented in a form you loved. If you were told Masters of the Universe would appear, you assumed they would resemble the cartoon you watched every day. You didn’t expect guys in weird, foamy costumes fake-sword fighting on a 15-foot float.

In that spirit, I present this video from the 1989 (first captured and shared with the world by the excellent X-Entertainment.com, which has a plethora of Thanksgiving Parade videos and period commercials as well). It features a float by Marvel Entertainment, full of all your favorite Marvel characters, and of course Melba Moore too, because…huh?

Ms. Moore sings “I Need a Hero,” addressing many of the lyrics to Captain America and Spider-Man (who’s too busy crouching to pay her much attention). She had a few hits in the 1980s. “I Need a Hero” was not one of them. This is something the Parade is notorious for doing, having some random person sing a random song in a random setting, thus assuring that everyone involved looks intensely uncomfortable.

Compared to some performances I’ve seen, Moore is in Laurence Olivier territory. She’s game enough to get caught in web-type-thing and climb through a manhole. But no one else has much room to maneuver, and the Marvel heroes and villains don’t fight so much as they lightly tap each other and shift from one foot to the other. The Hulk in particular looks like he doesn’t know what to do with himself.

By the end of the video, everyone is bopping along to the beat, regardless of affiliation. You can see both Doctor Doom and Luke Cage rockin’ out as the song fades away. Moore has united them all with her R&B song stylings.

Weird? Of course, but no weirder than the Marvel float from 1987, which did not include Moore or any other practitioners of the quiet storm arts. It was just a lot of low-impact aerobics, featuring the exact same float seen above, most of the same heroes, and the soundtrack from Back to the Future.

Captain America is prominently featured, as he saves Wolverine from being shoved by bad guys, zaps Doctor Doom to death, and briefly passes by RoboCop without comment (and before you say RoboCop wasn’t part of the Marvel Universe, he was, smart guy). 

Two things that confuse me more than the presence of RoboCop: Why does Dr. Strange look like Frank Zappa, and why is The Hulk a bad guy?