Tryptophan-tastic: 13 pieces of Thanksgiving entertainment to be thankful for
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Thanksgiving is a holiday held in high esteem—a time for over-eating and, of course, giving thanks. A group of Detroit Lions fans recently circulated a petition attempting to have alt-rockers Nickelback booted from the halftime show of this year’s Thanksgiving Day game between the Lions and Packers for fear the band’s bland, grungy rock would ruin the holiday. Though they failed—the band will play as scheduled—there’s still plenty of Thanksgiving-related entertainment for which to give thanks.
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
What is more American than a bloated, corporate-sponsored parade that tramps through the streets of Manhattan? Apple and pumpkin pie might be more American, but the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is a national institution. Before families get fatted up on dressing, gravy, at least four kinds of starch, and possibly some sort of cranberry derivative, eyes tune in to New York City’s big balloon show. Since 1924, scores of inflatables have navigated the city’s streets, rarely maiming anyone and always delighting children. On top of that, each year some of the best-known lip-synchers in the business perform at the event, pantomiming seasonal classics and songs that only preteens have heard on the Disney Channel. And there’s dancing, typically a traditional form of theater strut where ladies wear sparkly skirts and fake eyelashes while kicking their legs as though they are cracking some kind of nut. At the end of the celebration, a large man in a red suit appears, promising to bring gifts to the decent children who believe in him. If this parade doesn’t get you into the holiday spirit, it’s likely your heart is actually just a tiny piece of black coal, and you probably hate America.
Thanksgiving NFL games
Perhaps as integral as turkey is to the American Thanksgiving experience, NFL football is a staple on the last Thursday of November, with the battle on the gridiron providing the soundtrack to so many turkey-fueled naps. Football has been played on Thanksgiving for more than 100 years. The Detroit Lions first hosted a Thanksgiving Day game in 1934 and have hosted it 71 times since, and they’re joined by the Cowboys in their role as “permanent” Thanksgiving day hosts. There have been plenty of memorable Turkey Day clashes, including the 1993 Leon Lett miscue, a 44-38 shootout win for the Lions over the Vikings, and the infamous overtime coin-toss controversy in 1998. Not everyone has been thankful for the tradition, though: After Barry Sanders retired in 1999, the Lions became more dreadful with each season, prompting many fans to clamor for the NFL to start promoting different teams on the holiday. The NFL stood by the Lions, who have, thankfully, improved somewhat going into this year’s tilt with the Packers (though the halftime entertainment is altogether another matter). The NFL, perhaps out of penance for years of terrible Lions games, added a third game—featuring a rotating cast of teams and played on Thanksgiving night—beginning in 2006.
Planes, Trains, And Automobiles
What better time than the holidays for John Hughes’ practically patented brand of human insight, bittersweet tearjerker moments, and heartwarming emotional redemption? In the less festive months of the year, Hughes’ films—while great—can verge on the cloying. But nothing promotes the spirit for showing kindness to our fellow man like Hughes’ Thanksgiving-themed classic, Planes, Trains, And Automobiles. Steve Martin’s snide, misanthropic ad man crosses paths with John Candy’s blabbermouthed, no-boundaries shower curtain ring salesman, and in classic buddy-movie tradition the two find their fates intertwined. As Martin races to get home in time for Thanksgiving, the two resort to every form of transportation mentioned in the title (plus a few more) as a typical set of comic misfortunes get in their way. Naturally, both characters—especially Martin’s—end up learning some things about their own flaws, and the two come to respect each other by the end. Hughes writes to Candy and Martin’s established character archetypes, but he also imbues them with nuance, pathos, and humanity. And both actors do the material justice, playing up their characters’ comic extremes while keeping in touch with an honest human element. Grandma may want to leave the room for the more profanity-laden scenes, but there’s no beating this film for lovable holiday spirit.
A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving
One of the classic specials, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving not only showed us the meaning of the holiday, but also some of Snoopy’s sweet basketball moves. It also gave rise to the idea of an alternate—even vegetarian-friendly?—Thanksgiving meal with buttered toast and popcorn. It all goes off the rails when Peppermint Patty, who prompted the meal by inviting herself over, goes on a rant about the quality of the food, but she soon apologizes, and everyone winds up being invited to Charlie Brown’s grandmother’s house for dinner anyway. Along the way, viewers learn a bit about being thankful for friends and family, and are subjected to the traditional history lecture from Linus. Just like turkey and sweet potatoes, this special is comfort food. It’s the same every year, but there’s a reason for its longevity: a winning formula that doesn’t need to be altered. It’s just that good.
WKRP In Cincinnati, “Turkeys Away”
Chances are, this isn’t on the radar of anyone under the age of 40. But the episode—in which the titular radio station comes up with the idea of a turkey giveaway to celebrate the big holiday—is not only the best in the series’ run, but also one of the best holiday-themed episodes of television ever. The twist for the giveaway? Dropping live turkeys from a helicopter. This plan goes about as well as anyone would expect, as chaos and hilarity ensue. The episode ultimately closes with a classic line—“As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly”—but it’s the ridiculous, panicked live commentary by newsman Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) that pushes this episode into the pantheon of all-time greats.
The Simpsons, “Bart Versus Thanksgiving”
The show that’s done everything has, of course, tackled Thanksgiving better than most in this episode from its second season, when Bart was still the center of the show, somehow acting as both an a protagonist and an antagonist. The episode skewers everything: the traditional football game (Homer is more concerned about the Cowboys covering the spread), Up With People (replaced by “Hooray For Everything”), and even finds room to poke at itself via the appearance of a Bart balloon in the Macy’s parade. But familial squabbling is at the center of the episode: Bart destroys the centerpiece Lisa has worked hard on, and he chooses to run away—to, literally, the other side of the tracks—rather than apologize. After misadventures that include being chased off by Mr. Burns’ hounds and eating Thanksgiving dinner at a homeless shelter with a pair of hobos, Bart realizes how good he has it. A fantasy sequence in which Bart envisions his return home going awry as he is blamed for everything drives him to the roof, where he discovers a treasure trove of lost toys and is reunited with Lisa, and he finally musters an apology for her. This scene, as Bart works out for himself how he hurt Lisa, is an example of the show at its best: genuine, realistic, and heartwarming without schmaltz. The writers can’t resist one last wink as, while watching Bart and Lisa reconcile, Homer turns to Marge and says, “We’re great parents!” While the show would tackle Thanksgiving in a few later episodes, it never took the holiday on full bore like it did here. But it didn’t need to; it nailed Thanksgiving—for better and worse—out of the gate.
As hard as it is to believe, there are actually people in America who don’t like football. For those freedom-hating Americans, though, there are a slew of all-day marathons across numerous cable networks to step in for talking to that ex-con uncle (Law & Order!), the geeky in-laws (Mythbusters!), or to lull post-meal viewers into a nice food coma (Man V. Food). Thanks to the endless number of channels available on cable and satellite television, there will be no awkward silences or huge arguments this Thanksgiving, as long as everyone is focused on a continuous string of Sanford & Son episodes.
Friends, numerous Thanksgiving episodes
Some shows put out their best episodes as holiday specials (i.e. The Simpsons and Halloween) and no show consistently did right by Thanksgiving like Friends. Most of the show’s Turkey Day episodes are classics, packed full of the series’ best sight gags and its best heartwarming moments. In season five’s “The One With All The Thanksgivings,” viewers are treated to the never-not-funny images of both Monica and Joey with turkeys on their heads, and a hilarious flashback to Ross and Chandler sporting some seriously goofy, Miami Vice-inspired fashions. But there’s also get the “gee whiz, isn’t that sweet” moment of Chandler telling Monica he loves her for the first time (while she has that aforementioned turkey on her head, no less). Other classic moments from Thanksgiving episodes include Chandler in the box, Phoebe in the Civil War, Joey eating an entire turkey, Ross getting high, fat Monica, and Rachel failing at football. Plus, with so many episodes available, it’s a great start for one of those family-friendly TV marathons.
How I Met Your Mother, “Slapsgiving”
Years-long running jokes and the comedic talents of Neil Patrick Harris are the two strongest assets of How I Met Your Mother. The recurrence of the slap bet—established in season two when Barney loses a bet where he wagered Marshall five reprisal-free slaps to the face, to be doled out anytime “from here to eternity”—is a great example of those two lining up, particularly in the third-season episode “Slapsgiving.” First, Harris is a master of old-school slapstick—whenever he’s slapped by Jason Segel on HIMYM, Harris goes down like he’s been swatted by a grizzly. Second, the open-ended nature of the bet means slaps lurk all the time for Harris, even on heartwarming occasions. In “Slapsgiving,” Marshall lets Barney know that the third slap will be coming at 3 p.m. on Thanksgiving (he even makes a countdown website), and then spends the entire episode gleefully torturing Barney into a quivering bundle of nerves with puns like “Did you lose your slappetite?” and construction-paper hand-turkey decorations. After Slap No. 3 finally happens (with Barney spinning all the way around and smashing through a coffee table on the way to the floor), Marshall runs over to the piano to play a song he composed for the occasion. Everyone gathers around like it’s the opening of All In The Family. When Barney chimes in on the chorus with pained-sounding but good-natured backup vocals, it’s one of those few TV moments that’s both legitimately funny and heartwarming.
Sesame Street, “Farewell Mr. Hooper”
When Will Lee, the actor who played Sesame Street’s resident shopkeeper Mr. Hooper, succumbed to a heart attack that day in 1982, the Children’s Television Workshop made the tough decision to teach children about mortality by having Lee’s character die, too. Michael Davis’ StreetGang: The Complete History Of Sesame Street details how the show’s research director, Lewis Bernstein, convened an advisory group of psychologists and religious leaders to provide head writer Norman Stiles with guidance for discussing death and dying with a kindergarten-age audience. The result was the moving “Farewell, Mr. Hooper,” which acknowledges the miracle of life and the naturalness of death, highlighting the importance of expressing one’s feelings of loss while still embracing the fond memories of those who have died. All of these emotions are articulated through Mr. Hooper’s most devoted customer, Big Bird, who demands to know, “Why does it have to be this way?” before eventually sighing, “You know, I’m going to miss you, Mr. Hooper.” The episode aired on Thanksgiving 1983 and repeats were shown on the holiday so, according to Loretta Long (who played Susan), parents could be home to watch with children and help them understand. It seems a strange thing to be thankful for, but the episode helped teach children about death in a way that helped them understand without fear.
Adam Sandler, “The Thanksgiving Song”
Two years before he lobbed pop-culture non sequiturs at Hanukkah, Adam Sandler took aim at a slightly more innocuous holiday: Thanksgiving. Written by Sandler and then-SNL writers Ian Maxtone-Graham and Robert Smigel, “The Thanksgiving Song” made its debut on a 1992 installment of “Weekend Update,” and introduced the world to Sandler’s winking, wonderfully random songwriting sensibility. (A live version of the song would eventually end up on Sandler’s first album, They’re All Gonna Laugh At You!) In only a few short minutes, the man-who-would-be-Billy Madison somehow manages to link the joys of eating turkey to everything from Betty Grable films to his favorite kind of pants (corduroy). Oh, and how his brother likes to masturbate with baby oil. Of course, enjoyment of “The Thanksgiving Song” hinges on your tolerance for Sandler’s goofy man-child shtick, and many of the references have aged about as well as 20-year-old cranberries. (Remember when “Tyson gave that girl VD”?) Still, the song’s glorious silliness and Sandler’s wide-eyed delivery make it an infectious ode to the holiday, like a comforting shot of musical tryptophan. Gobble gobble goo, gobble gobble giggle.
The Money Pit turkey scene
Richard Benjamin’s 1986 comedy, The Money Pit, revolves around no particular holiday, but rather the year-round celebration of maintenance many owners of older homes enjoy. But the film’s best scene—involving a Rube Goldbergian series of mishaps that begins with a faulty light switch and ends with a spectacular plumbing fail that leaves Tom Hanks laughing hysterically—is hinged upon a fantastic shot of a cooked turkey soaring through the air and crashing through a bathroom window on the other side of the house. The bird’s timer making that perfect popping noise, and Shelly Long saying, “Well, the turkey’s done,” further prove how pivotal a role the poultry plays. Seeing how important the great gobbler is to Thanksgiving, and accepting that this is easily a top-five-all-time turkey-related movie moment, The Money Pit should be considered a November holiday classic. That scene (and the rest of the film) serves as a great reminder that we should be thankful to be in it together with our loved ones, even if “it” is a crumbling hellhole.
The Ice Storm
Those begrudgingly returning home for a strained Thanksgiving dinners can take comfort that the occasion won’t come to the chilliness of Ang Lee’s 1997 film, The Ice Storm. It’s hard to imagine a worse Thanksgiving than one with the morally vacant Hood and Carver families. The kids run amok, fueled by sex and booze as the parents carry on affairs, swing at key parties, and narrowly avoid messy nervous breakdowns. All this hush-hush bedlam is set against the unfolding Watergate scandal, foreshadowing the way dirty secrets have a way of rotting from the inside. It is a Thanksgiving movie exactly because it isn’t. The characters go through the motions of the weekend’s traditions only to keep up appearances, just like the rituals of their manicured but empty lives in a fancy suburb. The film flopped at the box office, but with Lee at the helm and a cast that features Joan Allen, Kevin Kline, Christina Ricci, and Tobey Maguire all doing amazing work as the Hood family, it has aged well, becoming an atypical holiday classic.