What does Thanksgiving mean to you? Is it a day of gathering together with beloved family members to share a bountiful repast, or is it the chore of getting up at six o'clock in the morning to shove croutons up a dead turkey while the rest of the family slumbers contentedly? Wherever your emotions fall in the overall Thanksgiving spectrum, we hope to give you some temporary relief by revisiting some of our (and hopefully your!) favorite TV turkey moments.
1. Cheers reveals what Vera Looks Like (Briefly!)
In the "Thanksgiving Orphans" episode, most of the regulars who frequent Cheers have no special plans for Thanksgiving, so they accept Carla's invitation to a potluck dinner held at her home, with Norm in charge of bringing the turkey. Norm, however, unskilled in the nuances defrosting a bird before roasting it, brings an enormous frozen turkey to the party. Tempers begin to flare when it seems like the turkey will never be ready, and a food fight breaks out. Norm's oft-mentioned but never seen wife, Vera, arrives during the melee, but before viewers can get a good look at her, she receives a pie in the face. So, who played Vera? That role was given to George Wendt's real-life wife, Bernadette Birkett.
2. The Drunken Origin of the Bob Newhart Drinking Game
TV Guide rated the "Over the River and Through the Woods" episode of The Bob Newhart Show at #9 of the 100 Greatest Episodes Ever. It's also Newhart's personal favorite. Emily is going home to Seattle for Thanksgiving and Bob decides to stay home because his "patients might need him" (when in reality he can't bear the thought of skipping stones across Puget Sound with his in-laws). His friend Jerry brings a large jug of vodka and cider, and starts taking slugs from it every time his alma mater (William and Mary) is scored against during the Big Game. Joined by Bob's neighbor and a patient, the quartet plays the drinking game throughout several more televised football games until they realize that they should probably eat something. Bob drunkenly tries to order Chinese food on the phone:
"I'd like some Moo Goo Gai Pan. What do you want, Jerry?"
"I, too, want the Moo Goo Gai Pan."
"Another Moo Goo"¦Goo Goo"¦"
"Bob! You said "˜Moo Goo Goo Goo!'"
"Maybe I'm ordering Chinese baby food!"
This episode inspired the "Hi, Bob" drinking game, where participants down a shot every time those words are spoken during an episode of the show.
3. WKRP's Strange (and True) Turkey Day Promotion
Arthur Carlson, the station manager on WKRP in Cincinnati, longs to play more of an integral role in daily operations. So, in the "Turkeys Away!" episode, he secretly plans a special Thanksgiving promotion "“ dropping live turkeys out of a helicopter over the Pinedale Shopping Mall. The station's earnest but clueless news reporter Les Nessman is on the scene reporting live, and at first states that skydivers are jumping out of the copter. But when no parachutes open"¦he suddenly realizes that he is witnessing live turkeys hitting the ground "like sacks of wet cement." Mr. Carlson hadn't intended any animal cruelty; "As God is my witness," he states after the event, "I thought turkeys could fly." Oddly enough, this episode was based on an actual radio station promotion that one of the show's writers had witnessed. The stunt was inspired by an annual "turkey drop" festival held in Yellville, Arkansas, which was finally halted in 1989 after animal rights activists got wind of it.
4. Will and Grace struggle to Keep the Story Straight
Will and Grace fans learned the entire back story of all the main characters in the "Lows in the Mid-Eighties" episode (which originally aired as a one-hour special in November 2000.) Flash back to 1985, when Columbia student Grace brings boyfriend Will home with her for Thanksgiving. After dinner, Grace is all hot and bothered when they retire to her bedroom, but Will feels conflicted and rushes to the bathroom to call Jack, whom he'd met briefly earlier that day. Jack has already correctly noted that Will is gay, which Will vehemently denied at the time. "If you're all hot for your girlfriend, then why are you on the phone with me?" Jack asks him. In addition to clarifying quite a bit, the show does bring up one inconsistency. This episode briefly shows Diane, the only woman with whom Will was intimate, but she's a redhead played by a writer's assistant. In a later episode, Diane is portrayed by blonde Academy Award-winning actress Mira Sorvino.
Since you're probably reading this at work while marking time until the long weekend begins, why not chime in with your favorite Thanksgiving TV episodes?
On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson, who was born on this day in 1936, noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: "Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met." Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together—they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education, and ended up collaborating on several projects (including a Labyrinth video game). They also came up with the idea for a "Muppet Institute of Technology" project, a computer literacy TV special that was never produced. Henson historians described the project as follows:
Adams had been working with the Henson team that year on the Muppet Institute of Technology project. Collaborating with Digital Productions (the computer animation people), Chris Cerf, Jon Stone, Joe Bailey, Mark Salzman and Douglas Adams, Jim’s goal was to raise awareness about the potential for personal computer use and dispel fears about their complexity. In a one-hour television special, the familiar Muppets would (according to the pitch material), “spark the public’s interest in computing,” in an entertaining fashion, highlighting all sorts of hardware and software being used in special effects, digital animation, and robotics. Viewers would get a tour of the fictional institute – a series of computer-generated rooms manipulated by the dean, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and stumble on various characters taking advantage of computers’ capabilities. Fozzie, for example, would be hard at work in the “Department of Artificial Stupidity,” proving that computers are only as funny as the bears that program them. Hinting at what would come in The Jim Henson Hour, viewers, “…might even see Jim Henson himself using an input device called a ‘Waldo’ to manipulate a digitally-controlled puppet.”
While the show was never produced, the development process gave Jim and Douglas Adams a chance to get to know each other and explore a shared passion. It seems fitting that when production started on the 2005 film of Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would create animatronic creatures like the slovenly Vogons, the Babel Fish, and Marvin the robot, perhaps a relative of the robot designed by Michael Frith for the MIT project.
You can read a bit on the project more from Muppet Wiki, largely based on the same article.
More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.
If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:
"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"
The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.
Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.
"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"
After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).
SKINHEADS, A DISCUS THROWER, AND A SCI-FI DIRECTOR
Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.
Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.
WHAT EXECUTIVES AT APPLE THOUGHT
Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.
When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."
But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.
WHAT EVERYBODY ELSE THOUGHT
When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.
The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.
Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:
"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.
Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."
THE AWFUL 1985 FOLLOW-UP
A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).
Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in TheWall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:
In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:
Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.
* = A Note on the Airing in 1983
Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!