How was your Puppy Bowl Sunday? Mine kinda blew.
Like several other Americans, I’d been looking forward to last Sunday for months. Every year for the last year, the first Sunday in February has been synonymous with the Puppy Bowl, a three-hour spectacle dreamed up by some genius at Animal Planet who decided to let puppies cavort together in a dog run tricked out to look like a stadium.
It’s hard to avoid getting swept up in Puppy Bowl fever. Like the Oscars, the Olympics, and the Stanley Cup finals, it’s one of those rare events that has the potential to focus the attention of our fragmented culture. The two weeks leading up to it are ludicrous, of course, with all the hype and empty speculation about this or that crazy miniature baby poodle. Who needs it?
So it’s a relief when the day finally comes. Sadly, it turns out that in order to view the Puppy Bowl, you need to have cable, which I can’t get in my building in Queens. But over in Manhattan, it seems like every bar is outfitted with DirecTV. Though it’s a fair bet that something over half of them would be tuned in to an actual football game, I figure I can persuade a bartender somewhere to change the channel to the Puppy Bowl. So I get on the train.
I watch Barry, the much-touted miniature white poodle, shatter the temporary peace of Puppy Bowl Stadium with baby-poodle shenanigans.
My first stop, the ESPN Zone in Times Square, is a bust. The line to get in is, like, a block long and the burly guys manning the door are holding what look suspiciously like guest lists.
I walk over to Ninth Avenue and stop in a bar that has free hot dogs and a jolly, anthropomorphic pig standing guard outside. This afternoon, the crowd is pretty sparse and the vibe is grumpy. The bartender is busy wiping dry a stack of dollar bills. It looks as if some patron spilled beer all over his tips.
A pre-game show is on the TV, featuring former 49ers great Steve Young acting weirdly animated and Cowboys legend Michael Irvin wearing a tie with a knot the size of a grapefruit. When it goes to commercial, I ask the bartender if we could switch over to the Puppy Bowl. He stares at me. “We got strict rules,” he stammers. “My boss…all these guys.” He gestures to the four guys, including the bouncer, who are watching a commercial about wind power. “The Super Bowl. They’re all here for it.” He seems scared.
I sit through a paean to Steelers running back Jerome Bettis and a Stevie Wonder-headlined Motown medley and then hightail it.
Not half a block up the street, I duck into a bar and grill and hit pay dirt. The place is relatively empty, and I’m the only person at the bar. After ordering a beer, I ask the bartender to switch the channel from the pre-game show to the Puppy Bowl. “Are you serious?” he asks. I quickly explain the ins and outs of the Puppy Bowl. He’s totally game, and in a couple of seconds, we are watching Disco the springer spaniel and Louie the retriever-mix running around Puppy Bowl stadium. Then there’s Agatha, a whippet-beagle mix. “Oh my God,” says the bartender, who, it turns out, is in the market for a puppy. “I have to write that down.” He goes off to get a pad of paper, and an off-duty waitress and I watch Barry, the much-touted miniature white poodle, shatter the temporary peace of Puppy Bowl Stadium with baby-poodle shenanigans.
The only drawback is the sound: The bar’s speakers are blaring generic techno, and so we have to watch all the action close-captioned. The sound effects are what make the Puppy Bowl the Puppy Bowl, but all we’re getting is “[whimpers],” “[barks],” “[whines],” “[growls],” “[yips],” and, most intriguing, “[crowd cheering].”
I ask what the odds are of getting one TV switched to the Puppy Bowl. She says she doesn’t think the odds are very good.
As soon as the dog-loving bartender goes off duty, a waiter switches the channel back to football. I grab my coat and head down the street.
Down by the Port Authority I walk into a sad but otherwise nondescript tavern. At one end of the bar are a couple of gray-looking guys drinking some kind of cordial, or maybe sherry. At the other end, the owner and a companion are talking on cell phones and watching the Super Bowl in pretty desultory fashion. There is also an Irish waitress who is 12 and could clearly care less about football. I order a beer and ask her if it’s at all possible to change the channel to Puppy Bowl. “I don’t know,” she says dubiously. “Aren’t the best advertisements on during the Super Bowl?” Underlining her point, a commercial comes on, featuring a shorn lamb streaking a football game being played by Clydesdales. A bunch of endangered species cackle on the sidelines and the sad bar erupts in laughter. Even the guys stoned on sherry seem amused. Do we have some animal lovers in the audience? Encouraged, I ask the owner to switch the channel at the next commercial break. Both he and his lady friend look at me incredulously. It’s time to move on, I decide.
I swing back by the ESPN Zone and find there’s no longer a line. The place is crowded, though, and the bouncers say only the third-floor bar is open. They’re packed in five to six tourists deep up there, and I’m stuck in a knot of Swedes for what seems like an eternity. I ask a hostess what the odds are of getting one TV switched to the Puppy Bowl. She says she doesn’t think the odds are very good.
I take the train downtown to a bar that usually is teeming with tourists and fraternity types but tonight is virtually empty. And nobody is watching the game—either game. I mention to the manager that I’d like to watch the Puppy Bowl, and, shockingly, he is amenable. We’re stymied for a moment because I don’t know what channel it’s on. Fortunately, two tall ladies come in who had read about Puppy Bowl in the Post. They take control of the remote and search for Animal Planet. After six or seven trips up and down the whole station list—lots of Bill Frist and Mexican soccer for some reason—we figure out the bar doesn’t get Animal Planet. Time is running out, so I have to make tracks.
Right down the street is a dim, pretty cool-looking bar. Inside are a loud gaggle of Japanese students, a European couple, a genial American couple (who seem to be the owners), and one Steelers fan parked at the bar. The game is coming to its inevitable slow, sloppy, and boring conclusion. I make the pitch to change the channel to the Puppy Bowl in the waning moments of the game, but the people I take to be the owners don’t really follow me.
The game wraps up, and I ask to change the channel again. But it turns out the bar doesn’t have cable. According to the couple, the place is in legal limbo, and there’s no money to pay the cable bill. But they’re doing their best to make the place homey. The woman gestures to a framed charcoal drawing of a smiling dog who looks to be a cross between an old English sheepdog and a Scottish terrier. It’s her dog, who just recently passed away. “God,” she says. “He was some puppy.”