Stars of the 2018 Puppy Bowl. Courtesy: Discovery Communications
NEW YORK — The producer of some of Sunday’s most highly anticipated television sat in a control room looking intently at a screen.
Sitting in a large chair surrounded by technicians, Simon Morris offered a mix of directives: “More smoke.” “Cut to the tunnel shot.” Then, referring to a particular star of the proceedings, “Freeze on Mr. Wigglesworth.”
Among the estimated 2.3 million people who work in arts and entertainment, many have unusual specialties. Few are as unusual as Morris’s. His official title is executive producer for the Puppy Bowl. His unofficial title might be doggy auteur.
Morris’s task is to showrun: produce, guide, edit and generally oversee all creative aspects of the big canine event, including the direction he gave from the control room while the Puppy Bowl was being shot. When Discovery Communications’s Animal Planet airs the event this Sunday — its 14th year of putting up a furry counterprogram to the big game — it will do so in large part thanks to Morris’s expertise.
Just like the Super Bowl, the Puppy Bowl has become huge business: It has sold out of its sponsorships, to general advertisers like Geico and Subaru and pet-centric brands such as Chewy and Bissell. Last year, 2.5 million viewers tuned in to the show, and its re-airings over the course of the day — not the 112 million of the Super Bowl, but hardly doggy chow, either.
The Puppy Bowl is by far the most-watched Animal Planet program of the year, even more so if the Super Bowl is a blowout. Viewers simply switch over, say Animal Planet executives.
To serve those growing viewer and advertising bases, Discovery has needed to professionalize its puppies, unlike the early games when they bounded around a crude miniature replica of a football field. The Puppy Bowl is now a highly polished event in an elaborately designed “stadium” that features real-life touches like a scoreboard and a fake crowd backdrop. The “game” contains slick features like pregame intros; stand-alone packages on the rescue dogs’ backstories; and multiple-angle shots of “scoring plays,” which occur when a dog nudges a chew toy into an area it probably does not realize is an end zone.
“You can’t talk to animals like you can actors,” said Morris, who is in his third year as showrunner and works on other animal-oriented shows for half the year.
This year, producers have implemented some changes. Though “Fluff” and “Ruff” are again the two bandana-clad teams “playing” the “game,” they are doing so in a new stadium. Morris also cast a chicken to play the national anthem on a piano because, while they are undeniably patriotic, puppies are not really so great with musical instruments.
Morris’s job at Puppy Bowl is a mix of the creative, commercial and technical. He must make segments hum while also giving them a continuity dogs do not naturally have because they are, well, dogs. Since the puppies are ordinary shelter animals and not trained performers, very little of it can be orchestrated. So he keeps an eye out for natural narratives.
The Puppy Bowl is not filmed anytime close to the Super Bowl. It is shot over one day in October, on a ground-floor soundstage tucked off a busy midtown-Manhattan street.
One day this fall, shortly after filming, Morris sat at Discovery’s Manhattan headquarters in a cubicle just down the hall from David Zaslav, Discovery’s chief executive, staring for hours at frolicking dogs on his computer screen. All manner of pugs, poodles, chihuahuas, cocker spaniels, dachshunds and Great Danes as well as mixed breeds, were engaged in ebb-and-flow chaos — languid periods followed by bursts of all-in friskiness. The lone human to cross his monitor was Dan Schachner, the in-game commentator and “referee,” and thus the first football official not to be offended by chants involving dogs.
On his screen, Morris spotted two mutts on the sidelines from the same team eyeing each other in a friendly way. “Well, that worked out perfectly, because it looks like they’re coming up with a play,” he said. After spotting the moment, editors later locate and linger upon the best camera angle and edit in a wry voice-over.
As production goals go, Puppy Bowl is a two-hander: play to the cuteness of the animals while also gently riffing on the idea they are unknowingly engaged in a football game. Some plays in the game are obvious — you would not go wrong, for instance, expecting a pooch punt. Morris said unlike the Super Bowl, there is no possibility on his telecast of kneeling, though it is fair to assume there will be some heeling.
To find the dogs, Animal Planet encourages shelters and rescuers all over the country to submit video months before. Hundreds do. Then about 90 dogs, chosen by Morris and his team, descend on the New York studio, handlers in tow. Only about half of them will make the show.
Morris also chooses which dogs to spotlight in the pre-taped packages, often heading out to meet them around the country before shooting. Basically he is looking for touching backstories — good TV that also might lead to adoption, which is the Puppy Bowl’s more altruistic goal. That is easy this year since the event has drawn from shelters in hurricane-hit places likes Houston, South Florida and Puerto Rico.
In one room on shooting day in October, the puppies had gathered in little pens that were the canine equivalent of a casting call. Some frolicked. Some lazed. Some paced nervously. Some eyed each other as warily as their human counterparts, though with fewer script pages and more bones.
On the main stage, a group of handlers, animal rights observers and the occasional lucky cable-network intern ringed the newly designed “stadium” — this year it features a more modern curved design and an updated metallic look — swapping in eager dogs for the inert or irascible.
“Give Kitsy the ball,” a handler said, referring to a bold-looking shiba inu. Kitsy thought better of it, though, and acted as if she wanted the ball the way a defensive lineman wants the ball. From the control room, Morris watched the proceedings with an auteur’s eye, issuing his freeze-on-Wigglesworth orders with studied precision.
“[Simon] uses both the left and right side of his brain,” laughed Dawn Sinsel, a senior executive producer at Animal Planet who works closely with Morris. “And maintains his calm amid the controlled chaos.”
Morris did not intend to get into this line of work. A Brit with a distinguished salt-and-pepper beard, he instead began his career in his home country making documentaries for the BBC. With an uncle who funded serious science films, he had hopes to direct Oscar-worthy nonfiction films.
Like many before him, though, he found unscripted television offers many of the same virtues, and far less of the penury, of being a documentarian. He soon came to the United States to work on several Animal Planet shows, including “Too Cute,” a 2011-2014 series focusing on young animals.
Morris with one of his stars. Courtesy: Simon Morris
Morris’s Puppy Bowl work makes for easy respect among his two young children, both younger than 5. He lowers his voice to confess a fighting-words secret: they prefer cats.
The gig does make him a cocktail-party hit — or at least a curiosity.
“I’m not sure a lot of people can get their heads around the fact that I spend six months out of every year doing this,” he said.
From his cubicle, Morris made an editing tweak on the halftime segment, Kitt-ENSYNC, spoofing halftime-performer Justin Timberlake’s former band, ‘N Sync. Then he turned to consult a board hanging in his cubicle on which he had posted photos and relevant info on a series of dogs, much as a CIA whiteboard tracks a network of wanted suspects.
Morris supervises a team of writers and editors a few hundred miles away at Discovery’s headquarters in Silver Spring, Md. “They were just laughing at me in Silver Spring,” he said. “‘How do you know every dog’s name? How do you remember?’ I guess if you’re good with humans you can be good with dogs.”
Then he looked at his computer screen, where at least four puppies had gotten in an all-out scrum involving a chew toy. “Most of the time.”