As puppies prance on a brightly lit, bone-shaped field, no one is speaking above a murmur. All that can be heard above the occasional puppy noise is the rustling of Styrofoam boards brushing against the edge of the field—each held by a volunteer tasked with making sure none of the pups stages a kamikaze dive onto the concrete just a couple of feet below. By the time this footage makes it to air, though, a synthetic crowd will be roaring. This is, after all, the cutest sporting event of the year: the Puppy Bowl.
Animal Planet’s fuzzy Super Bowl lead-in got its start more than a decade ago. By now, it’s an institution: Team Ruff and Team Fluff, each clad in their green and yellow bandanas, battle annually to carry as many toys across the field as possible. The formula evolves a bit every year, but the premise remains the same: puppies, puppies, puppies. This time, the event will unfold on a newly built stage—complete with end-zone pylons outfitted with cameras, a first for the broadcast that will provide some great low-angle coverage. Also new? The Dog Bowl, which will air the night before the Super Bowl and feature fully grown mutts—adults and seniors—playing their own game of furry football.
According to executive producer Simon Morris, the new event was born out of conversations between the network and animal shelters. “It’s much harder for them to find homes for those dogs versus puppies, and so we’ve just been trying to listen to that,” he says.
The main challenge producers anticipated was that the older dogs might be less energetic and playful than their younger counterparts—but then again, as Morris notes, “We can have fun with that. If there’s a napping dog, that could be cute.” Producers also worried more mature dogs might not get along as readily as puppies, so they worked closely with American Humane representatives to make sure the dogs were as calm and friendly as possible.
This year’s Puppy Bowl will feature up to 90 dogs; Dog Bowl will star roughly 40 dogs, including a few four-legged Instagram celebrities. The broadcast will also feature a couple of human N.F.L. players: Logan Ryan and Eric Decker of the Tennessee Titans, who work with animal shelters and dog rescues in their spare time. Morris says the new event “ended up going really well. You know, we didn’t have any scraps; all the dogs got on really well. We definitely had some snoozes on the field, but it was funny. It was cute.” Those interested can tune in to the Dog Bowl on Saturday at 8 P.M.
As for the Puppy Bowl: each year, the shoot unfolds roughly the same way. Mondays are for the ancillary animals—the kittens, piglets, ducklings, bunnies, and the sloth, who serves as the assistant referee. Tuesday is puppy day—when all the young dogs gather, along with referee Dan Schachner, to shoot the bulk of the event footage. Dogs are separated by size and gingerly placed on the field in small groups that rotate as various dogs become tired or too rowdy. Puppies being puppies, there are occasionally messes on the field, so assistants are on hand to clean up whenever nature calls.
This year’s players to watch include Mango, a rescue from Mexico and the show’s first international player. Without giving too much away, Morris suggests you keep an eye on Chihuahua-poodle mix J-Paw—short for Jennifer Pawrence, of course—a “cute, fluffy little thing” who Morris says “definitely was the high scorer.” And look out for a tiny Pomeranian named, coincidentally, Morris; Morris-the-producer notes that some of the dogs gave him a bit of a hard time due to his smaller size. As they tugged at Morris-the-puppy’s bandana, the producer says, “our referee stepped in and gave a call reminding all the puppies that Morris is, in fact, not a chew toy, but actually a puppy, and shouldn’t be treated as a chew toy.” Talk about unnecessary ruffness.
“We try to give starring moments to the puppies that aren’t big sports pups, you know what I mean?” Morris says. “It’s a lot of humor.”
After dog shooting wrapped on Tuesday, ad sales came on Wednesday, followed by the Dog Bowl shoot on Thursday. The main challenge, Morris says, isn’t the shoot itself, but coming up with fresh ideas while maintaining a familiar charm. “We don’t want to re-invent the wheel; they want to see cute puppies on the field,” Morris says of the audience. “That’s what they really want to see. But we obviously do want to also bring story and narrative and keep people watching.” Each year, Animal Planet conducts a focus group to see what worked and what didn’t—and the main takeaway consistently seems to be that the audience likes learning more about the dogs’ backstories.
To that end, this year will feature more of what Morris calls “locker-room kind of filming,” which allots extra time to shelter representatives. One particularly touching moment belongs to Luna, a miniature Pinscher born with a cleft lip. “They weren’t sure if she was going to make it or not,” Morris says. “It was really heartwarming to see her fully recovered and competing in Puppy Bowl, being a happy, healthy little puppy.”
And as cute as all the dogs were, Morris might actually choose another creature for his 2018 M.V.P.: that sloth referee, a rescue named Shirley. “She actually did more than we thought she would,” Morris says. “We sort of scripted her, assuming she’d just be hanging on a branch from the sidelines. But she ended up actually crawling across the field, like a sort of army crawl sloths do.” Shirley turned out to be in the mood to move; Morris says she came out of the entrance tunnel, crawled around, and actually hung off the goalposts for a bit. “We had a lot of fun writing kind of scripts to her on the day,” Morris says. “She was doing funny stuff. Our ref is very good at ad-libbing . . . She was fun, that sloth.”
Get Vanity Fair’s HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Full ScreenPhotos:22 Movies and TV Shows That Will Save Us in 2018
Westworld (Season 2)
HBO is once again hoping you’ll ignore the big Game of Thrones-shaped hole in its schedule and turn your attention back to the sci-fi mind game that is Westworld. The Emmy-nominated series, starring Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton, is ready to confound you once again in its second season. Until its spring 2018 premiere, take a trip back in time and revisit nine burning questions we still have about the finale.Photo: By John P. Johnson/HBO.
Yara Shahidi takes the lead in this youthful Black-ish spin-off set to air on Freeform starting Jan. 3, 2018. In this series, Zoey is finally off to college, stumbling through cringeworthy rites of passage like embarrassing herself at a frat party and hiding secrets from her parents.Photo: By Eric Liebowitz/Freeform.
Every superhero you love is coming out with a new movie in 2018. In no particular order, get ready for a bounty that includes: Black Panther,Avengers: Infinity War,Deadpool 2,The New Mutants,X-Men: Dark Phoenix,Ant-Man and the Wasp,Venom, and Aquaman.Photo: By Zade Rosenthal/©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Everett Collection.
The Winter Olympics
’Tis the season to watch a bunch of perfect human specimens fight for tiny gold medallions. This year’s Winter Olympics will kick off on Feb. 9, 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea.Photo: By Julian Finney/Getty Images.
After breaking out on Master of None and winning a historic Emmy for one of this year’s best TV episodes, Lena Waithe is ready to claim her spot in the prestige-TV realm. Enter The Chi, her Showtime series about young people coming of age in Chicago, set to premiere on Jan. 7.Photo: By Matt Dinerstein/SHOWTIME.
A Wrinkle in Time
The classic Madeleine L’Engle tale is finally coming to the big screen on March 9, 2018, thanks to Disney and director Ava DuVernay. The sci-fi story about a girl tesseracting her way through time to find her missing father will star newcomer Storm Reid alongside stars like Oprah Winfrey,Mindy Kaling,Reese Witherspoon, and Chris Pine.Photo: By Atsushi Nishijima/Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.
Solo: A Star Wars Story
After some catastrophic ups and downs, Han Solo’s origin story will finally be revealed to us on May 25, 2018. The Star Wars spin-off stars Alden Ehrenreich as the galactic smuggler and also features Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian and Emilia Clarke playing a mysterious character named Kira.Photo: From Lucasfilm Ltd./Everett Collection.PreviousNext
Laura BradleyLaura Bradley is a Hollywood writer for VanityFair.com. She was formerly an editorial assistant at Slate and lives in Brooklyn.