Cat flatulence, crooning baseball announcers, and kitten-sized champagne bottles all converge in dingy studio half a mile from New York’s West Side Highway: Welcome to the filming of the third annual Kitten Bowl.
I’m not sure what I exactly expected when I was invited to a filming of Hallmark’s KITTEN BOWL III, which premieres February 7 on Super Bowl Sunday (or “Su-Purr Bowl Sunday,” as the press release said).
A show where former NFL Pro Bowler and color commentator Boomer Esiason serves as the Feline Football League (FFL) commissioner suggests a trippy fusion of kitten-obsessed Instagrammers and ESPN-loving frat boys.
Before arriving at the studio on West 53rd Street in Manhattan, I tried to envision a television spectacular, perhaps conceived by a Hallmark exec on a sugar high from the channel’s saccharine fare.
Would a referee be on the premise making sure all kitten-sized football were inflated to FFL standards to prevent the feline version of Deflategate?
But it became abundantly clear as I was escorted through the bland, generic hallways filled with random folding tables and chairs to the Kitty Bowl set that even Christopher Guest, the comic mastermind behind the dog show mockumentary Best In Show, could not have scripted the behind-the-scenes feline oddities.
A miniature football stadium complete with two sets of tiered-seating and scratch-post goalposts lay before my eyes. Considering that one of the tiny cat-letes stretched paw-to-paw looked like it could cover the length of the end zone (which is 10 yards in the NFL), the stadium wasn’t exactly built to scale. But if one thing was clear during Kitten Bowl filming, it’s that accuracy takes a backseat to adorableness.
I tried to figure out how exactly one played in or followed the Kitten Bowl. At any moment of filming, half a dozen tiny footballs were on the field with kittens running around in total pandemonium. Two kittens scratched their way up the goalpost.
In a disturbing scene of friendly fire, two gray cats who (I believe) were supposed to be teammates, pounced on top of each other. It was the feline equivalent of Tom Brady stopping a play to randomly charge and tackle fellow New England Patriot Julian Edelman.
I asked one of the fellow members of the media watching next to me what the rules of Kitten Bowl were. She looked at me and just laughed.
There are “super-fuzzy superstars” of the game though: Look at last year’s purring around Clawvin Johnson.
Merry chaos reigned, but there was also impressive ball control, obstacle orienteering, and basic cuteness.
Still, first rule of Kitten Bowl: There are no rules.
Furthermore, unlike other professional sports leagues, the FFL does not appear to enforce drug testing.
Handlers and a few lucky spectators tossed a number of sparkly little balls onto the field which, based on the way the cats scampered to them, may have been filled with catnip.
One of the only aspects of the Kitten Bowl that bore a strong resemblance to anything the NFL would run was the very prominent display of commercial sponsors around the field.
While the Kitten Bowl is held in conjunction with North Shore Animal League America and Last Hope Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation to help find homes for shelter animals, Corporate America appears to be purring on the sidelines.
Billboards for Little Debbie, Subaru, and Allegra (which seemed an especially deft advertising move considering the allergy-inducing athletes) lined the stands.
While the kittens may not get a cut of this cash, one of the sets suggested they would get to enjoy their own luxury post-game pampering.
I noticed a miniature re-creation of a South Beach-style spa or country club, complete in clean, all-white furniture, dripping crystal chandeliers, a fake flat screen TV, and little Champagne bottles. Meow.
The day only grew more surreal when I moved away from the kitty sets.
“Did you fart?,” Beth Stern, the stunning blond actress married to “shock jock” Howard Stern and one of the prettiest women I have ever sat besides, cooed.
Thankfully, the query was not directed at me but at Bella aka Coach Bell-a-Cat (like New England Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick), a black-and-white cat who is one of the coaches for this year’s kitten bowl.
Bella was lazily curled up in a chair in Stern’s dressing room. She barely looked up, only offering a slight glare that evoked Amy Poehler’s one-legged Saturday Night Live character, Amber, known for defiantly saying “Yeah, I farted. Jealous?”
Stern’s only reaction to the malodorous scent coming from Bella was to be even more affectionate with the fickle feline. “I fed her the most gourmet cat food and now we’re suffering for it,” she laughed.
Stern talked about how she brought Bella home to her place for a “slumber party” with Howard to give her a break from the cages in the shelter. In addition to foster cats, the couple plays parents to half a dozen felines, including the fabulously named Yoda Stern.
It’s hard to picture the man considered the epitome of crass, who once declared on the radio that “the closest I came to making love to a black woman was I masturbated to a picture of Aunt Jemima on a pancake box,” cuddling up with kittens.
But Beth is adamant that Howard’s a big old softie. “I don’t think we’d have made it to a second date if he didn’t love animals,” Beth said. In fact, when he doesn’t have to wake up early to record his radio show, their cats even share the bed.
Stern may not actually be the most colorful media personality at the Kitten Bowl. The day takes a more bizarre yet simultaneously charming turn when I interview John Sterling, an iconic announcer for the New York Yankees who is doing the play-by-play.
Considering the criticism (and often criticized for his cheesy lines and botched calls) Sterling often receives for his cheesy player nicknames and botched calls, many would argue this is a more appropriate sporting event for him.
“Am I allowed to sing to you?,” Sterling says when we meet. His voice is eerily familiar to me, a lifelong Yankees fan, but I am still caught off-guard when he breaks into the theme from 1964’s The Americanization of Emily.
“As my eyes visualize a family, They see Emily, Emily,” Sterling sings with an unexpectedly pleasant nightclub croon.
Sterling explains that the commentating is scripted, and he reads from a teleprompter. Then, a team in Los Angeles “pastes” (an industry term, Sterling explains) his commentary over appropriate kitten footage.
“I honestly could not believe they could get three hours out of this,” Sterling says of the production team that whips the feline shenanigans into the Kitten Bowl. “I find it amazing myself.”