It might not rise to the level of a Left Shark moment, but a pastor from Westchester County had a few seconds in the spotlight on Thursday when he became a running gag during Al Roker’s live coverage of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on NBC.
The “Today” weatherman rode in a motorcycle sidecar to offer a street view of the crowds and festivities surrounding New York City’s Thanksgiving Day tradition. The early part of the parade featured several performers dressed up as giant fried eggs and sticks of butter. One of those sticks of butter — Donny Willis, a pastor at Westchester Church in Valhalla, N.Y. — got up close and personal twice with Roker during his live shots.
Willis insisted to Variety that his encounters with Roker were happenstance. He was not on a mission to photo-bomb the NBC veteran. “I had no idea that this was going to be a thing. At all,” he said.
Willis said he was recruited as a volunteer to be one of Macy’s “Breakfast Clowns” in the parade by a good friend who works for the department store giant. He didn’t know what costume he’d be sporting until he showed up at the staging area at a hotel near Penn Station at 5:45 a.m. on Thursday. “They said ‘You’re going to be a stick of butter,’ ” Willis said.
Roker playfully pushed Willis away the first time that he barreled into Roker’s live standup shot — “Get out of here, ya butter,” Roker said with a smile as Willis shouted into the camera “Happy butter Thanksgiving.” Despite the early hour and chilly temperature, Roker was fast on his feet in adding: “I can’t believe it’s not butter.”
Not too much later, when Roker was riding in the sidecar, Willis came running alongside him to yell “We’re buttering you up. Butter your turkey, butter your ham.” At that point, a visibly agitated Roker turned to the camera and quipped: “And that’s why everybody loves clowns.”
On Friday’s edition of “Today,” Roker said via telephone it didn’t dawn on him until later that it was the same Butter man who was following him on the route. He said he’d forgotten about his first encounter with Butter until he turned up again. “You’re just trying to get through it,” he told the “Today” team of doing the live shots. “It never dawned on me that this was the same guy.”
Willis described his version of events in a Twitter post Friday morning. He noted that Macy’s encouraged its clown performers to “run in those streets to incorporate a personal touch with the audience,” as Willis wrote. He said another parade participant encouraged him to check out Roker’s live-standup shot as the parade reached the Columbus Circle area.
Willis’ encounter with Roker left him far behind his fellow butter-and-egg troupers. Willis maintained that he was sprinting to catch up with his group when he found himself running alongside Roker as the latter traveled in the sidecar. “It was not my intention to get in front of the camera again,” Willis wrote.
When the parade was done, Willis’ friends told him his Butter moment was sizzling on social media. That prompted him to create a Twitter account for the first time (donnywillis6). According to his bio on the Westchester Church website, Willis is a father of three who grew up in Louisiana and has been pastor at the church since 2017.
Willis sought to bring some perspective to his brush with fame.
“I was simply the guy dressed like a stick of butter with the goal of making people who had been standing on the street since 5 a.m. smile and be happy that they came to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade,” he wrote. “It was an honor to play a part in the Al Roker/Butterman encounter.”
Speaking to “Today” on Friday, Roker described the incident as “the goofiest thing” and stressed that he “had no enmity” against Butter man.
Willis said the experience was a bit of blur for him until he got back to the parade staging area and saw that his phone was blowing up with messages. He said he hasn’t decided whether he’ll mention his moment in the Thanksgiving Day sun from the pulpit on Sunday. But he will be back again next year, if asked by Macy’s.
“If I’m invited to do it again, I will say yes,” Willis said. “But I will probably stay away from the camera.”