Their pet projects

Special to The Times

On a brisk afternoon in early October, on the Burbank set of the Animal Planet show "Pet Star," Bill Langworthy was looking on patiently as Mr. Rowdy, a 500-pound zebu bull, stood immobile before a little A-frame hurdle. Mr. Rowdy wore a look of what could be described only as indifference as his owner, an Idaho farmer named Gene Cutler, urged him to jump.

"C'mon, Mr. Rowdy!" Cutler said. "Let's do it!"

Mr. Rowdy was going nowhere.

"Do we think he'll be able to jump it tomorrow?" Langworthy asked, to which Cutler answered "yes," though not convincingly.

"OK, let's see Bandit," Langworthy said after a few more fruitless attempts with Mr. Rowdy. Bandit was Mr. Rowdy's companion, a donkey, whose act included upending a loaded tablecloth followed by gently biting Cutler in the rear end. Bandit would have to practice. Still in need of rehearsal time, Langworthy knew, were Snort and Nelly, the miniature pig couple from Washington; a cockatoo-and-parrot team from San Diego; and a trio of marching skunks from Ohio.

But Langworthy did not seem worried. A producer and the head "pet trick coordinator," as the job is commonly known, on "Pet Star," in which animals and their owners compete for a $25,000 cash prize before host Mario Lopez, a studio audience and a panel of three "celebrity" judges, Langworthy no longer gets worried when the talent suffers performance anxiety the day before a taping. He has seen it countless times before.

At 29, Langworthy is the most experienced pet trick coordinator in the business. And business these days is booming.

Langworthy is one in a growing cottage industry of professional pet trick coordinators who traverse the country searching for newer and more bizarre zoologic talent. And "Pet Star," now in its second season, is only the newest example of a recent boom of interest in -- some might say infatuation with -- bizarrely talented pets.

Among his competitors are the granddaddy of them all, the "stupid pet tricks" segment of "Late Show With David Letterman," where Langworthy got his start; a similar segment on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno"; and another Animal Planet show, "Planet's Funniest Animals."

After heading the stupid pet tricks segment on "Letterman" in the late '90s, Langworthy came to Los Angeles to work for "The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn" and now is the resident expert on "Pet Star." He has put more than 300 animals on the air, from skateboarding English bulldogs to wire-walking cats, from dancing parakeets to Jack Russell terriers that ride horses.

This is a strange vocation for a man who, when asked about his childhood pets, remembers only a hamster and possibly one dog.

"Frankly, I never thought there'd be a future in it," said Langworthy, tall and sturdily built with close-cropped curly hair. "I certainly never thought it would become my niche."

Pet coordinators travel the nation auditioning birds, bulls and everything in between, whose talents range from the uncanny to the mildly entertaining. They watch dozens of hours of videotape from hopeful owners. They emcee at animal fairs. They suggest new tricks to old contacts; they coach and coax; they wait patiently, all in pursuit of the next great pet trick.

Venerable animal acts

Animals have a long history on television variety shows, of course. Jack Benny had the Marquee Chimps, Ed Sullivan was fond of dog tricks, and Johnny Carson had Joan Embery and Jim Fowler from "Wild Kingdom."

But the postmodern animal act began in 1980, with the debut of Letterman's short-lived morning show and the bizarre segment he tentatively called "stupid pet tricks."

The animals Letterman put on were supposed to be not talented but obsessive. The more they acted like comically fixated, even imbecilic, characters, the better.

One early segment featured "the dog that hates ironing boards." It went like this: The owner brought out his dog. A stagehand brought out an ironing board. The dog began barking furiously. That was it.

"We were looking for any behavior that could be repeated endlessly," said Merrill Markoe, one of the original Letterman writers and the creator of "stupid pet tricks." "Our idea was, find a stupid behavior your animal is doing and call it a trick."

The name stuck, and "stupid pet tricks" has followed Letterman over two networks, three time slots and 24 years.

Darren Demeterio has been producing the segment since 1999, when Langworthy left. The demands, he said, have changed since Markoe's day. The Letterman producers now want animals that do legitimate tricks, tricks they've never seen before. He travels about 25 weekends out of the year and watches hours and hours of home-shot video every week.

"It keeps getting harder and harder to get tricks you haven't seen before," Demeterio said. He recently returned from Dallas, where the offerings were slim. But not long ago he was in Buffalo, N.Y., where he auditioned a betta fish that could jump from its bowl into the air on command. The fish will definitely make it onto the show.

"You don't see too many fish tricks," Demeterio said. About 90% of the acts he books, Demeterio said, involve dogs.

"Tonight Show" producer Jolie Ancel, who has been booking pet tricks on "Leno" since 1995, believes that viewers enjoy not rote-learned tricks but the "unpredictability" of animals. "Like when they go to the bathroom on the stage or the desk," she said.

So Ancel tries to find animals that perform in unpredictably human ways. Recently she found a husky that clearly barked the words "I love Ira" (neither its owner nor anyone else knows who Ira is) and a horse that opened a beer bottle with its teeth. Animals that do yoga are popular lately, Ancel said. (A seal that posed in the flying lotus position took home first prize on "Pet Star" in September.)

For some time Ancel has been eager to put on game show host and Craftmatic Adjustable Bed pitchman Wink Martindale and his singing Chihuahuas, Lady Godiva, Elvis and Rocky. But they can perform only in Martindale's living room. When they get to the studio, Ancel said, they clam up, much like Michigan J. Frog on the old Warner Bros. cartoon.

Forty tapes a month

At the "Pet Star" production offices, there is a large board on one wall plastered with color-coded index cards. On each is written an act scheduled for a coming show. Purple cards, which are for dog acts, predominate. Orange is for birds. Pink is for pigs (yes, there are enough performing pigs to rate their own category), and yellow is "other" (rabbits, goats, chickens).

"Goat Thinks He's a Dog," reads one card. "Sea Lion Dog," says another. "High Wire Cat Dunks Basketball"; "650-lb Pig Pushes Carriage." Next to the board is a metal shelf packed nearly to the breaking point with hundreds of videotapes with similar labels. In an average month, Langworthy said, the show receives about 40 tapes.

Like Demeterio, Langworthy travels about half the weekends of the year for "Pet Star." His destinations are getting increasingly far-flung. Last year he found himself staying overnight, in a cabin bunk and sleeping bag, in Kerrville, Texas, where he'd gone to audition a dancing golden retriever at a Girl Scout camp that had been rented for the weekend by a bunch of animal enthusiasts from San Antonio. The trip was worthwhile; the dog made it onto the show. Only about 10% of the animals he auditions make it.

Once all the acts for a block of shows are booked, "Pet Star" contestants and their pets are flown or driven to Burbank. To transport the 650-pound pig, the show's producers rented a van and had the back seats removed and the floor covered in hay.

Accommodations are usually provided at the Safari Inn, one of the few animal-friendly hotels in town, which conveniently is a few minutes' drive from the NBC Studios lot, where the show is taped.

Recently a rooster that was appearing on the show awoke at dawn and began cock-a-doodle-dooing. "Pet Star" had to reimburse all of the guests.

Such things happen in the world of pet tricks, as Langworthy has discovered. "I didn't have any idea what I was getting into," he said of his first days at "Letterman." "I'd never worked with animals; I'd never really been around animals."

The high point of his early years, Langworthy said, involved a lizard-pig duo act of his own invention. On a trip to Boston, he'd found a lizard that rode in a remote-control car. Not long afterward, in California, he auditioned a pig that could pilot a remote-control car (it stepped on the remote-control box and wiggled its foot). He took the tapes to the always skeptical higher-ups and showed them back to back.

"Just stick with me here," he said to them. "I have a vision." The vision was realized, and to this day the lizard-pig-remote-control car act is probably the most eclectic stupid pet trick to have appeared on "Letterman."

The most exotic act he's ever booked on "Pet Star"?

"That might be the anteater who hung from a ladder with its prehensile tail and then grabbed a jar of baby food and ate it," he said.

The pet owners' love for their animals never ceases to amaze him, Langworthy said. He receives adoring letters of thanks from contestants, often co-signed by their pets. A shelf in his office is devoted to gifts of pet artwork, including a loud abstract, Color Field-esque composition from a parrot and a busy page of felt-tip marker lines from a pig.

"We've had people hyperventilate on the other end of the phone when we tell them they've been selected," he said. "You almost want to tell them some fake bad news to calm them down."

Does he worry that the well of animal talent will dry up?

"I was worried about that after my first segment at 'Letterman,' " Langworthy said. "What else is there for animals to do? But there's always more. People always think of new tricks."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
62°