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Their pet projects

A cadre of pros searches out offbeat animal acts not yet ready for prime time.

November 17, 2003|James Verini | 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.

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