Rod Hull and Emu on EBC1, the “Emu’s Broadcasting Company”
Novelty comedians, prop comics, ventriloquists…. they’re an odd lot, and none of them was ever quite as pulverizingly effective as “Rod Hull and Emu,” as the act was invariably known. Rod Hull was a gangly Australian who landed in the UK in the early 1970s and for a few years was one of the most famous and successful comedians in Britain. (Americans of a certain age might recall Hull and Emu from The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show, a short-lived 1974 Saturday morning kids’ show on CBS.)
The act was an imitation of those animal trainers that constantly appear on The Tonight Show—Hull had a massive emu puppet in a trick jacket with a fake arm such that his actual arm (always his right arm) could play the part of the bird. It’s not overstating it by much to say that the essence of Rod Hull and Emu was that “they” would show up on a talk show and in short order the bird would run riot over everything on the stage set.
At their best, Rod Hull and Emu were achingly funny, as only a specific kind of orchestrated anarchy can be. I can’t really think of an act like it. Here’s a clip that’s extremely famous in the U.K., of Rod Hull and Emu absolutely laying waste to the set of Parkinson in 1976—Michael Parkinson is the approximate equivalent of Johnny Carson in Britain, so the impact of this appearance could hardly have been greater. (Later in the show, fellow guest Billy Connolly got in a great ad-lib: “If that bird comes anywhere near me, I’ll break its neck and your bloody arm!”)
There’s more of that on the Internet—if that video doesn’t make you want to seek out more, then I don’t know what else to say. In 1994 Snoop Dogg was on a TV show in the U.K. and Snoop appears to have slapped Hull or the like after Emu did its usual thing—the video is frustrating because the director cut away from the main part of the action at the pivotal moment, but you can at least see Snoop being very wary, bordering on annoyed, in the moments leading up to the scuffle.
At a minimum we can say that the Rod Hull hit upon a brilliant comedy novelty idea and executed it flawlessly. A fair number of people describe Hull as shy and mild-mannered in real life (albeit a ladies’ man and not without ego), and it’s totally clear that this mildness was essential to the act, mainly in the form of Hull’s feigned inability to “control” Emu and his wispy apologies after Emu’s attacks. The inherent unpredictability of an animal intelligence, which Hull mimicked and exploited to perfection, is also a big part of the giddy fun—it’s not too much to say, I think, that the illusion was effective enough that viewers had a tendency to ascribe agency to the stupid bird.
Few acts cry out for pop psychoanalysis like Rod Hull and Emu. I suspect that the normally diffident Hull hit upon a wonderful way to express his darker impulses—in ways that Hull himself may not fully have understood or at a minimum probably didn’t anticipate. You could almost say that it was an exquisite form of split personality. Hull was heard on many occasions blaming Emu for his lack success in other areas of showbiz. He resented his own comic creation.
Hull’s life story is surprisingly full of incident and drama, and the 2002 Channel 4 documentary A Bird in the Hand is pretty interesting, if a bit long on emotional pandering.
A Bird in the Hand, Part 1
Posted by Martin Schneider |