Rod Hull may have been the bravest man I ever met.
"Who's Rod Hull?" I hear you ask.
Answer: Rod Hull was the comedian/puppeteer who worked with Emu.
"Who or what is Emu?" you're wondering aloud.
Well, you're obviously not from England or Australia if you're asking these questions. Rod was a popular performer on
comedy-variety shows, often in England, sometimes in Australia and occasionally on this continent.
Emu was a large, grotesque bird puppet, invariably found tucked under Rod's right arm. In truth, if you looked past the illusion,
you might even figure out that what you thought was Rod's right arm and hand were actually a fake arm and hand. His real appendage was inside
Emu, operating its cartoony face and beak.
Rod acted the part of a goofy, cheery gent who went through life, carrying this big, flightless fowl around as his personal
albatross. Emu did not talk and Emu did not do tricks.
What Emu did was to attack people.
The bird was an extremely testy creature, rabidly offensive against anyone who spoke ill of him or anything with feathers. If you
were in his presence and you muttered something about eating fried chicken, Emu would go for your throat.
Often, Emu would attack Rod. The bird would turn on his keeper and wrestle him to the ground or cause him to topple over a desk
or through a wall. Rod would thrash about the stage, legs flailing in twelve directions at once, fighting off the violent creature. He
did it so well that you forgot it was a puppet and that the man was, essentially, attacking himself.
At other times, Emu would strike at whoever was around. If you were its quarry, you were in big trouble. Like a skilled
wrestler, Rod had learned how to get a body off-balance and keep it that way. Emu would go for your various body parts and, at the same time,
Rod would be wrapping his legs around you, ostensibly trying to pry the animal off but actually making things worse.
He had a penchant for — and I mean this literally — going for the crotch. Rod's goal was to utterly disable his
victim, rendering him unable to fight back. One of the ways he did this was by striking at the privates of any male opponent. The intent
was not to injure but to completely discombobulate and panic his quarry, leaving them as crazed as if they'd been pounced upon by a genuine predatory
How successful was he at this? Let's put it this way: In an unscripted steel-cage match between twenty top W.W.F. wrasslers and
Emu, my money would have been on the rubber bird.
The result was one of the great "sight gags" in entertainment history. Rod would do it to anyone — the more famous the
target, the better.
Rod Hull was born in England in 1936 but, in the sixties, he moved to Australia, which is where he broke into television. His
first Emu was built from parts of puppets left over from a program he did down there. In the seventies, he returned to Britain and became a
popular entertainer, his reputation soaring after a command performance for the Queen Mother.
As is customary, the stars of the show lined up after to be received by Her Majesty and Rod had the Emu puppet, as usual, cradled under
the fake right arm. When Emu was presented to Queen Elizabeth, the bird lunged at her, snatching a bouquet of flowers from her hands and
ripping them to pieces. Onlookers gasped in shock and the British equivalent of the Secret Service rushed forward and went for their
What rescued Rod from doing his act thereafter in the Tower of London — or wherever they send those who assail the Queen —
was that she laughed. A lot. Her Royal Highness thought it was the funniest thing she'd seen in years.
Rod was saved...and the next day, he had three dozen offers.
In the early eighties, an American TV producer named Chris Bearde (himself, an Australian export) brought Rod and Emu over to appear on
a number of shows. I was a writer on one of these — a short-lived ABC series called The Half-Hour Comedy Hour, which featured
Arsenio Hall, Thom Sharp, Jan Hooks, Victoria Jackson and more guest stars than viewers.
On each episode, one or more of those guest stars would be molested by Emu. I remember Burt Reynolds, John Schneider, Dick Clark,
James Coburn and John Davidson, among others...each tussled viciously to the ground by Rod and his puppet, winding up in an undignified (but
A few of those guys were pretty fair athletes but it didn't matter. No one could resist the might of Emu...and Rod spared no one,
not even Dick, who owned the show. Before we taped his molestation, Dick asked me if I had any advice for him. I said, "Wear a
cup." He later said he was sorry he hadn't heeded my counsel, describing it as maybe the most harrowing few minutes he'd ever spent before a TV
But Rod's finest, nerviest hour in America came when he was booked to appear with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. I
tagged along to help prepare what Rod would do and...
Well, we all knew what Rod was going to do. The question was how he was going to do it. And how far he'd go with it.
Carson was, of course, a figure of great reverence — right up there with Elizabeth II in his own way — and his producers
were concerned that Rod might injure the body or ego of their star. One of them had urged Johnny to rehearse so that they might gauge how
physical Rod could get...but Johnny declined. He wanted it to all be spontaneous.
(And right there, you have the difference between Carson and the two guys who now inhabit the time slot. Leno would have
rehearsed and probably had a punch line scripted. Letterman would never have let a puppet in the building — especially one that might
engage him in a physical manner, especially one that might top him.)
As if one legend on stage wasn't enough, Johnny's first guest that evening was Richard Pryor, making
one of his first talk show appearances
since a rather horrendous accident. Under circumstances he still cannot (or will not) explain, Pryor had received third-degree burns over most
of his body — injuries so massive that for a time, newscasters had him on the cusp of Deceased.
Miraculously, he'd survived...but his face — and probably the rest of him — had undergone more plastic surgery than Cher,
Demi Moore and the entire waitstaff of all the Hooters, combined. The face, however, was everyone's primary concern. It was still a mass
of scars and stitches, though the make-up folks were able to hide most of the damage.
An hour before taping, there was a discussion on stage over whether Pryor would do his spot with Carson and then leave, or remain on
the couch when Rod came out. Various Tonight Show staffers argued that Richard's reactions and comments might make the segment
funnier. On the other hand, if Rod was going to be flailing about the set and knocking over furniture, it might be wiser to get the
convalescing guest out of harm's way.
Ultimately, the decision was the same as all other decisions made on the premises: Johnny would decide.
Rod was uninvolved with this debate. During it, he was over on the Tonight Show set, studying things...testing the chair
in which he'd be seated...eyeing the furnishings. Making a battle plan, in other words.
Later, someone — a talent coordinator, I think — came by and cautioned Rod, for maybe the eighth time, to be careful, don't
go too rough on Johnny, don't touch Richard at all. As soon as we were alone, Rod turned to me and said, "As long as I've been working Emu,
people have been telling me to go easy. It's not funny if you go easy."
Richard Pryor was seated on the couch when Johnny introduced his next guest. Rod Hull marched out, Emu tucked firmly under his
arm, and wedged himself into the guest's chair between Carson and Pryor.
Johnny knew exactly how to play it. Emu was a silly-looking thing that resembled a real bird about as much as I do. Still,
the King of Late Night treated the spot as if Joan Embrey of the San Diego Zoo had brought on the last Peregrine Falcon in captivity. He petted
it and asked very serious questions...and when Rod said, "Now, don't do anything to get him angry, Johnny," Johnny (of course) said something to get
the bird angry.
And Rod Hull — maybe the bravest man I ever met — flew into action.
The Emu dove at Carson, and Rod leaped out of his chair as if trying to hold the bird back. He sprawled across Johnny's desk,
kicking over the guest chair and a small table, sending the host reeling back, practically knocking him from his seat. The next thing we knew,
he was practically on top of Johnny, with the emu's beak burrowing its way into Mr. Carson's inseam.
The audience was hysterical. So were the members of Johnny's staff, but in a different way.
I was standing among them, just off Johnny's set. Most howled with laughter but some froze in horror. For a flash second, I
think they could all imagine Carson screaming, "You didn't tell me he was going to get that physical," and firing the lot of them.
But they untensed soon enough. As Rod pulled Emu away, you could see Johnny suppressing a laugh...and then he said something else
insulting about the bird, so that Rod had another chance to make Emu attack.
And then the bird went after Pryor.
A woman standing near me gasped out loud, "Not the face! Not the face!" But Rod didn't hear her and, even if he had, he
didn't care. Emu was pecking away at Richard Pryor's reconstructed features, then at his fly, causing the comedian to sprawl on the guest couch
and rotate into a fetal position, trying to shield himself. (Richard seemed much more interested in protecting his crotch than his face.
Most men, I suspect, would make the same choice.)
The audience was screaming with laughter but, just under that, you could hear Richard Pryor shrieking in fear and agony. The
woman next to me took a half-step forward, as if about to break in and stop what I think she thought had to be the destruction of about nine months'
worth of skin grafts. Then she realized something and stopped...
This was Richard Pryor, after all. Has anyone ever been funnier shrieking in fear and agony?
The segment lasted another minute or so, with Carson and Pryor alternately and deliberately saying things to cause the bird to attack
them. Johnny finally called for a commercial and, as Doc and the band struck up the music, we could all hear Carson turn to Rod and say,
"That's one of the best spots we've ever done. We've got to have you back, as soon as possible."
A number of Tonight Show employees exhaled.
Pryor added, "You've got one of the funniest acts I've ever seen. Man, you've got guts." If a comedian can get a better
endorsement than that, I can't imagine what it could be.
Afterwards, I told Rod it had been hilarious. Without a trace of ego — and maybe even a touch of regret — he said,
"It always is...for about five minutes. Afraid it doesn't go much farther than that."
Rod did Johnny's show one more time, and a few others here in the states. But he had received a couple of extremely lucrative
offers in England — rich enough to allow him to purchase an elegant Elizabethan mansion he'd always wanted. He returned home, bought
it...then spent every pound he earned renovating it. Eventually, he went bankrupt, lost the estate and moved to a more modest dwelling in East
A few weeks ago, he was trying to watch a football game in that home but the reception was terrible. He climbed up on his roof to
adjust the antenna, slipped and fell to his death. He was 63 years old and one of the English newspapers noted that he was survived by a
19-year-old son and a rubber bird. To judge from the obits there, a great sense of loss spread along with word of the accident. I didn't
see much of what he did overseas on the telly but it sure looks like he got more than five minutes out of the routine.
Of course, it wasn't the routine that made him world famous. It wasn't even his puppet. It was his courage.
It takes guts to goose Johnny Carson. Even with an emu.