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An Oral History of ‘Pretty Bird’ from ‘Dumb and Dumber’

‘You sold my dead bird to a blind kid? Lloyd, Petey didn't even have a head!’

Petey never did anything wrong. He was just an innocent parakeet — or technically, a “budgie” — in the wrong place at the wrong time. His owner, Harry Dunne (played by Jeff Daniels) was an entrepreneur with his own dog-grooming business, and Harry’s roommate, Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey), was a hopeless romantic who drove a limousine. During a routine trip to the airport, Lloyd noticed that his passenger — a lovely woman named Mary Swanson — had left her briefcase in the terminal, so he ran in and grabbed the bag with the intent of returning it to her. Unfortunately, Lloyd’s act of chivalry would cost Petey his life. 

The briefcase was full of ransom money. Mary’s husband had been kidnapped, and Lloyd had unwittingly interrupted the handoff. Now with a locked briefcase full of cash in his possession, Lloyd was being followed by a violent killer named Joe Mentalino who was determined to retrieve the money. After following Lloyd back home, Mentalino entered the apartment, but Lloyd, Harry and the briefcase were gone. Looking to send a message, Mentalino scanned the apartment and spotted Petey. Then, with a devastating crunch, Mentalino tore off the bird’s head and returned it to its cage.

Petey’s story doesn’t end there, though. In death, he would find new ownership in a blind boy named Billy, who cared for Petey’s decapitated body, stroked him gently, offered him crackers and always told him what a “pretty bird” he was.

After Dumb and Dumber’s release in 1994, Petey’s big scene quickly became one of the film’s most iconic moments. Ever since, Petey has adorned countless bits of unofficial merchandise, been the subject of several memes and consistently ranked as one of the film’s funniest jokes. Even Roger Ebert — who otherwise disliked the movie — said that the parakeet scene was so funny that he “nearly had to be hospitalized,” and that it was possibly the funniest thing he’d seen on film in “more than five years.” 

So, in celebration of a classic moment from Dumb and Dumber, here’s Petey’s story, told from the man who killed him, the blind boy who adopted him and one of the screenwriters who first brought him to life.

Bennett Yellin, co-screenwriter of Dumb and Dumber: Not a lot of people know this, but Dumb and Dumber started with John Hughes. Back in the 1980s, Peter and Bobby [Farrelly] and I would get hired to rewrite other people’s scripts, and he had read something of ours and thought we were funny. He called us to his office and started telling us about this idea he’d had while at Warner Bros.

These two guys had come to his mind — Harry and Lloyd — and he ended up writing like 50 pages about them. But there was no plot. It was just these two idiots running around a ski resort. When we met with Hughes, he gave us the 50 pages and told us, “Come back and pitch me a movie.” We went away, came back and pitched the entire plot of Dumb and Dumber to him. He loved it, so he told us to go write it.

Peter and Bobby’s family is from Rhode Island, but they also had a home in Hyannis, Massachusetts. For the summer of 1990, they stayed with their parents in Hyannis, and I stayed in a cottage nearby. They’d come over every day, and we’d work on the script. I was always the one at the typewriter because they were terrible typists, but we were really just one hive mind on that script, so everything that went down was truly all three of us. That’s where we came up with everything, including the “pretty bird” scene.

Although, in 2019, Peter and I went to a Dumb and Dumber screening, and afterwards we did a Q&A. Peter said that when we were pitching the movie to John Hughes, I delivered the joke about the bird’s head falling off, and Hughes fell out of his chair. I had no memory of coming up with that, but Peter was sure of it.

As for how the name “Petey” came about, I was a huge fan of Albert Brooks. In Modern Romance, he has a bird named Petey. Years later, Peter [the person, not the bird] was at a party and Albert Brooks was there. He went up to him and said, “We named our bird Petey after your bird in Modern Romance,” and Albert Brooks just said, “That’s great,” and walked away. It was disappointing because I love Albert Brooks.

Anyway, we finished the script and got it to John Hughes, but while we were waiting to hear back, his deal with Universal ended. Typically, when a director leaves a studio, everything they were working on is dumped, and that’s what happened to Dumb and Dumber. It stayed that way for two or three years. We never even knew what he thought of the script, but the three of us just loved it, so we finally went to him and asked him if we could try to do something with it. He said yes, but that we couldn’t use his name; otherwise we’d have to pay him a million dollars. Because of that, we never talked about how it came from John Hughes, but he’s the one who set it in motion.

When we started taking the script around, absolutely every studio turned it down twice. Some studios even called our producer, Charlie Lester, and said, “How could you show me this shit? This is so stupid!” Eventually, a little independent company called The Motion Picture Corporation of America read the script and thought it was hysterical. They were champions. They signed on and even agreed to let Peter direct. When they signed on, New Line did too, and we finally started making the movie.

Brady Bluhm, Billy in Dumb and Dumber: I started acting at five years old, mostly episodic TV and guest-starring roles. I was 10 when I auditioned for Dumb and Dumber. The first time was just me, a casting director and a camera, but the second was in front of 12 or 15 people. I started doing the lines, and everyone in the room just roared with laughter. I remember thinking, “I don’t get why this is so funny, but I think they like me.” 

Mike Starr, Joe Mentalino in Dumb and Dumber: I was the last guy cast in the movie, and I did everything wrong to get it. I was doing a pilot in Burbank with Joe Rogan and some other people, and I got the call to come in, but didn’t have a car. I got a ride to Santa Monica, and I went to the wrong building. Then I went to the right building, but the wrong floor. Then I saw the Farrelly brothers walking out, and they said, “Mike Starr!” and I said, “Yeah, I’m sorry I’m late.” 

We got talking, and they said they wanted a guy who had played in dramas and had played real bad guys before. Apparently, Jim [Carrey] had requested me for the part. Previously, he had wanted me for a part in Ace Ventura, but it didn’t work out. Anyway, they gave me the part right there. 

Let me tell you, every day on Dumb and Dumber was laughs both on and off the set. They paired me with Karen Duffy, and she was great and dynamic. The Farrelly brothers were really good people, and I had a special relationship with both Jim and Jeff. Jeff was writing a play at the time, so he’d be in his own world and I’d come over and start talking complete gibberish to the cameraman until I’d break Jeff’s concentration and he’d say, “What are you talking about?” And with Jim, he’d invite me over and we’d watch hockey. 

For the scene where I break the bird’s neck, I never dealt with a real bird — there was just a dummy. In one take, I took the bird and threw it against the wall, but they wanted something “smaller” just to show what a mean bastard I was, so I broke its neck, just offscreen. That’s the take they went with. 

Lloyd: Come on Harry, cheer up.
Harry: It gets worse, Lloyd. My parakeet Petey. He’s dead.
Lloyd: Oh man. I’m sorry, Harry. What happened?
Harry: His head fell off!
Lloyd: His head fell off?
Harry: Yeah, he was pretty old.

Yellin: Mike Starr’s grumpy Joe was exactly how we imagined the part and the dialogue when we were writing the movie. And Brady, of course, was pitch-perfect. Though if he got the joke? I have no idea. 

Bluhm: I had to fly up to Utah with my mom for filming. Before I got to my scenes, I got to meet Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels. I didn’t really know or care who Jeff Daniels was at the time, but Jim Carrey was like my idol at that age. I loved Ace Ventura, and I’d just seen The Mask. I remember that my mom knocked on his trailer door, and he swung the door open all the way, in full Jim Carrey fashion. He talked with my mom as I just stood there with my jaw hanging open, responding in one-word replies. It’s the only time I remember being really starstruck.

For the “pretty bird” scene, they gave me this prop bird with the head taped on. It was just wire and feathers. No birds were harmed in the filming of Dumb and Dumber. 

Yellin: Sydney Bartholomew would have made that prop. Unfortunately, he’s no longer alive. He was a great production designer, and he did just about every movie Peter and Bobby did before he passed away. 

Harry: Where did you get 25 extra bucks?
Lloyd: I sold some stuff to Billy in 4C.
Harry: The blind kid? What did you sell him, Lloyd?
Lloyd: Stuff.
Harry: What kind of stuff?
Lloyd: I dunno, a few baseball cards, a sack of marbles… Petey.
Harry: Petey! You sold my dead bird to a blind kid? Lloyd, Petey didn’t even have a head!
Lloyd: Harry, I took care of it.

Bluhm: The Farrellys talked me through exactly what they were looking for, and they only did like three takes plus an extra take for safety. They ended up using the last take for that scene and that was the one where they said I could have some fun with it, so I decided to try something out.

Billy: Pretty bird. Can you say, ‘Pretty bird? Pretty bird, yes, pretty bird… Polly want a cracker?’

Bluhm: I improvised that line! “Pretty bird” was in the script, but I improvised “Polly want a cracker?” and they left it in! After that, I did my little A Current Affair scene but there wasn’t much to that one. It was probably only two takes if I remember correctly.

Yellin: There are a few things that date the movie, but probably the biggest thing that dates Dumb and Dumber is the clip from A Current Affair. It still gets a laugh though.

Mike Watkiss: Tomorrow on A Current Affair, inside the home of the Menendez brothers’ attorney. And next, we’ll be back in a minute with the heartbreaking story of the blind Rhode Island boy who was duped into buying a dead parakeet.
Billy: I just thought he was real quiet.

Yellin: Audiences loved it, but the movie wasn’t well-reviewed when it came out. I remember the Siskel and Ebert review in particular. It was the strangest thing. Roger Ebert said he didn’t like the movie, but said there was one part that was so funny that he fell out of his chair laughing — that was the part about the bird. But he still didn’t recommend the movie.

Roger Ebert, excerpt from review in Chicago Sun-Times, 1994: The purpose of a comedy is to make you laugh, and there’s a moment in Dumb and Dumber that made me laugh so loudly I embarrassed myself. I just couldn’t stop. It’s the moment involving the kid who gets the parakeet. But because I know that the first sentence of this review is likely to be lifted out and reprinted in an ad, I hasten to add that I did not laugh as loudly again, or very often. It’s just as well. If the whole movie had been as funny as that moment, I would have required hospitalization.

Bluhm: Dumb and Dumber is one of those films that changed comedy. It has such staying power, and it’s so many people’s favorite movie. There were times as a kid that I would feel like a celebrity because of Dumb and Dumber. Like, I’d go to summer camp and eventually everyone would find out I was Billy because my friend would tell them. Over the years, whenever friends would find out that I was Billy, they’d yell, “No way!” and freak out over it. People always get excited. There have also been a bunch of merch and shirts I’ve seen. My favorite is the one that says “R.I.P. Petey, Never Forget.” Also, I live in Utah now not far from where we filmed and there’s a chicken restaurant nearby me now named “Pretty Bird” and the owner named after Dumb & Dumber!

Brady in his favorite shirt at the premiere of Dumb and Dumber To

For me, the greatest thing to come out of it though was in 2013 when I was asked to be back for Dumb and Dumber To. The sequel was filmed in Georgia, and the day I was on set was actually the first time Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels had seen each other in years, so they gave each other a big hug and they were talking and catching up. After a bit, one of the producers went to Jim and said, “Jim, this is Brady, he’s Billy the blind boy.” Jim Carrey turns and says to me, “No way! I’m glad you’re not dead!” That was the first thing Jim Carrey said to me after 20 years of not seeing me. It was hilarious.

The joke in Dumb and Dumber To is that Billy now has a whole bunch of exotic birds. It’s strange, you’d think that getting Petey as a child would have traumatized Billy, yet somehow it seems to have inspired him. There’s a whole story in there that I’d like to know more about. Who knows? Maybe Billy should be grateful to Lloyd for selling him Petey all those years ago. 

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