It's my first interview with a monkey.
At least it's sort of a famous monkey. It's Katie, the backup monkey for Monkey, who plays Marcel on NBC's hit sitcom "Friends" (9:30 p.m. Thursdays on WBAL, Channel 11). Tonight, Marcel leaves the show, but Katie doesn't seem to mind. And fortunately, her trainer, Nerissa Politzer, is happy to supply the details that Katie's "eek eek eek!" can't convey.
Katie doesn't talk much on the phone, apparently. "She'll chew on the phone sometimes," Ms. Politzer volunteers from Bob Dunn Animal Services in Sylmar, Calif., where she, Katie and Monkey all work -- that is, when they aren't on the set of "Friends" or one of Monkey's other projects, which include leading roles in "Outbreak" with Dustin Hoffman , guest spots on other TV shows, and an American Express commercial with Jerry Seinfeld. This monkey gets around!
"Friends" has probably given Monkey, a 7-year-old Capuchin, the most exposure. "She hasn't really gotten any work out of it yet," though, Ms. Politzer says. "I don't think people know that she's available."
Monkey plays the mischievous pet of Ross (David Schwimmer), who decides in tonight's episode that it's time for the maturing Marcel to be among "his" own kind. (Monkey is a female monkey in real life. Talk about versatility.) Ross' efforts to get Marcel into a suitable zoo prove frustrating and funny.
Marcel is a born scene-stealer, even among the gorgeous-to-a-fault cast, but NBC spokeswoman Janine Jones says the network wasn't concerned about the monkey sharing the spotlight. It's just that, as she points out, filming will probably be easier with Monkey gone.
"It tends to increase your production costs, just because of the time it takes" to work with animals, she says. "It's a little easier to direct humans."
"They can definitely drive you crazy," Ms. Politzer agrees. "They are always picking up everything . . . such as TV remote controls." It's easy to see what she means when, sounding like a mother scolding a toddler in the middle of a phone call, she admonishes her little trash scavenger: "Katie, leave it alone!"
Marcel is adept at driving his human companions bananas. On "Friends," for instance, he learned to run the stereo so that he could keep playing a CD of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." That's not quite the way Monkey and Katie behave.
"They don't really listen to much music," Ms. Politzer says. But they each have a personality. "David Schwimmer enjoyed working with Monkey more" because Monkey was calmer, she says. "Jennifer [Anniston] seemed to prefer Katie, and Matt LeBlanc loved Katie . . . Katie just likes to play. She likes to stick her tongue in actor's ears . . . and kiss everyone."
On the other hand, Ms. Politzer says, "Monkey's much more reserved. She's just more professional."
A monkey doesn't get to be professional overnight. It takes a great deal of training -- a lot of repetition, a lot of patience and, Ms. Politzer says, "a lot of treats." They eat fruits, vegetables and a processed monkey biscuit (mmm!), but their best incentive is mealworms: "That's their favorite."
On the set, Ms. Politzer says, "You've just got to show her what she needs to do." The trick is to give the monkey a break before she gets cranky. "They're pretty good-spirited. They'll keep trying as long as you don't overdo it."
It's harder to account for human interaction. Mr. Schwimmer has joked that he was discouraged from bonding with the monkey. "When we're working with the monkey, it doesn't help us out to have distractions," Ms. Politzer acknowledges, " . . . but when she's off the set, we encourage it."
That is, within certain boundaries.
"People can upset them by looking at them strangely . . . and people don't realize that," she says. "You have to make the actors aware that things that they think are funny aren't necessarily funny to the monkey."
That's right. No monkey business. Even a funny face can be alarming to the Capuchin, and mimicking an upset monkey makes it even worse. "You train them to pick up something and they start getting nervous and just pick up anything that's around them," she says.
"There was a scene when Monkey was supposed to pick up a bra" and got nervous because Ms. Anniston didn't come quickly enough, so Monkey started throwing the bra at her. Sometimes the volatility works for laughs: In another scene with Ms. Anniston, when Katie was playing Marcel, the monkey reached into a shoe and began eating what was supposed to be something that people -- and monkeys -- just don't eat. "Jennifer Anniston was definitely really good in that scene; she played off the monkey great and it was a hilarious scene," Ms. Politzer says.
Through NBC, Mr. Schwimmer summed up his tiny co-star pretty well: "Monkey was an incredibly friendly animal who bonded immediately with Matt LeBlanc and me. When she wasn't eating live worms, she was incredibly adorable."
The monkeys get to ply that cuteness elsewhere now that they've made a name for themselves. But, wisely, they don't seem to be in a hurry to put their paws in cement on the Walk of Fame.
"They're getting a lot of publicity," their trainer says. "But they don't particularly notice the difference. They don't let it get to their head. They just enjoy the simple things of life."
6* A fine philosophy. Pass the mealworms.