David Hoffman shares his famous acting role with an unpredictable emu — who’s more recognizable than his human partner with the mustache and sunglasses.
Hoffman plays Doug, the ’70s-era throwback in the popular, ubiquitous “Limu Emu & Doug” commercials for Liberty Mutual Insurance.
The ad campaign launched in March 2019 and has transformed the veteran actor into a rock star in the advertising world alongside the likes of “Can You Hear Me Now?” guy (Paul Marcarelli) or Flo (Stephanie Courtney), who promotes Progressive Insurance.
“Never once have I been recognized out on the street as Doug,” said Hoffman, who’s in his early 40s. “He looks like a character I’ve never played before.”
That was a deliberate choice on Hoffman’s part. The classically trained actor is an improv/sketch-comedy veteran (The Groundlings School in LA) who played ex-jock writer Jim on Hulu’s “There’s… Johnny!” (2017).
He was coming off a two-season run on the UK sitcom “I Live With Models” when, just after Thanksgiving in 2018, his commercial agent called. “He said, ‘Would you ever do [an ad] campaign?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know. You can get pigeonholed and it can get corny,’” Hoffman said. “I said, ‘Here are my parameters: it will be with a director I respect, something that I find funny and I don’t want to look like myself.’ He handed me his phone and said, ‘This is the last day they’re seeing people.’”
“They” turned out to be Liberty Mutual, who gave a brief description of Doug, but little else: “He’s partners with an emu and genuinely and earnestly wants to help people customize their car insurance with the help of this bird.”
“I disappeared and came back and had the realistic mustache and a Members Only jacket and said, ‘This is the guy,’” Hoffman said. “There was no physical description of [Doug]. The role didn’t call for a mustache; I just decided he should have a mustache.
“What hooked me was that he was earnest and trustworthy. I have a brand of comedy I like — I call it ‘Absurd Realism’ — and I think it’s just the funniest stuff there is. It plays as so grounded and real but its premise is absurd. Nobody [in the ads] is acting like there’s anything unusual about this guy riding in a car with an emu.”
And, if you’re wondering, Hoffman does very little in-person acting with Limu the emu. “There are three emus at each shoot and we always use the same three,” he said. “One who specializes in standing still, one who runs .. .we kind of change them out. We used them more on the very first shoot, but 90 percent of the time I’m by myself looking at a piece of tape [subbing for Limu]. They bring the emus out afterward and do an amazing job in post-production with CGI.
“They’re large and when they stick their necks up all the way they’re taller than me — like a dinosaur with talons,” he said. “They’re kind of intimidating, but at least, with me, they’re pretty gentle. At the first shoot one of them jumped up on a desk in a standing leap and got in my face, but I have no issues with wild animals.
“I’ve worked with children who are more difficult.”
Now that Hoffman has starred in the ad campaign for two-and-a-half years, he said he does have some input into his on-screen alter-ego.
“I consider [the ads] to be a miniature series where it’s growing, and just like with anything the writers and actors get to know each other bette,” he said. “With the bumper and the Liberty [jingle] we’re down to 22 seconds for an ad, and with the ‘You only pay what you need’ tagline, now we’ve got 15 seconds to play with. Before the shoot we get together and look for fun stuff to do. They give me the freedom to improvise, but there’s not a lot of time. I just love the moments of silence, like at the barbecue [Doug to Limu: “Hot dog or chicken?…hot dog.”]
“We’re squeezing them in when we can.”