It really was incredible; not in the ways that it emulated a real conversation, but in the ways that it didn't. The times that Einstein balked were the most interesting, because it was clear the bird had its own ideas about things and wasn't always in the mood to cooperate. However, Einstein's a slave to the seed, so in the end she'd always cave.
For example, when Stephanie asked about the other animals at the zoo, Einstein was all, "honk honk" for, say, the sheep. Staphanie would say, "No, seriously, sheep" and Einstein would finally go "baaah."
Eventually the trainer is all, "Fine, you clearly want to talk about the penguins, let's hear 'em!" and Einstein goes "honk honk" and then she had it out of her system and did the other animals first time.
She did the same thing with another joke, spoiling it by giving the punchline really early, clearly because she liked it. Stephanie is all, "So, do you like to fly?" and Einstein is all, "AAaaa-flack!", which is pretty fucking funny even out of contest, but then finally she gets to the real line, which is, "If only we had some insurance!" and Einstein's all, "AAAAAAA-FLACK!"
Like, clearly this was a gray parrot who liked her some Aflack.
The other funny part was at the end, Stephanie asked Einstein to dance, and Einstein fluffed herself up and kind of clucked. And Stephanie is all, "No, come on, really dance... you know!" and the bird's just like, "Cluck, cluck" and fluff, fluff. Finally Stephanie is all "You're going to make me dance, aren't you," clearly embarrassed to have to dance in front of all these people for her parrot, but the bird just keeps clucking, so Stephanie starts dancing a bit, and Einstein moves a TINY bit, and so Stephanie bobs her head around, and the bird starts doing a big bob and actually dancing.
[UPDATE: Here's footage from the next day. At the end you can hear me laughing.]
I just loved the way this bird totally controlled her trainers. It turns out Einstein often has favorite words that she has to get out of her system, but they aren't always the same word. This struck me as pretty neat.
I talked to the zoo folks afterwards at the nightly TED party. Stephanie's boss Evan is a young-looking, laid-back guy who knows which one of them the cameras love, plus Einstein likes Stephanie best and talks for her more. I told Stephanie if she could swim farther out into the bay than me in the freezing cold I'd make a sizable donation to the Knoxville zoo, but her ichthyophobia, frigophobia, and possibly gymnophobia blocked my purely altruistic offer. We all talked about conservation and depression and nature and eventually they asked me if I'd like to hang with Einstein, and I'm like, hells yah.
So we went and visited Einstein at her hotel room, and I got some first-hand insights into the mind of a parrot. Or, at least, this parrot, who is, frankly, pure evil, but with fluffy feathers.
Einstein has two modes, which are "hungry" and "bitey," and she'd just been fed. They ran through a bunch of her queue words, but she wouldn't peep. It turns out that this isn't a parrot who responds for the fun of it; if you want a performance, you better have seeds, and she better be hungry. Otherwise, no talky. They waved around sunflower seeds, and Einstein was certainly willing to take them, but she sure wasn't hungry enough to prostitute herself for them.
"Do you starve her for like a week before a show?" I asked. Evan said yes, but then amended his answer to no when he realized I might think he was serious. (Note to animal lovers: the real answer is no. They love that bird like crazy.)
"Come on, do cat, Einstein! If she doesn't do cat, she won't do anything!" Well, she wasn't going to do anything.
I've had some experience around birds so I risked putting my hand up to the cage to pet Einstein. This was a smart bird. She looked at me with one malevolent eye and then turned away and put the back of her head against the bars so I could scratch it.
Stephanie was all, "Watch out, because she's probably just trying to..."
CHOMP! Einstein flipped her head around and tried to take a chunk of my finger. However, years of Nintendo have left me faster, if not smarter, than the African gray, and I was safely away. Nice try, you evil non-talking bird. "You're too slow, Einstein," I taunted her. "You know what they call slow parrots? DINNER." Stephanie was mortified, so I don't think I scored a lot of points there. Call me Mr. Sensitive.
We played that game a couple more times until I decided I was probably training the bird in a way that wouldn't go over well when others met her.
Einstein apparently does sounds on her own to match the trainers' actions; things she hasn't been trained to do or rewarded for, but just thinks it's fun to point out. Apparently when they shut off the lights at night, for example, all three parrots will call out "Good night!" on their own. And, when Stephanie gets out a tissue, Einstein will start making sneezing and snot-horking noises. (I was frankly shocked that hadn't made it into the act, because I think it would kill on stage.)
As I talked with the zoopersons about matters zoological, Einstein started clucking and cooing and making all matter of noises, like a child who has suddenly lost the spotlight and finds herself missing the attention. I casually put my leather shoe within chomping range of the cage. Einstein started sidling over to where my shoe was, and then sloooowly stuck her beak through the bars. Of course, all I had to do was pull my foot back an inch and she was foiled. And mad. M-A-D. This parrot had clearly once tasted human blood and had liked it.
I believe I convinced them, before I left, to take Einstein to the remaining party as a clever fund-rasing ruse for all the assembled billionaires, so if you read that L.P. or Sergey have lost a finger, you'll know why.