Perspectives of a Writer and Musician

Issues related to writing, publishing and playing jazz music: One man's muse.
by Al Stevens

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Location: Florida, United States

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Jokes About Ventriloquists

Jokes are the mainstay of a ventriloquist's material. You'd think with the popular notion of ventriloquists as fruitcakes, that there'd be lots of jokes to exploit that bias. Yet there are only seven well-known jokes about ventriloquists, and they have nothing to do with vents being oddballs.

The first joke is the one virtually everyone tells when they want to needle a ventriloquist. They say, “Which one is the dummy?” That's it. Original, ain't it? Hilarious, too.

The other six jokes keep showing up on the Internet. Non-ventriloquists tell them, and ventriloquists cast a weary eye skyward and shrug it off. If you haven't heard them, they might amuse you, and you may tell them to non-ventriloquists. But be aware that every other ventriloquist has heard them countless times.
Here they are.

The Topless Ventriloquist

Did you hear the one about the topless lady ventriloquist? No one noticed whether her lips were moving.

The Drunk and the Ventriloquist

A ventriloquist is performing in a bar where a drunk continuously heckles him. The dummy fires snappy comebacks at the drunk in response to every heckle. The drunk takes offense and yells up to the stage, “You do that one more time and I'll punch you in the nose!”

The ventriloquist ignores the threat, and when the drunk heckles the act again, the dummy fires another retort. The drunk gets out of his chair and storms the stage, saying, “I told you what I'd do, now I'm gonna do it!”

The ventriloquist, visibly shaken, says to the drunk, “I'm sorry sir, it's just a part of the act, it won't happen again.”

The drunk glares at the ventriloquist and responds, “You keep outta this, fella, my beef is with the little guy on your lap.”

The joke just told has several versions, and has even been the subject of cartoons. A recent version of the joke substitutes a blonde for the drunk. Others use cowboys, hillbillies, and bikers. According to Jimmy Nelson the story actually happened to him in a joint in Buffalo, NY. Russo Louis also tells a version of this story from his performing experience.

The Ventriloquist and the Farmer

A ventriloquist visits his uncle's farm. The uncle, who doesn't know his city born nephew is a ventriloquist, shows the lad around the farm. They come to the chicken coop and the nephew asks, “Uncle, what are those birds?”

“They're chickens,” the uncle answers.

“Can chickens talk?” asks the nephew.

“No, Nephew, chickens can't talk.”

“Let's see,” says the ventriloquist, “Hi there, Mrs. Chicken, how do you like life here on the farm?”

The ventriloquist throws his voice into the chicken coop and makes the chicken answer, “Well it's just fine. We have a nice roost and the feed is plentiful and tasty.”

The uncle is astounded. He'd never heard a chicken talk before. They move on and the nephew asks, “Uncle, what is that large animal over there?”

“Why that's a cow,” comes the reply.

“Can cows talk?”

“No, I was wrong about the chickens, but I'm sure the cow can't talk.”

The nephew addresses the cow, “Hello Mrs. Cow, how do you like it here on the farm?”
The ventriloquist makes the cow respond, “Oh, it's nice. We have good grazing pasture and a nice stall to sleep in.”

The uncle is even more astounded. “Well, that’s one on me, I never heard a cow talk either.”

The nephew points to a nearby hill. “Uncle, what are those white, furry creatures up there grazing on the hill?”

The uncle quickly replies, “Nephew, those are the lyin'est damned sheep you ever met in your life!”

The Rat and the Canary

A guy goes into a bar and says to the bartender, “Say, if I show you a good trick will you give me a free drink?”

“Depends on the trick,” says the bartender.

The guy pulls a tiny piano and bench out of his coat pocket. He reaches in another pocket and pulls out a rat. He sits the rat on the bench and the rat begins playing “Stormy Weather” on the piano.

“That's a great trick,” says the bartender. “Have a drink on me.”

The guy finishes his drink and says, “Say if I show you a trick, will you give me another drink?”

The bartender answers, “If it's the rat trick, I've already seen it.”

“No,” says the guy, “It's different. I've added to the trick.” With that he pulls a canary out of his pocket and sits the canary on top of the piano. The canary begins singing “Blue Moon” while the rat accompanies her on the piano.

“Great trick,” says the bartender. “Have another drink.”

About that time another patron slides down toward the guy with the trick. He says, “I see you're down on your luck. Would you consider selling that trick for a hundred bucks?”

“Sure,” says the guy. “ I could use a hundred bucks.” And he takes the man's money and gives him the piano, bench, rat and canary.

The man leaves taking the trick with him, and the bartender says to the guy, “I don't want to tell you your business, but you just got taken. That trick is worth a whole lot more than a hundred bucks.”

“Nah,” says the guy. “The trick's a fake. That canary can't sing. The rat's a ventriloquist.”

The Ventriloquist Medium

A ventriloquist, down on his luck, sets up a business as a spiritualist, using his ventriloquial skills to trick clients into believing they could converse with their departed loved ones.

On his first day in business a matronly lady comes in and asks to speak with her dead husband. After a half hour of back and forth between the lady and the ventriloquist's simulation of her husband's voice, the séance is over, and the lady pays the ventriloquist his fee. She is so impressed that she adds a fifty dollar tip. Then she asks, “Would it be possible for me to return next week for more discussions with my husband?”

“Madam,” the ventriloquist answers, “for a tip like this, you can converse with your husband while I'm drinking a glass of water.”

The Ventriloquist and the Talking Dog

A ventriloquist and his dog stop in a bar. The ventriloquist orders a beer and then the dog seems to say to the bartender, “And I'd like a pan of water.”

The bartender, not realizing his customer is a ventriloquist, is amazed to see a talking dog. He offers the ventriloquist a substantial sum for the dog, which the ventriloquist accepts. As the ventriloquist leaves with the money, the dog seems to say, “How dare you sell me and leave me here after my years of loyalty and service? Just for that, I shall never speak another word as long as I live!”

So there you have it. Those are the jokes about ventriloquists. I hope you enjoyed them. Now forget about them.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

He said, she said, or he or she said...

In my writing I might seem to be ignoring the ladies when I use masculine gender pronouns to refer to ventriloquists and their dummies. Not so.

Most ventriloquists are men and most ventriloquist dummies are male. During the so-called “golden era” of ventriloquism there were many well-known male ventriloquists but only one really famous female, a talented and beautiful ventriloquist named Shari Lewis.

Another lady ventriloquist from that era is Shirley Dinsdale, the fifteen year old whose puppet Judy Splinters won the first Emmy ever awarded; her award was in the category, Most Outstanding Television Personality. Dinsdale never achieved the fame that Lewis did, and so the public is mostly unaware of her.

That's it. That's all there are. Only two prominent lady ventriloquists from the old days. Even today, when many ladies have taken up the art, males dominate it.

Does this minority justify an exclusive use of masculine gender? Of course not. The propriety of that usage exists in the rules of formal English language, not in superior numbers or political correctness.

First, the politically correct phrases, “he or she,” “his or her,” and so on, are awkward to write and cumbersome to read. Second, they are unnecessary; the masculine gender in formal English writing has always been used to circumscribe all people without regard to their sex. The English language has not evolved to include singular gender-unspecific pronouns, probably because political correctness is a relatively young posture when compared to our centuries old social culture.

There is concern among some social commentators, particularly feminists, that use of the masculine gender reflects and engenders socio-economic biases against their constituency, members of the female sex. They worry that little girls, reading only male pronouns, come to feel subordinated and disenfranchised, whereas little boys come to believe in male superiority.

Certainly such feelings can exist between the sexes, but they are hardly the product only of masculine gender in writing. If such problems are real and such concerns valid, we do not adequately address them by reinventing written language. Rather, we properly educate our children about correct English usage and condition them not to get their panties in a bunch about every imagined slight they might encounter in life.

Like it or not, there are certain professions that virtually all people, women included, assume are white male-dominated. If you talk about your doctor, lawyer or English professor, for example, people subconsciously assume that the person you are discussing is a white male unless you specifically identify the sex and ethnic origin of your doctor, lawyer or English professor. Similarly, if you tell a friend that you saw the performance of a ventriloquist, juggler, magician, or comedian, and do not name the performer, your friend mentally pictures a white male as the performer. Such biases do not exist in language; they exist in people. There's not a lot we can do about human nature. Saying “he or she” all the time doesn't change anything.

Another common usage these days is to balance your pronouns equally between the masculine and feminine genders, using “he” in some places and “she” in others. I don't care for that practice either. It calls attention away from the subject matter and to the notions that a social issue exists related to gender in writing and that the writer is ever so politically correct. The writer changes the focus from his message, whatever it is, to some subliminal social commentary.

If all this troubles you, keep in mind the characteristic role of the ventriloquist dummy as an irreverent commentator who ignores the rules of polite society when it suits him. This socially-imposed gender sensitivity is exactly the kind of up-tight, politically correct nonsense with which Charlie McCarthy would have had a field day.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Happy Birthday

Happy birthday, Wendy!
Call us.

Click the Play button...

The Fred Maher School of Ventriloquism

Two weeks ago Maher Studios closed shop. There have been many tributes including an article in the Wall Street Journal. My tribute recounts my personal experiences with Maher Studios and The Fred Maher School of Ventriloquism.

(Hmm. That's kind of like when people stand up at a funeral service and talk more about themselves and their own personal loss than about the deceased person. Well, this is my blog. I get to make it about me, don't I?)

It started sometime in the early 1950s. My Dad had a subscription to Popular Mechanics Magazine. I had a burning interest in ventriloquism. One ad in the classified advertising section every month fascinated me.

Money was tight, but I had a paper route. I sent in the quarter and got the info and the dummy catalog.

The information packet about the correspondence course was interesting, but I didn't have the money to enroll.

I didn't have the money to buy a dummy, either, but I pored over the catalog hoping that some day I could afford one. I wore out several copies and every now and then sent them another quarter to get a new one.

The course literature included testimonials. Among the 40 or so graduates is a youthful Dick Weston who brags that he is making as much as $95 a week in his new career. All the graduates had Maher dummies, of course.

It didn't bother me that I couldn't afford the course. I had already taught myself ventriloquism and, typical of most twelve-year-old boys, figured no one had anything important to teach me. What bothered me was that to be a success, to make $95 a week and afford a Maher dummy, one had to have a diploma. At least that's what I thought.

Fast forward many years. I put ventriloquism behind me to pursue other things. A copy of Popular Mechanics was laying around somewhere and, out of curiousity, I opened it to the classified ads. Sure enough, the Maher school was still in operation, only now in Littleton, Colorado. And the dummy catalog was free. I sent for it and got quite a surprise. The business was now owned by some young upstart named Clinton Detweiler and his lovely wife Adelia. The business seemed to target family-oriented and gospel ventriloquists with fewer hard figure dummies and more soft puppets. The literature said to me that traditional ventriloquism as I knew and loved it was, if not dead, on the critical list. I was not interested.

Fast forward even more years. Retired from my writing and computer programming career and making my way as a jazz musician, I came across Winchell's video at the library. A trailer on the video advertises Jerry Layne and his Jerry Mahoney replica. I called Jerry (Layne, not Mahoney) and learned that ventriloquism is indeed alive and well and that there are conventions. I attended the next convention (1999) and met Clinton Detweiler, who is no longer a young upstart. He is an old upstart. Like me. (Actually, when people describe me as an old something, it only rhymes with upstart.)

Clinton and I had a brief chat during the group photo session and I came to know him then and in the years and conventions that followed. Every now and then I actually bought something from Maher Studios as it was now called. I don't remember exactly what. Probably books. I do recall sending with one order a note of concern to Clinton and Adelia just after the Columbine incident, which happened in Littleton. Adelia sent a note back with the shipment saying that they were okay and I shouldn't worry. It is typical of the Detweilers that they would reassure others when the tragedy was at their doorstep.

I remember a conversation in which Clinton said that people advised him that he could make a lot more money if his business practices weren't so upfront and honorable. I told him my advice. Never regret having done the right thing. I didn't need to tell him that. He already knew it.

I have a copy of the Maher correspondence course now. I bought it on eBay. I read all the books and, not being twelve years old, learned some things. I never filled out the forms and got a diploma, though. I don't think I could get by on $95 a week.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Dexter and Aunt Sally

Some readers asked that I post an example of my work. This is one of my promotional videos.

You can find others at my website

Yet another comedy club...

I went to a comedy club last night to check it out. Talk about convenient. It's located about two miles from my house. Too good to be true? Read on.

Giggles Comedy Club is set up on Wednesday nights at the Holiday Inn Express in a large room designed for banquets. It is located at the intersection of Rt 520 and I-95, about seven miles outside of town. In the boonies, actually. As near as I can tell, their only advertising consists of small signs they put up on the entrance ramps of nearby exits. If you didn't look closely, you'd think they were yard sale signs. That's how I found the club. (I tend to read those signs when I ought to be watching the road.)

There wasn't much of a crowd.

Giggles doesn't have an adequate sound system. Entertainers use the PA system designed for banquet and meeting speakers with the sound coming from round 10" loudspeakers in the ceiling. With the high ceilings, large room, and plate glass windows, the audio was boomy with too much reverb and not enough dynamic response. I had difficulty hearing much of what the comedians said. Well, I could hear it, I just couldn't understand it. See what I posted yesterday about sound systems.

Lighting is poor, too. A small, dim spotlight at the back of the room kind of points at the stage. It is the kind of light that dark clubs use to illuminate dance floors. Not so bright as to annoy the dancers, but bright enough to keep them from bumping into one another. Comedians are effectively working in the dark. Not a good setup for a ventriloquist, I thought.

Instead of a master of ceremonies, they used a canned introduction to begin the show. An MC showed up later to introduce the second of two comedians and to close out the show. Go figure. Maybe he was late for work.

Both comedians were funny. They are not local entertainers. One is from North Carolina, the other from Miami. They use adult material. The first guy did about a half hour and is the funnier of the two. The second guy did 45 minutes and was dirtier, although not as rough as I've heard in other clubs. The small audience was appreciative and laughed a lot at both acts.

A patron at the bar told me the hotel is trying this for the month of April to see if it works. There is no cover charge, and drink prices are reasonable. Two bucks for a draft beer, which is about half what other clubs in the area charge. I did a quick head count and some mental arithmetic and figured they weren't making the nut.

April is almost over. I didn't bother leaving a promotional package.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Carrying the Banner

For those pious ventriloquists who do not care for Jeff Dunham's adult content, and for those ventriloquists who bravely endure negative stereotypes assigned by most to ventriloquists, I offer the following example of how one great ventriloquist sets the bar high, represents the art with honor and dignity, and brings disbelievers into the fold:

Sound Systems: Cheap and Light or Expensive and Heavy?

When it comes to audio, many ventriloquists sacrifice quality for lower cost and portability. They buy a small amplifier because they can carry it. They place a higher value on the ability to make only one trip to and from the car than they do on sounding good. They believe that since their act involves voice only, they do not need good quality sound. They don’t understand sound, acoustics and the audio requirements of live performances. They want lightweight battery-powered gear for outdoor venues where AC power is not available. First, outdoor venues rarely provide good acoustic chambers, so you need higher quality amplification rather than lower. Second, an occasional need for battery-operated gear does not justify using low-quality equipment for all your other gigs.

Ventriloquism is a vocal art. The audience must not only be able to understand your dialogue; hearing it must be a pleasant experience for them. Ventriloquism involves speech that you form by changing your voice and keeping your lips still. This practice alone can make spoken words less understandable. The last thing you need is a low-quality sound system that muffles and distorts your voice and provides inadequate amplification. You need to be heard and understood, and you need to sound as good as possible.

So, when a ventriloquist whines, “But that heavy stuff is too expensive,” I respond:

“Don't scrimp on the quality of your tools. They reflect on the quality of your work.”

And when he whimpers, “But that expensive stuff is too heavy,” I respond:

“Wheels! Haven't you ever heard of wheels?”

Some performers will tell you that their small, cheap, lightweight, low-powered portable system is all they ever need and that they entertain crowds of thousands in venues the size of the Grand Canyon with nothing more than a 10-watt piece of junk called a “portable amplifier.” Chances are they don't know how bad they sound. They don’t realize that the radio speaker in a 1953 Studebaker sounds better than they do. All they care about is that they can lift it and do it all with only one trip from and to the car.

When you intend to deliver quality performances as most everyone does, it doesn’t make sense to sacrifice quality for convenience. You devote a lot of time and effort becoming a skilled ventriloquist. Don't sell your product short by delivering poor quality sound.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Lip Control, The Controversy

The interesting thing about lip control is the controversy that kicks up whenever ventriloquists discuss it. Ventriloquists on both sides of the issue get emotional about lip control, and unless you enjoy getting yelled at, you should probably avoid bringing it up.

I don't like getting yelled at, either, but this is a blog. People can yell at a blog, but the author can't hear it, so I don't much care. But ventriloquists should believe that they need good lip control, and they should be prepared for those who disagree.

Lip control is indeed important, but it is not the only important ventriloquial skill, and it's not the most important one, either, but it is certainly as important as anything else. You ought to learn good lip control if you wish to be a respected ventriloquist.

Lip control is, however, the first and often the only thing people mention when they assess a ventriloquist's ability. I think it's because lip control is the part of the craft that is easiest to identify. You can say that a ventriloquist's manipulation, separation, and voice control are good or bad, but it's difficult to enumerate, quantify, or qualify those skills. Lip control, however, is easy to assess. You either have it or you don't.

When ventriloquists themselves comment about the performances of other ventriloquists, they often mention the other guy's lip control. So, whether they believe good lip control is important or not, they usually consider this skill worthy of mention.

It has been said that unless you have good lip control you should not call yourself a ventriloquist. Imagine the response such a statement brings from people whose lip control is less than perfect, but who are working hard to achieve success and respect as ventriloquists.

Why is it such an inflammatory subject? I think it's because those who have poor technique are touchy about it, and those who have good technique tend to look down their noses on those who do not. These attitudes are human nature. There's not much we can do about that.

I know many ventriloquists. I have never heard a ventriloquist whose lip control is good say that lip control is unimportant. That alone ought to tell you something about the debate and why it rages on.

Here are the reasons I believe lip control is important.
  1. Paul Winchell, Jimmy Nelson, Shari Lewis and Willie Tyler had or have flawless lip control. By proving that perfect and consistent lip control is possible without sacrificing clarity, they set a standard that we should all try to achieve.
  2. Whenever laypersons comment on the quality of a ventriloquist's performance, they always mention whether the ventriloquist moved his lips.
  3. Today's venues tend to be up close and personal. Lip control is more apparent to the audience.
  4. Moving lips detract attention from the material. People fixate on the ventriloquist's lips rather than the message or material.
  5. It isn't that difficult to learn and practice good lip control, so there's no excuse for not having it.

Those who argue that lip control is not an important skill usually have only these two reasons to offer:

  1. Edgar Bergen had poor lip control, yet he was the most commercially successful and popular ventriloquist in the history of the art.
  2. Clarity is more important than technique. (Bergen himself made this argument).
First, Bergen was an innovator and pioneer. He blazed the trail. His skill in other aspects of the art is without challenge. We forgive him that one flaw because of who he was and what he achieved. And in Bergen's domain, lip control was not as important. He worked initially in vaudeville, which put the audience at some distance from the performer and which had no amplification. Clarity was indeed more important than technique. Bergen's biggest success, of course, was on radio, where most of his audience couldn't see him at all.

Second, clarity is indeed important. But you do not necessarily sacrifice clarity if you learn lip control properly. Winchell, Nelson, Lewis and Tyler proved that.

Choose a side in the debate and have at it if you will. But before you do, I encourage you to work to learn perfect lip control and not be discouraged. You can do it, and, once you do, the argument becomes moot. Those who can do it needn't worry about how important other folks think it is. Don't let specious arguments lull you into apathy about an important aspect of ventriloquism.

To summarize, here's why, in my opinion, you ought to have good lip control. If you lack good lip control, it does not matter how expensive a dummy you have, how funny your material is, how many bookings you get, how much money you make, or how slick your web site is, people—other ventriloquists and laypersons—will always say about you, “But he moves his lips.”

That's what they say about Edgar Bergen.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Contemporary Ventriloquism

If you come here from somewhere other than a ventriloquist discussion group, you might possess a bias about ventriloquists.

You might think that all ventriloquists...

...are homicidal maniacs who think their dummies are alive, who can speak only through their dummies, and who are not very funny. I forgive you that characterization of who we are. You are the unwilling victim of literature and press who relentlessly portray us that way in order to sell copy.

...are wimpy losers who do puppet shows only for bratty kids and are not very funny. There is some truth in this stereotype.

...are unskilled amateurs who fumble around with their dummies, flap their lips like awnings in a hurricane, and are not very funny. There is some truth in this stereotype, too.

Okay, you got two out of three. But you need to know about the others who do not fall into any such category.

For example, many ventriloquists who specialize in family entertainment are indeed good technicians who are funny, too. But. according to what I've seen, read, and been told, many are not. Thus, the stereotypes.

And then there are the adult comedy ventriloquists. You cannot succeed with adult audiences unless you are really good, and so there are not many, if any, bad ventriloquists playing the comedy club circuit.

For starters, check out the number 7 selling DVD on today. It was number 1 for several days.

Jeff Dunham - Arguing With Myself

Jeff Dunham is funny. Damned funny. And he uses ventriloquism and puppets to entertain adults with adult humor.

How about some others? Here are some links:

Otto and George
David Strassman
Jonathan Geffner
Pete Michaels

And, of course, you can look at the promo videos on my website, linked in my profile. Decide for yourselves into which category I fall.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

"Throw your voice..."

It happened last night. I was playing string bass for vocalist Allan Harris at the Cocoa Beach Jazz Fest. They called me at the last minute; Allan's bass player had a car accident on the way to the gig and couldn't make it. Allan was introducing the band. Someone told him I was a ventriloquist, and he mentioned that in his introduction.

Then Allan did what all ventriloquists fear. He said, "Throw your voice." I kind of blew it off, but in the car on the way home I worked out something for the next time that happens. It is inspired by a bit I saw Mike Palma do. You have to know the distant voice technique to do this. Here's the bit (NV is your normal voice, DV is your distant voice.)

NV: Without a dummy, I'll just throw my voice into my hand. [Hold up your open hand] Hello! [quickly close your hand in a fist as if to catch the thrown voice.] Now the voice is in my hand. Let's let it out. [Open your hand]
DV: Hello!
V: Let's try it again. [open hand] Hello, Sir! [close hand, wait, open hand]
DV: Hello, Sir!
V: One more time. [open hand] Al Stevens (insert your name, of course) is a good looking guy/gal! [close hand, wait a few seconds, open hand]
DV: Horse feathers! (or expletive of your choice)

Saturday, April 22, 2006

By way of introduction:

Ventriloquism fascinates me. I've practiced the art since I was a child. There are open forum discussion groups and other blogs dedicated to ventriloquism . See my links to find these places. I've written extensively about ventriloquism and most of those writings are unpublished. This blog serves as a medium with which I can post some of those writings. That's me in the picture with my most popular ventriloquist dummy, Aunt Sally Pickle.

I was a writer for many years, and I have a large file of unpublished thoughts about ventriloquism that hit the cutting room floor during the rewrite process. Usually it was because the prose was inappropriate for the subject at hand or unsuitable for the targeted audience. Whatever my reason for rejecting something, I must have thought it worth saving, because I tucked it away. I'll pull some of those things out from time to time and post them here.

As an entertainer, I maintain an interest in visual arts associated with promoting one's career. Photography, website design, videography, cartooning, and so on. In another life I was a computer programmer, too, and software technologies that support the arts interest me. I'll talk about my experiences with those things when the spirit moves me.

I invite and welcome your comments and reactions to what you read here. You won't always agree, you won't always approve, and you won't always care. Whatever your reaction, please let me know.