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

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve with Jeff

We're at my daughter's house in Virginia with her and her family. I brought no musical instruments or ventriloquist dummies, although if I wanted to practice ventriloquism, I can borrow one from my grandson Landon. He has almost as many as I have.

I'll report now on my Saturday evening show a week ago. It was a resort beach jazz club. As usual, many of my friends were there including members of the Florida Ventriloquist's Association. Despite the rigors of "red tide," a seaborne organism that causes severe throat distress, I had a full house. The show was well promoted.

I played a set of jazz on alto and tenor sax and fluegelhorn with the house trio. The second set was all comedy. I kept a bottle of Entertainer's Secret handy to help keep the red tide effects at bay. The show went well, but there was a disruptive table of noisy patrons near the stage.

I'll never figure out why people will pay $15 a pop to see a show and then talk loudly during the show. Other patrons were annoyed, and the disruption was screwing up my timing. Finally Dexter took over. (Dexter is my smart-assed little boy dummy.) He engaged the unruly table in a bit of dialogue that eventually got them to settle down.

Last night I watched Jeff Dunham's new DVD, Spark of Insanity, with my grandsons. It is a delightful show, and I recommend it to anyone who likes comedy and to ventriloquists in particular who want to see how this art should be practiced.

Observe something about Jeff. He owns the audience before he even comes on stage. They all know him from his past work, and they know the characters of his figures. Consequently, Jeff has what Bergen had, what very few ventriloquists have. Walter or Peanut can say just about anything and get a laugh. Mortimer Snerd could do the same thing. As long as the line is in character, the audience loves it. It's funny because Walter says it. It's outrageous because Peanut says it.

Don't ever think you can do Jeff's material. It won't work for anyone other Walter and Peanut in Jeff's hands.

So, what can you learn from Jeff's performance? Timing. Can you explain timing? It's complicated. It's a combination of how you word each line, how fast you say each line, and how much space you leave between lines. The latter two values change depending on the lines themselves and the audiences' reactions. Guess what? You can't practice timing in your living room in order to learn it. You learn it only in front of audiences. Lots of audiences. Over a long period of time. And every time you perform, you learn and, hopefully, get better. Jeff gets better every time I see him perform. The lines are often the same, but the delivery steadily improves. And part of that is the complete acceptance he has from every audience now. The other part is how hard he works to make each performance a home run.

It looks easy, doesn't it?