Ventriloquism is a strange art form. It’s part acting, part puppetry, part stand-up comedy. It’s vaudevillian in nature and therefore it feels old-fashioned. Yet contemporary ventriloquism is alive and well. The documentary “I’m No Dummy” explores the world of ventriloquism, both past and present, in an engaging enough way that you are sucked into the film, even if you are never sold on the act itself.
Now, I admit that I can be a bit of a Grumpy Guss. I hate magicians. If they were really magic that would be one thing, but the slight-of-hand doesn’t impress me. I’m not afraid of clowns, but I find them annoying and not the least bit funny. (Krusty the Clown is an exception. Do satires count?) Ventriloquism had always seemed to me akin to those professions. But I must confess that “I’m No Dummy” changed my mind. I’m not going to run right out to buy a doll and practice singing whilst drinking water, but there is definitely some art happening here and some of it is downright impressive.
“I’m No Dummy” begins by defining the subject and giving it some context. The filmmakers interview several working ventriloquists (and, of course, their dummies) and ask them to
define “ventriloquism”. The answers range from the technical (“a monologue perceived as a dialogue”) to the existential (“different sides of a personality”). It’s clear they’ve all thought a lot about this. No one entered into this world lightly and they are in it for the long haul. In fact, all of them began their careers as children. One of them was an only child. One had polio and spent a lot of time in bed. One suffered from acute dyslexia and admits he took to it because he wasn’t good at much else. It’s a goldmine for rudimentary psychoanalysis.
And some of it is also pretty neat. I’m still not sold on the stand-up aspect. I like my stand-up a little more raw and/or political. But when they go into the history of it and show the early masters, it does get a little mind-blowing what some of these people can do. Senor Wences, one of the more famous “vents,” created his signature head-in-the-box “’salright – ‘salright” bit by accident when his figure’s head became detached from its body in transit. Paul Winchell performed an amazing act wherein he sang a duet with his gypsy dummy…that was playing the tambourine. He was doing the work of at least 3 men all by himself. He also hosted a children’s show and was extremely popular in his day. These days, his legend is overshadowed by Miley Cyrus.
Other early fellows profiled include Jimmy Nelson and Edgar Bergen. The filmmakers also interview and profile enthusiast W.S. Berger, who spent his life collecting ventriloquist memorabilia. He called himself a Ventriloquarian. Seemingly obscure or no, each of the hundreds of dummies in his collection once had a life in showbiz. One contemporary ventriloquist named Jeff Dunham pulls in 4000 people to one show. And some of them are teenagers.
The film concludes with theories about the future of ventriloquism. Some say it can be kept going through innovation and transcending the genre. Some say it’s a dying art. But one person suggests that art never dies. I guess that’s true because I’m off to go watch some old-timey entertainment on youtube.