In six years of stand up I’ve never met a ventriloquist. I often wondered why? Have they all been banished to live on an island, filled with dummies and volleyballs that then turn into dummies? That couldn’t be it. Maybe it’s that people dislike ventriloquists more than colonoscopies, or that ventriloquism isn’t enjoyed in cities, but in the more rural areas of the country.
This idea was spoofed a few years ago in an episode of NBC’s 30 Rock. Rick Wayne (Jeff Dunham) and his dummy, Pumpkin, are performing their comedy routine to an adoring crowd, in their hometown, “Stone Mountain.” A New Yorker, Liz Lemon, tries to heckle the duo, and is subsequently roasted: her mouth is called a “dog’s rectum,” causing another New Yorker, Jack Donaghy, to rush the stage and to decapitate the dummy, Pumpkin. They flee fearfully, as the crowd boos.
What was Tina Fey, a beloved comedy writer, referring to in this episode? Is she saying that ventriloquism is an art form solely adored in middle America? I searched my soul for an answer, finding I didn’t have one.
I do know this: Jeff Dunham is, in comic circles, one of the most laughed at and disliked comedians of all time. He also makes boatloads of cash. So much so, that he can subsequently buy yachts for every one of his many dummies. He’s actually one of the top ten paid comics working today, earning his spot at number nine, with a whopping $16.5 million in yearly income.
Two questions festered within, causing sleepless nights. How could somebody be one of the most hated and most successful comedians simultaneously? And, could ventriloquism make people laugh in D.C.?
I needed to find out for myself. So, for a week and a half, without a shred of ventriloquist skill or talent, I ventured to local comedy shows with my own plastic dummy, Mortimer Snerd.
Mortimer, to paint a brighter picture, is a terrifying, small, plastic man with buckteeth and red hair. He is one of the cheapest dummies available. Mortimer comes with a hat, a bowtie, and a thin string on the back of his head to pull (it only slightly moves his jaw). I got him on the Internet as a teenager, then put him away when I saw no one liked him.
The first show I visited was at The Passenger. The premise of the show was to do five minutes of material, then, later on, get called back onstage randomly to do two more. I told the booker I was bringing my ventriloquist dummy. He thought I was joking.
There’s something troubling about pulling a dummy out of a backpack. It began to draw a lot of attention. Audience members were whispering and pointing at me, as I walked around, holding Mortimer like a baby. I adjusted his small bowtie and tied his tiny shoelaces.
Soon, I was called onstage.
The voice, I was told later on, sounded like a raspy Bobcat Goldthwait. I wasn’t used to switching back and forth, between the two of us, for banter in a schizophrenic fashion. Addedly, my jokes were barely tweaked to fit the act. I thought I could make Mortimer do offensive jokes. But it was clear, since my mouth was moving, that I was the one telling them.
I got off stage. All the comics in the back, near the bar, were laughing because of how uncomfortable it was. They slapped me on the shoulders, and one man hugged me and said I had huge balls. Eventually, I was called back onstage. I saw an older audience member drop his head into his hands, visibly upset.
I bombed twice in one night. As did Mortimer.
The next night I went to Town Tavern. I had an even weirder set than before… in front of a previously laughing, but now quiet, audience. I tried to change the voice, but it ended up sounding like a mix between Marge Simpson’s sisters, Patty and Selma. After the performance, the booker walked by and told me it was “interesting.” He seemed very disturbed, and as though he’d lost all respect for me.
On Monday, I visited Madam’s Organ Blues Bar, with Mortimer in tow. We waited around for a while, anxiously ready to do our act, without knowing what to expect. The room was noisy and crowded. There were some hecklers in the front row interrupting comic’s sets.
I went on after the halftime magic act. At this point, most, including myself, were buzzed. My head felt like it was inflating and deflating, while my knees seemed to be buckling backwards. I lost my train of thought, a few times between bits, and just stood silently for moments holding Mortimer. Then, I was done.
It was a rough set. But someone on the smoking deck outside kept complimenting my ventriloquism, saying it’s hard to throw the voice and that I was really great. I found out, soon enough, that he didn’t even see my set. He’d just heard that I did one.
Most comics thought I’d given up traditional standup for ventriloquism. It was difficult to read their expressions, but they definitely seemed worried. A friend’s girlfriend asked me if I had Mortimer’s face fashioned after my own, saying that we looked exactly alike. I laughed. Then realized she wasn’t kidding. I left the place in shame, readying myself for my final performance, on Wednesday, at The Wonderland Ballroom.
I felt I had to raise the stakes this time. So, I shoved a Halloween decoration of a hideous clown into my bag, with Mortimer. I decided to name it Crobis. Wonderland was packed that night, and people were doing very well. I would be taking two dummies on stage, so I expected to bomb more horribly than ever.
I didn’t. It was one of my best sets. Every joke was hitting, my voices were oddly polished, and the transitions seemed effortless. Crobis, Mortimer, and I became a great team; like Abbott and Costello and Pennywise. I was up there for about ten minutes and left with the audience wanting more. It was very stupid. But I haven’t had that much fun on stage in years.
That Thursday, I went to Tyson’s Biergarten to feature for Robert Mac, without my dummies. I felt like something was missing. I soon realized, that I was mourning the loss of Mortimer, and now, Crobis. I felt naked, vulnerable, and empty. The set went well, but it was incredibly boring to perform it alone.
It’s only been a week since then, but looking back, I’ve learned a lot about life and about myself and others during my stint as a ventriloquist. Mainly, that anybody, no matter who you are, or what your talents may be, can do what Jeff Dunham does.
Words by Jamie Benedi, Photos by Claire Edkins