I’m No Dummy: A Great Doc About Ventriloquism

I originally posted this review in 2010. We re-post today in memory of Jimmy Nelson, who passed away yesterday at the age of 90. 

Of all the odd phenomena anthropologists study – cargo cults, tattoos and body piercing, cannibalism – one of the strangest, thus most deserving of scrutiny, is the fact that some humans like to take inanimate objects and make them talk like people, and other humans like to watch them.

Ventriloquism isn’t just some “show biz” thing, invented (along with teeter boards, plate spinning and musical saws) to add color to variety shows. Or rather, it dates from the time when variety shows were very hairy, monosyllabic and done around campfires. And this art form (for that’s what it is) has persisted through the centuries, down to modern times, when certain American vents have actually made fortunes, or at least very good livings.

It’s a story as old as mankind itself, though most people tend not to look at it that way. In I’m No Dummy: Sometimes You Just Need to Vent, film-maker Bryan W. Simon proves himself part of that mainstream by sticking to the modern leg of the story. And he does it well. His main tack is to shuttle back and forth between the present (the current crop of the country’s most successful ventriloquists) and the recent past (giants of radio and the golden age of TV), enlisting the former bunch to help interpret the significance of the latter. For show biz fans like me who are just a little too young for the salad days of tv variety, there are many savory nuggets here. For instance, while I certainly knew a little about Senor Wences and Paul Winchell from occasional tv appearances in their declining years (or, in the case of the latter, his cartoon voiceover work), it’s a different order of instruction to see their full evolution within the medium. (To be my age is to have thought for some years that Orson Welles was just the fat guy on The Merv Griffin Show—the one who wasn’t Victor Buono). More important was to learn tons about an important figure I knew nothing about (or knew without knowing): Jimmy Nelson, the guy who did the Nestle Quick ads with “Farfel” the dog in the 50s and 60s, a guy whom nearly every contemporary ventriloquist speaks about with reverence for having released an influential “how-to” ventriloquism record. If I can quibble a little, I found the order of introduction problematic. Edgar Bergen, like the vaudeville headliner that he was, comes last. The problem is, as the founder, the godfather, of modern ventriloquism and its most successful exponent, he should come first, to give us a true sense of his important place.

Of folks on the contemporary scene, several are presented but the film focuses on three. Jay Johnson, of course, who proved with his Broadway show The Two and Only that he was very much more than just “Chuck and Bob” from Soap. In addition to being a very funny comedian and a capable actor, he is an extremely skilled technical ventriloquist, shifting back and forth between personalities on a dime, and interestingly (as a lot of these guys are) he is an eloquent educator, as he speaks about the history and demands of his art form. (I had the pleasure and honor of interviewing him several years ago for Time Out New York. ) Even bigger than Johnson these days is Jeff Dunham, who fills huge auditoriums  and is a familiar sight on Comedy Central. As Dunham himself admits, his act puts more stress on the comedy than on the ventriloquism itself. The third person in the trilogy, previously unknown to me, Lynn Trefzger, has an act that’s too cutesy-pie for my taste, although she does have one killer bit where she makes a baby doll cry and fuss while an audience member is holding it. Her most valuable contribution is amazing however – film clips of her performing her act for family from age nine and up, an illuminating window onto a process we’ve often heard about anecdotally but never seen. (By the way she was already good at ventriloquism as a kid).

So what are the holes in the film? The end of the last paragraph points the way to one: the dark side of ventriloquism. Vents are among the hardest working and most talented people in show business –roughly worth as much as two other comedians plus a magician. Put another way, every vent is both Abbott and Costello, and also a master of misdirection such that you tend not to notice that Abbott is making his crazy partner talk. How do they develop this superhuman ability? By spending a lot of time ALONE.

As a once and future nerd myself I have little trouble declaring that all ventriloquists, magicians and jugglers are drawn from the ranks of the alienated. No youngster with a social life spends all their lives shut up in their bedrooms practicing – let alone some weird thing no one else is practicing. (Budding musicians and stand-up comedians get a pass; they get more opportunities to show off their skills so their obsessions don’t seem as pointless.) There are some hints in this direction. Nearly all the vents mention they were shy as kids. Their acts occasionally joke about the fact that ventriloquism is an odd thing to do. But it’s not just odd. Think of Anthony Hopkins in Magic, Cliff Robertson in that Twilight Zone episode. It’s not just odd, it’s dark. Every vent has a Jekyll and Hyde thing going on; what they do uncomfortably skirts mental illness.  (And, still more intriguingly, primitive religion). Maybe I’m a sadist. I want to learn more about the pain driving these people.

Also, wholly missing from the film, is a discussion of the social significance of certain vents. While the African-American act Willie Tyler and Lester (a familiar sight on tv in the 1970s) appear in the film, there is no mention of the fact that the act was in any way ground-breaking. Likewise, the late Wayland Flowers and Madam, a hilarious, openly gay vent act from the same time period, is not mentioned at all. Tellingly, the one chunk of the film that talks about the need for the art form to stay “relevant” is anything but socially progressive. Jeff Dunham trots out a “dead terrorist” character, a skeletal Arab suicide bomber named Achmed. I’m a vaudevillian. For me, comedy and political incorrectness are as inseparable as, well, a vent and his dummy. But there IS a line. I draw it at boorish mobs howling at a foreign name and relishing the symbolic murder of an effigy. I would have liked at least a couple of the many historians and scholars who populate the film, or some of the vents themselves, to have asked the question: Is this okay? Is this therapy? Is this bloodlust? Is this racism? Just letting off steam? Dunham’s the one who’s dragged the conversation from show biz to politics, so I’m not just being a wet blanket for asking.

Lastly, though it’s a cliché, I still would have liked to have seen the film capped off by looking at some genuine up and comers, just starting out. The film attempts to demonstrate ventriloquism’s relevance and vitality by showing Dunham perform for a crowd of 10,000. A more apt demonstration might have been to show some innovative young people in small comedy clubs, the actual future (as opposed to the present) of ventriloquism. But all in all, I’m No Dummy is a wonderful and loving portrait of an ancient, mysterious art form.