Otto Peterson: Vulgar Ventriloquist

Not so fast! The true Latin scholar never uses the word “vulgar” vituperatively. Vulgaris means “of the people”. I just needed a word with V. As it happens, your correspondent is agnostic on the desirability of so-called vulgarity in comedy. I wish to God we were at some enlightened point in the future where the concept of “dirty words” didn’t exist. I am neither for nor against them. The only legitimate criterion for measuring comedy’s excellence is how funny it is. The “raunchy” and “clean” partisans each leave me equally cold. So when an act like ventriloquist Otto Peterson (1960-2014) is advertised as dirty, filthy or whatever, I go into my exploration of his work with an armor of skepticism. Dirty, are ya? You’d be better fuckin’ funny.

But I watched some clips on Youtube, and he definitely was — great comedy writer, likable personality. Terrible ventriloquist? Only if you care about lips moving. His lips move even more than Edgar Bergen’s. They move almost as much as that early routine of Albert Brooks. But the character of his dummy “George” is well voiced and well conceived. Because he told nasty nursery rhymes there is some speculation as to whether Andrew Dice Clay borrowed some of the act. I make no accusation. It’s not like it’s a new idea, whichever of them came first.

Peterson was born in Brooklyn, raised in Staten Island, and later lived in New Jersey. He started out as a teenager, busking in the streets, then worked his way up to the college and comedy club circuit. He began to get some notice around the late ’80s, when he played The Morton Downey Jr Show and was one of the comics included in a concert film called Comedy’s Dirtiest Dozen, which also featured Chris Rock, Bill Hicks, Jackie “The Joke Man” Martling” and believe it or not Tim Allen. Both of these credits are from 1988. He also did The Joe Franklin Show (1990), The Howard Stern Show (2002), the documentary The Aristocrats (2005), Penn and Teller’s Bullshit (2007), The Late Show with David Letterman (2007), and the documentary I’m No Dummy (2009).

In 2013, Peterson contracted a case of bacterial meningitis which killed him a year later. Was it possibly the wrath of God? You decide. Yes, you decide, and then keep whatever you decide to yourself.

For more on show biz history, please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous