On Sunday night, I watched Her Master’s Voice, a documentary by ventriloquist Nina Conti in which she travels to a ventriloquism convention in Kentucky with the dolls of her deceased mentor Ken Campbell. It was beautiful television, as Conti went on a deeply personal journey to deliver the goodbye to Campbell that she seemed to feel she’d failed to do while he was alive. As well as this though, it was a fascinating glimpse into just what ventriloquism is all about.
I’ve always been fascinated by ventriloquism. I could never get my head around the idea of being scared of ventriloquists’ dolls.* Most people I know who suffer from Automatonophobia talk about being frightened by the inanimate doll somehow coming to life, but to me, that was clearly never what it was about. The ventriloquist’s doll isn’t an independent entity, it’s an extension of the puppeteer. It’s a literal externalisation of the ventriloquist’s internal dialog. The comedy in ventriloquism generally comes from the fact that the puppet is saying something taboo-busting, that a person wouldn’t get away with saying. Conti’s most famous puppet, a monkey named Monkey, often insults and abuses his handler, especially when her act seems to be going poorly, as he sides with hecklers. But there’s more to this than the juxtaposition of a cute monkey saying horribly mean things, there’s the fact that in reality, it is Conti saying horribly mean things to herself. A ventriloquist act is basically a person stood on stage talking to themself.
Pretty much all of the ventriloquists Conti spoke to in the documentary mentioned being shy children, or even shy adults, and how ventriloquism helped them to say things that they normally wouldn’t feel able to say. The puppet is an outward embodiment of an aspect of the ventriloquist’s personality. But then what is happening when the ventriloquist has multiple puppets? An old childhood favourite of mine, David Strassman, had two puppets (that I remember), Chuck Wood, a dummy who wanted to be a real boy, and Ted E. Bare, a sweet and kind, well, teddy bear, who hated each other. Wood constantly bullied and mistreated Bare and, Wikipedia reminds me, eventually drove him away. What seemed to me as a child to be some fun comedy with puppets was actually a man acting out the war between various parts of his psyche, on television; a war which the cruel and abusive side of his nature apparaently won. That’s hella dark! And in Her Master’s Voice, Conti experiments with several of Campbell’s ‘bereaved’ dolls, attempting to find their voice, including a doll version of Campbell himself. I mean, that’s basically her trying to channel his ghost through her own mind! And it works too, until one of the dolls, Jack, gets all kinds of nasty towards Conti, while she, and I guess he, is drunk. I mean, maybe ventriloquists dolls are scary, after all. Not because they’re going to come to life and stab us in a low quality horror movie or anything, but because while they can unleash parts of our personality which wouldn’t otherwise see the light of day, that might not always be the best idea in the world. Although, maybe externalising that inner conflict is a healthy thing. Perhaps exposing the conflict and self-hatred within one’s soul is a positive way to deal with it. I don’t really know. It tends to make for great laughs though.
*Except for Podge, a doll that appeared on irish TV program The Den. Here, he was controlled by Zag, who was himself a puppet. But then, when everyone was out of the studio, Podge came to life! A puppet, controlled by a puppet, who later came to life (although in reality he was still a puppet being controlled by a person). Man, kids’ tv in the early 90s dealt with some fucking metaphysical shit, right?