The puppet masters: Nina Conti, Paul Zerdin and David Strassman
By Roger Cox
Ventriloquism is “a hard, unforgiving art,” according to David Strassman, with little new talent showing signs of emerging. So we should feel lucky to have three of its biggest stars at the festival, says Roger Cox
THERE'S been a lot of nonsense written about ventriloquism recently - big, in-depth features in the press with headlines like "The Great Ventriloquist Comeback" and "Read My Lips: Ventriloquism's Back." The starting point for these stories has been the almighty coincidence that there are three - yes, three! - ventriloquists appearing on this year's Fringe. Granted, that's two more than last year, but it hardly constitutes a stampede. By my count there are at least four shows about vegetables in the Fringe programme, but it doesn't necessarily follow that there's a vegetable renaissance going on.
The trio of puppet fondlers accused of spearheading this alleged resurgence are David Strassman, Paul Zerdin and Nina Conti. Fresh new talents breaking into the public consciousness for the first time? Hardly. These three artists have been at the top of their game for years, and what's more, they represent roughly half of all the top flight ventriloquists working in the world today.
The truth is, carving out a successful career as a "vent" act is incredibly tough. As well as all the challenges faced by conventional stand-ups, the aspiring ventriloquist must also master a hugely demanding technical skill and deal with levels of stigma usually reserved for the BNP when trying to get bookings. Edinburgh audiences shouldn't be fooled into thinking they're witnessing the dramatic rebirth of ventriloquism this month, but they should definitely be excited about the fact that three proven masters of this magical art form are all in town at the same time.
Any way you slice it, Strassman, Zerdin and Conti have been around the block several times already. Strassman first came to the Fringe in 1996 when he had a stellar year, winning the now-defunct Critic's Award for Comedy. Writing in the Guardian in the wake of Strassman's initial breakthrough, Sam Taylor wondered "Is ventriloquism the new rock 'n' roll?", thereby scooping the current crop of hacks by almost a decade and a half.
Strassman went on to enjoy a successful West End run at the Apollo, appear on numerous UK TV shows and make several highly successful returns to the Fringe, most recently in 2005.
Paul Zerdin also got his big break in 1996, when he became the first winner of ITV's Big, Big Talent Show, presented by Jonathan Ross. He's been all over television ever since, notably in Tonight at the London Palladium with Bruce Forsyth and as part of Shirley Bassey's 60th Birthday Special in 1997, during which his puppet, Sam, had the cheek to sing one of the diva's own songs to her. The Royal family dig him too - he's been invited to appear at the Royal Variety Performance in 1997, 2002 and 2009.
Nina Conti took up ventriloquism in 2001, started performing with her grisly little simian sidekick Monk in 2002 and won the prestigious BBC New Comedy Award the same year. Since then, she's scooped a mantelpiece full of further gongs (including a coveted Barry award at the Melbourne Comedy Festival) and done her fair share of TV work too. Fringe-wise, she was critically acclaimed in 2007 for her show Complete and Utter Conti, and again in 2008 for her show Evolution. Oh, and in 2006 she was credited by the Evening Standard with having "hilariously revived what had seemed an irredeemable byway of humour". The same "irredeemable byway of humour," that is, that Strassman had supposedly "revived" ten years previously.
To hold these three stalwarts up as evidence of a "comeback" for ventriloquism is evidently a bit bonkers, particularly when they have often been credited with doing the same thing in the past. In fact, as many premier league ventriloquists have died in the last decade as have broken through. Arthur Worsley, of Charlie Brown fame, dubbed "the world's greatest ventriloquist" by Ed Sullivan, passed away in 2001. Terry Hall, creator of everyone's favourite bashful lion, Lenny, died in 2007, and in May this year Ray Alan also died, taking with him such well-loved characters as Tich and Quackers and the permanently sozzled Lord Charles.
And in their place? Well, we've got Conti, sure, but in the UK that's pretty much it. On the other side of the Atlantic things are a little more promising - both Jeff Dunham and Terry Fator now enjoy high profiles - but their breakthroughs are old news: Fator, 45, shot to stardom in 2007 when he won America's Got Talent, while Dunham, famous as the man behind the hugely popular puppet Achmed the Dead Terrorist, stepped up to the big leagues back in 2006, when his first one-hour special for television, Jeff Dunham: Arguing with Myself, drew two million viewers. (True, Dunham's success since then has been phenomenal - as of March 2009 he had sold over four million DVDs and received more than 350 million hits on YouTube, but this didn't happen overnight: he made his TV debut on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson all the way back in 1990.)
"Right now, there are only five of us in the world that really have a profile," says David Strassman. "There's Nina Conti, who I think is the most brilliant of them all. She's the only one I consider a peer. Paul Zerdin, he's pretty good, he's come up and he did the Royal Variety last year and I'm very flattered because he put the robotics in his puppet and had the puppet come alive after he left the stage ten years after I pioneered it on the very same show.
"There's Jeff Dunham, he's the guy with the Achmed puppet, and then there's Terry Fator, who is a ventriloquist, although really he is a singing impressionist. He seems to be living his life in Vegas now, doing a big Vegas show."
Can Conti expand on Strassman's list at all? "One that really stands out is Dan Horn," she says. "God that guy's funny." That'd be 52-year old American Dan Horn, winner of the International Ventriloquist of the Year Award in 1993. Funny he may be, but he's not exactly a spring chicken. Aren't there any young exciting new acts out there to justify all the "ventriloquism comeback" hype we've been hearing?
Conti again: "There's an Indian girl called... Indu... Indu Shree? I can't remember what she's called but she has a TV show in India and her puppet is nigh-on worshipped over there." But the UK doesn't have any up and coming ventriloquists at all then?
"No. I held a workshop not long ago and I taught 15 people everything I knew, but I don't know how many of them will stick with it. They were quite keen." And there's nobody on the circuit who's got her looking over her shoulder? Not a single act? "No, I don't think so, no. I haven't seen any newbies but I'm sure it's only a matter of minutes until one comes along."
According to those at the top of the game, then, there are currently between five and seven premier league ventriloquists worldwide, all of them old hands, and precious little sign of a new generation coming through. So why aren't there more wannabe ventriloquists out there?
"Ventriloquism still has a stigma attached to it," says Paul Zerdin. "I'll be closing at the Comedy Store and somebody will come up to me afterwards and say 'oh, when we heard there was going to be a ventriloquist on we were like 'oh no', but then when we saw you we realised how funny it can be'."
David Strassman, meanwhile, thinks the dearth of young talent has more to do with the fact that ventriloquism is "such a hard, unforgiving art".
"The reason why there's only such a small pool of people doing well is that you're either a good ventriloquist or you're not good at all. And the ones that are not good at all, the ones who don't get the hint... they're... oh... they're really bad. A juggler who drops his balls, you go 'well, God, at least he's trying', but a bad ventriloquist really is a cringe."
The beauty of the Fringe, of course, is that with more than 2,500 shows in the programme this year journalists can find any theme they like and turn it into a story, as long as they're prepared to look hard enough. So, in tomorrow's Festival magazine, don't miss our four-page Vegetable Renaissance Spectacular, as we talk to the makers of Potato Country at Dance Base, No Tomatoes at The Radisson, Cirque de Legume at Gilded Balloon Teviot and H Anthony Hildebrand's stand-up show, What Is A Lettuce. Vegetables are back!
• Strassman: Duality is at the Pleasance Courtyard from 4-30 August; Nina Conti: Talk To The Hand is at the Pleasance Dome from 4-30 August; Paul Zerdin: Sponge Fest Revisited is at Assembly@George Street from 5-15 August