You know, the more I think about ventriloquists, the more confused I am. I’m going to generalise wildly about the nature of the acts in the following, but bear with me.
In theory, a ventriloquist’s act is a double act – there are, ostensibly, two players, and the voice-thrower is invariably the straight man, whilst the dummy provides the laughs.
It’s pretty rare for a ventriloquism act to be a co-operative one like, say, the Two Ronnies, with one of them setting up gags and the other paying them off. Usually, the dummy pretty much hogs the limelight, leaving the human to look dismayed or effectively echo what the dummy’s ‘saying’ (“You went into a pub?”) in order to get to the punchline.
A lot of the time, the dummy appears to wreck the intended flow of the act, stopping a story from being told, or a song from being sung, or whatever. What it usually involves is the ventriloquist starting into some not-going-anywhere stuff about how they’re “really happy to be here tonight ladies and gentlemen”, only for the puppet to throw things off, or for the dummy to be directly asked “And what have you been up to this week, Charlie?” and thus everything goes off the rails, with hilarious consequences. Kind of like the way Eddie Large never let Sid Little sing his song at the end of the show. For twenty-odd years.
But the idea that the puppet is in some way diverting the act from its intended course is, when you look at it, a pretty weird one. Are we supposed to believe that the whole act is ad-libbed ? Or that it hasn’t been in some way rehearsed ? That might be vaguely believable in the case of an act with two humans in it, with independent minds and a tendency to veer from the script, but we know that the puppet isn’t real, and that the whole appearance of it all going horribly awry is a charade, because – er, well, I hope I don’t have to point this out to you, but – the puppet isn’t actually alive.
So what we have is a man or woman onstage doing an act with a prop, pretending that the prop is alive, that it can talk and form opinions and have a life when it’s not mounted on the ventriloquist’s arm, and act in accordance with those independent opinions and experiences to completely divert their double-act from its intended script, apparently in contravention of rehearsals of the same act – rehearsals in which it should have become readily apparent to the ventriloquist that the puppet is more of a liability than a partner.
And this is all the more bizarre when you consider that the puppet doesn’t have any of those faculties at all, and so what we’re basically watching is someone adopting a different voice and manipulating a prop to make it appear there’s a conversation or argument going on. And that this apparent diversion from the intended act is, in fact, the act.
As I say, the more I think about it, the more confused I become. I don’t know if the standard voice-throwing act I’m outlining above is horribly hackneyed and outdated, or in fact some borderline genius form of self-referential meta-comedy.
But I would be interested to know if there are higher diagnosed levels of medical conditions like Multiple Personality Disorder among ventriloquists.