Wednesday, April 24, 2013

How To Be... a Ventriloquist

I've been involved in puppetry at various times in my life. It's actually something I have really enjoyed. Now, you don't need to be a ventriloquist to do puppets. At all. You don't even have to talk. When I was in high school doing puppets at church, we only ever used taped skits. Yeah, on, like, cassette tapes. That's just how we did it. Which was fine except for that one time when the cassette player ate the tape during a performance. Mostly, we worked on hand movements, because the hand movements are actually difficult if you want your puppet to look natural. But that's beside the point...

Anyway, working from a recording worked fine. Most of the time. Until that time we were doing this day camp thing out at an actual campgrounds and could only take the castoff puppets and no recorded shows. It was my idea, but the guy in charge of the puppets wasn't going and wouldn't let us take all the proper equipment, so I decided I was just gonna improvise. And I did.

I had this old puppet I called Mr. Purple, because, well, he was purple. Bald and purple with a red nose. I made up this voice for him that I can no longer remember, and I used to get behind a table turned on its side and talk to the kids. It wasn't so much performing as just interacting with them and being crazy and silly. They really loved Mr. Purple. Things were fine like that for a few days until, one day, when it was time to go, one or two of the kids wanted to say goodbye to Mr. Purple, but there was no place for me to hide. This kind of thing had never happened in one of our regular puppet shows, and I didn't know what to do. I mean, the rule, the BIG rule, was to NEVER let any of the kids see you with a puppet on your arm or talking for the puppet. NEVER break the illusion.

But the kids were really heartbroken over not getting to say goodbye to Purple. I caved and brought him out on my arm right there in front of them and tried to not move my lips as much as possible. After that, for a while, I practiced not moving my lips, but some of my... antics... with Purple required full vocalizations, and I couldn't do those without opening my mouth all the way. What I found out, though, is that the kids didn't care. They just didn't. To them, I was the one attached to Purple, not the other way around. They loved him, not me, and they had to be able to give him hugs when we needed to leave everyday. It was really sweet.

I learned a lot that summer about a child's ability to create reality.

And that's your free story for the day, because it doesn't have anything to do with ventriloquism other than my failed attempt at it.

I find ventriloquism fascinating, and I love to watch a good ventriloquist.

But none of this is how ventriloquism started. No, it's not. Let me just say:
Have you ever wanted to start your own religion?

See, the Greeks believed that the spirits of the dead spoke to people through their stomachs; that's what causes stomach noises, you know, the dead trying to reach the living. Some people could interpret these noises, and the voices of the dead would speak through the living without the lips moving. These people were called... are you ready for this? No, really, are you? It's awesome. Seriously.
They were called gastromancers. And, yes, the practice was called gastromancy.
It was also through gastromancers that the gods spoke to people in the temples and such.

And that's how you can use ventriloquism to start your own religion. Just tell people it's "god in your stomach." Works every time.

Through much of history, then, ventriloquism has been used as a religious or spiritual practice. A notable exception to this was during the Middle Ages in Europe, when it was viewed as a form of witchcraft. You definitely didn't want your belly speaking up in those days or you'd be accused of being possessed by a demon or the Devil himself.

Eventually, though, in the late 19th century, it became a stage act, which brings us up to modern ventriloquists.

So the main thing here is just to practice (a lot) with keeping your mouth still while you talk. BUT you don't have to keep your lips completely still, because the real art of ventriloquism is the art of illusion, just like any stage magician. You make the audience look where you want them to, make them believe that you believe you're talking to some other object or that the sound is coming from somewhere else, and they will believe it, too. That was really the trick I had with Mr. Purple. I treated him as if he was real, not like he was a puppet, and, so, he was real to those kids.


  1. That's an interesting story about Mr Purple. And what a strange fascinating story about the origin of ventriloquism! The things people will believe!

  2. Do you still have Mr. Purple?
    Not moving your lips is tough to do. I couldn't do it either.

  3. Scary about that "god in your stomach" idea! As a first grade teacher, I could make my hand be a puppet without anything covering it and they'd still like it! Like you said, it's all in believing you are talking to something that has you attached to it!

  4. That's a great story about Mr. Purple and kids creating their own reality. On a (slightly?) related note, if there's one thing I wish we could have, it's puppet versions of ourselves.

    Also, as a guy who specializes in fart jokes, gastromancer does not sound like it has to do with voices...

  5. I was always fascinated by ventriloquists. Thanks for the interesting facts.

  6. God in your stomach! Beautiful. And here's to Mr. Purple. Of course, he's real.

  7. I knew today would be about ventriloquism.

    Very cool story about how it started.

  8. I've always enjoyed good ventriloquists, but I've never wanted to follow one as my spiritual leader. A good routine and ability to ad lib are necessities for pulling off ventriloquism well. It can be very awkward to politely sit through a vent act with really bad material.

    Great occupation for the letter V.

    An A to Z Co-Host
    Tossing It Out

  9. Ventriloquism freaks me out. Seriously freaks me out.

  10. I was a total Henson freak growing up. I know the Muppet crew aren't ventriloquists but I loved them. Henson talked a lot about how kids (and adults, too) would relate to Kermit in ways they would never relate to Jim.

  11. When I was in Vegas, I had a chance to see Fatore at the Mirage. He's a well known ventriloquist. Instead, I got tickets to Daniel Tosh. He disappointed me.

  12. Dee: No kidding. I could tell you stories.

    Alex: No, unfortunately; he wasn't actually my puppet, and I had to give him back when I quit the puppet team (because I was leaving for college).

    Donna: Yeah, kids are great that way.

    ABftS: But it does! Those fart sounds are angry dead guys in your gut!
    I have a puppet version of my on The Muppets. I'll let you guess which one.

    JKIR,F!: Sure!

    C.Lee: Unfortunately, I'm sure Mr. Purple passed away long ago.

    M.J.: How did you know that? Have you seen my notes? What's "W" going to be?

    Lee: I'm pretty good at puppet improv.

    S.L.: What about a juggling ventriloquist that makes all the balls scream as they fly through the air?

    TAS: I've always been more of an Oz fan.
    Did you know that a lot of Henson's characters came from voices he used around his home? Like, the Swedish Chef was the voice he used while serving dinner every night.

    Michael: I haven't kept up with stage acts since I was in my 20s, so I don't know whom either of those are.

  13. I love Jeff, he's hilarious. Much respect to all ventriloquists out there.

  14. This is so interesting! Thanks for all the new facts.

  15. I've heard people say, god listen to my stomach, but...

    I had a string puppet once, I got quite good with it, but didn't try ventriloquism although I had tried to do it before without much success.


  16. Sheena: Yeah, he is.

    Gina: You're welcome.

    Jo: Yeah, maybe they should be saying that some other way, like, "Listen to my stomach god."

  17. oOOOH, where was Mr Purple back when we were inventing Mr Suitcase?

    I may need to revisit that area of my horror world.

    BUT FIRST: VENTRILOQUISM 101, by a guy who learned how to do a little bit of this.

    First off:

    Plan your act. Try to avoid words that require you to move your mouth. The letters that require you to move your lips to say them properly are

    B, F, M, P, and V. (W seems like it would be but only if you say the name of the letter rather than the letter itself)

    There's not actually that many. To see how your lips move, say the alphabet without moving your lips and you'll realize the hard letters.

    But you can't say "Mr Purple" without M and P, right?


    So here's what you do: say a similar letter but slower and quieter.

    B is like D, only instead of making your tongue all sharp and pointy and quick, flatten it out against the roof of your mouth and stretch it out. "D" is "staccato"; B is flat and sustained.

    M is N, with the same trick.

    And P is T.

    F and V are harder: you have to expel air between your teeth really quick to simulate the sound the air makes when it goes between your teeth and gum, which is how you usually say those letters.

    So to say "Mr Purple," you would actually pronounce it like

    "Nister Turtle," but you'd stretch out the N and the D so they seem a little more like M and P. If you practice, it'll sound better.

    Now get out there and convince your friends the gods are living in your stomach!

  18. Aren't kids lucky? As you said,the kids didn't care about the technical details. They just wanted to kick start their imaginations, have fun, and interact with Mr. Purple. The trick for adults is keeping the imagination of a child.
    Great post. Enjoyed it a lot.

  19. Awesome post! I actually tried this a few times when I was younger, but just couldn't do it.

    #atozchallenge, Kristen's blog:

  20. Oh my, gastromancer IS awesome!! Ha! Throwing my voice would be fun. Also, I got to see Jeff Dunham live, and it was so worth it!

    Shannon at The Warrior Muse

  21. I went through a stage, when I was a kid, when I wanted to be a ventriloquist. I practiced....a lot (between practicing playing the spoons and juggling...I was a strange kid...), but never got any good at it.

    Still, though, it was fun to try to throw my voice :)

  22. Briane: I've always wished that I had been able to keep Mr. Purple, but it was not to be. Even more, I wish I remembered how I did his voice.

    nancyhdoyle: I'm a big believer in Imagination.

    Kristen: It takes a lot of work.

    Shannon: I've seen David Copperfield, but I've never seen a live ventriloquist.

    Mark: You wanted to be a Vaudeville act, I see.

  23. Ever figure out how they can drink a glass of water and still have the dummy talk?

  24. Rusty: I do not know that. I can't think of any way to make that work. It hurts my throat to think about it.