Article first published as Book Review: ‘A Complete Guide to Ventriloquism: Principles, Practice and Performance’ by Dr. Naveen Sridhar on Blogcritics, where I’ve logged seven other reviews this month. Movies: 3:10 to Yuma and Jubal, The Pierre Etaix Collection, the Vietnamese nail-salon melodrama Touch, and the Big Star documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me; a new translation of Sakyo Komatsu’s classic (but really boring) 1960s sci-fi novel Virus: The Day of Resurrection; a reissue series of three Swamp Dogg albums from the early 1970s; and a couple of episodes of River Monsters. This list doesn’t include the weekly writing I do over at DCist, and the outlet I’ll start writing for any day now, Spectrum Culture.
The art of ventriloquism can seem Sisyphean in nature. An apprentice works long and hard on vocal technique and hones routines for comedy audiences prone to heckling, all in order to find their creative voice through the plaster jaws of a blank-eyed familiar. The field has been the subject of a pair of documentaries in the past few years. I’m no Dummy looks at the history of the field through vent greats like Paul Winchell and Senor Wences to contemporaries like Jeff Dunham. Dumbstruck is a moving study of struggling unknowns. Both films emphasize the hard work of throwing your voice, but viewers of the latter film, when faced with the vents who didn’t make it, or haven’t yet … well you can’t blame audiences for finding them a bit creepy.
Ventriloquism is loaded with a stigma of uncoolness. When is the last time you saw a hipster ventriloquist? But more than just square, the ventriloquist often comes off as strange. The travel guide Buenos AIires Bizarrohas a whole chapter on the city’s vent scene. Ventriloquist instruction goes even further into the unknown, culminating in recordings like this mysterious instruction to Throw Your Voice.
Despite these hurdles of societal acceptance, throwing your voice is an intriguing creative outlet. Everyone puts on a mask when talking to strangers; the vent simply externalizes this mask. Several years ago, I was stuck on a writing project when I happened on a jawless ventriloquist dummy on eBay. I called him Mmrma, which is how I imagined a jawless dummy would struggle through the sound of the name Mortimer. With my dummy in hand, I found my story, throwing my literary voice through this damaged conduit. But what if I actually wanted to learn how to use it?
I strongly suggest that would-be practitioners of the art consult a new guide to ventriloquism. Dr. Naveen Sridhar earnestly takes the art seriously, even making apologies in an eloquent preface to his book A Complete Guide to Ventriloquism: Principles, Practice and Performance. Sridhar does not make any false promises, and admits that he cannot guarantee that one can learn the art from his book, or any book for that matter. He answers an issue that had never occurred to me: for those worried that such knowledge may “fall into the wrong hands,” Sridhar assures them that “whether it would seduce less serious dilettantes to abuse the art, proliferating it and making it profane, I believe such a fear is unfounded.”
This is a good example of the author’s elegant if slightly awkward language. Sridhar writes with a kind of old-fashioned formality that makes one imagine the book as not a 21st century release but a musty nineteenth-century edition with marbled endpapers and mild foxing. Such is his literary ventriloquism. This formality also lends itself to clarity: He cannot guarantee success, but his instructions, and diagrams, are easy to follow.
The technical aspects of ventriloquism may not appeal to the casual reader, but his tutelage also provides helpful guides to life. In a section on dealing with hecklers, Dr. Sridhar offers his optimistic worldview”All men and women are by nature peaceful and happy.” I don’t know about you, but that makes me want to take up a ventriloquist dummy right there.