About five years ago, Nina Conti faced a crisis of self-confidence regarding her career as a ventriloquist — despite winning the BBC New Comedy Award at the Edinburgh Festival in 2002 and the Barry Award six years later at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (which she shared in Australia with Kristen Schaal).
“Ten years on, I was worried that the art form has its limitations,” Conti says in the beginning of her charming, poignant and revealing documentary, Her Master’s Voice. How does a ventriloquist overcome that moment of despair in some audience members when they see the puppets come out of the bag?
Fast-foward to 2013 and we know she has had good reasons to set aside this worry — Conti appeared in October on American TVs in both daytime (Ellen) and late-night (Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson), and she’ll co-star later this year in the HBO series, Family Tree.
But Her Master’s Voice, which won the audience award at SXSW in March 2012, and the jury award over the weekend at the Friars Club Comedy Film Festival, takes us back to 2008-2009 and a turning point in Conti’s life and career.
So here we are, then.
Conti wonders what future there is for her as a ventriloquist when her mentor and former lover, the British actor Ken Campbell, dies and leaves her all of his puppets in his will, along with a note asking her to travel to Kentucky for the annual ventriloquism convention and donate his puppets to Vent Haven. All the while, what in any other documentary would serve as confessional monologue or voiceover becomes a running dialogue between Conti and her own puppets.
It’s sweet. A little sad. Silly and playful, too, as she sincerely cracks herself up. At one point, she and Monkey comment on their accommodations, a motel by the side of a freeway. “It’s not truly dire. But it is grim.”
Where is the glamour of show business for ventriloquism?
Perhaps for multi-millionaire Jeff Dunham, who has taken his act global. Or even for Terry Fator, past winner of America’s Got Talent, who parlayed that into a nine-figure-deal headlining in Las Vegas.
Neither Dunham nor Fator appear here, however, and it’s for the better.
Edgar Bergen (and Charlie McCarthy), Shari Lewis (and Lamb Chop), Wille Tyler (and Lester) — American culture is used to seeing at least one famous ventriloquist and his/her puppet companion. But what about all of the other acts who ply their trades in smaller clubs, casinos and private parties across the country or around the world? We do see and hear from some of them: Lynn Trefzeger, Brad Cummings, Dan Horn, David Turner, Kimberly Miller. The other famous act, Jay Johnson (TV’s Soap), discusses the idea that’s as relevant for them as much as it is for something critics harp on Dunham about: the concept of apologizing for what the dummy says, even though the voice still is that of the ventriloquist. Only they never use the word dummy. Sorry about that.
Several of the ventriloquists reveal how they came to the art form early in life, and endured kids bullying them at school for the stigma of “playing with dolls.”
If you’re prejudiced against the art of ventriloquism yourself, then maybe you’ll appreciate it more when you separate the skill from the doll. Just watch performers such as Kevin Johnson and Nacho Estrada demonstrate their expertise without any hands in any puppets. Kevin Johnson’s bifurcating technique — making his lips act out of synch from his tongue movements — transports you into the funniest badly-dubbed martial arts movie, without the kung fu fighting. Estrada’s vocal skills are magical. “I’m not throwing it,” he explains. “It’s misdirection.”
Here’s a second clip.
There’s a plot twist late in the movie that shows just how important Ken Campbell and the puppet Monk are to Conti.
No matter what you take away emotionally from Her Master’s Voice, however, you’ll undoubtedly carry with you a newfound appreciation for what ventriloquists do.
Christopher Guest executive produced Her Master’s Voice — he also cast Conti and Monk in his film, For Your Consideration, as well as the upcoming HBO series, Family Tree (which co-stars Chris O’Dowd, Michael McKean, Ed Begley Jr., Tom Bennett, Fred Willard and Jim Piddock).
Her Master’s Voice also will debut on the telly this month on BBC4.