'America’s Got Talent' fans got to see some familiar faces during the live results show Wednesday night, including Terry Fator, Mat Franco, and Paul Zerdin.
Comedy Central will air Jeff Dunham’s latest special Unhinged in Hollywood on Sunday night, which is excuse enough for me to review the new, two-disc, super-sized DVD release of I’m No Dummy, one of the best documentaries ever made about ventriloquism, featuring Dunham, Jay Johnson, Terry Fator, and other significant practitioners of this wonderful art. Dummy works as both a history of ventriloquism as told by its practitioners and as full-scale profiles of Dunham, Johnson, and Lynn Trefzger. If you rummage around on YouTube, can find clips of classic performers like Edgar Bergan, Senor Wences, Jimmy Nelson, Paul Winchell, and vents more obscure, but Dummy does a good job of gathering many of the best bits from 20th-century ventriloquism. What the documentary captures most incisively is the feeling every practitioner of ventriloquism seems to possess in varying degrees: That what they’re doing is a scorned, ignored, or even disliked form of entertainment.
Last night, Paul Zerdin became the second ventriloquist ever to win the top prize of $1 million on America’s Got Talent. Yay: It’s a mini-renaissance in ventriloquism! And like most such high-profile bursts into the mainstream for this ancient art, the renaissance will probably last another 48 hours and disappear again. I was rooting for Zerdin despite the fact that, contra what judge Howard Stern said on Tuesday, the British ventriloquist has not “brought ventriloquism to new heights.” (Stern did, however, correctly predict Zerdin’s win.) What Zerdin has done is bring some common contemporary uses of ventriloquism to a public that remains mostly indifferent to the genre until they see what it’s capable of — how entertaining it can be. So I rooted for Zerdin as an ambassador of ventriloquism, in the hope he’ll spark some interest in better, homegrown vents, such as Dan Horn, Jay Johnson, and Dunham. Also, I was super-glad Zerdin defeated the mediocre, mawkish, sympathy-manipulator stand-up comic Drew Lynch in the final round. Jeff Dunham’s Unhinged in Hollywood special was taped at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood and features guest stars Brad Paisley and Chuck Liddell — a country star and an MMA star fit right in with the Middle American audience with whom Dunham is a success.
Now in its semi-final rounds, America’s Got Talent featured ventriloquist Paul Zerdin again last night, and he continues to sail through the judging rounds with raves from the panel. On Monday night, he applied a mechanical device to Howie Mandel’s jaw, enabling Zerdin to control the artificial mouth and speak for Mandel. Indeed, given the slew of mediocre singers and novelty acts (like The Professional Regurgitator and the magician-with-a-costume Piff The Magic Dragon) that dominate this season, I’d agree that I’d rather see a ventriloquist walk off with the top prize. But let me point out that the mouth mask Zerdin deployed is a standard ventriloquist gimmick, used to better effect by (among many others) Nina Conte, Todd Oliver, and Ronn Lucas, who claims he invented the device.