In the glory days of the Sears Wish Book (back when it was bigger than the phone directory), I would pore over the pages and drool over things that would never be mine. There were two things in particular that I consistently hoped for in the early 80's - a snowmobile and a ventriloquist's dummy. With an average statewide snowfall of 5 inches per year in North Carolina, I can't, in hindsight, justify my desire for a snowmobile. It would've been more rational to have wished for snow. The dummies in the Wish Book were largely celebrity - Laurel and/or Hardy, Howdy Doody, Mortimer Snerd, Charlie McCarthy, etc. I was too young to know about the so-called "art" of throwing one's voice, so I just thought they were puppets. And besides, my friend Adam had a Howdy Doody dummy in elementary school, so it wasn't far-fetched that Santa may bring me one. Well, guess what? He didn't. I have since realized that what evolved into a disdain for ventriloquism might've started out as a case of sour grapes.
My earliest exposure to ventriloquism was through Willie Tyler & Lester, although a few years passed before I realized that Willie Tyler did not play Lamont on Sanford & Son (although you have to admit that you've never seen a photo of Willie Tyler and Lamont Sanford in the same place at the same time). Willie & Lester shilled for Maxwell House coffee, Toyota, Vietnam Veteran's Outreach, and everything in between. The ads were clearly aimed at an adult market, so what I need now is a concise explanation (or apology) from the respective ad agencies. I really think they owe it to me personally. If you ever purchased a car because you were influenced by a wooden toy, then you're unbelievably dumb, and I don't want to know you.
Wayland Flowers & Madame were another hacky ventriloquist act best known from Hollywood Squares. Madame was a creepy doll that eerily resembled Joan Rivers, if Joan Rivers were less synthetic. Their humor leaned toward the risque, and even though I can't recall any particulars of their act, it's safe to assume they were quite the unfunny duo. They had the stereotypical look of a stale Vegas act, and I can picture them in their heyday bringing down the house at Harrah's, complete with Japanese tourists eager to return to the Orient with tales of bright lights and puppetry in the Western world.
Fast forward to present day and, wouldn't you know it, ventriloquism just won't die; in fact, it's on the upswing. My sister-in-law ruffled my feathers recently when she raved over Jeff Dunham. I think she was surprised at just how irritated the mention of a dummy (with a dummy) made me. Dunham's premiere of The Jeff Dunham Show on Comedy Central drew an astonishing 5 million viewers, and he reportedly earned $30 million last year. I know that sounds like pocket change, but it's really not that bad for a ventriloquist. I seriously tried to watch an episode of Dunham's show, and in less than 60 seconds, I was seething with a mixture of rage, shame, and embarrassment. Let it be known that my sister-in-law is dead wrong! There are no laughs to be had on this show. None.
From my perspective, a ventriloquist's dummy is largely a crutch, a prop to hide behind in case the comedy just isn't that good. Funny is funny. It's also subjective, I know, so I certainly wouldn't make a blanket statement to indict all ventriloquists as unfunny. But if the comedy's good enough to get an honest laugh, it's probably good enough to be delivered sans a puppet. Good jokes, and comedians, should stand on their own.