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DVD Review: I’m No Dummy

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Ventriloquism has a bad rap, and the very first dummy who appears in I'm No Dummy, a documentary about "venting," is a good indication why. "Peanut" is a hideous white-furred purple alien voiced by Jeff Dunham, one of the featured contemporary vents and apparently a popular stage act. Dunham is said to regularly sell out 10,000-seat arenas, but if there's a good joke in his act I can't find it. Peanut is plain not funny, but even worse is Achmed, a dead terrorist made of skull and bones who speaks in a cartoon-Arab accent and regularly threatens the audience with bursts of "I keel you!"

Thankfully, Dunham is not the only present-day vent featured, and if you think the prospect of a 90-minute documentary about ventriloquism barely ranks higher in entertainment value than a trip to the dentist, you will be pleasantly surprised. Modern-day ventriloquist acts seldom tickle my peculiar funny bone, but they do have interesting stories to tell. Their common backgrounds are intriguing. Every vent interviewed used the dummy to overcome childhood shyness. You expect someone who makes a living telling jokes through a wooden or plastic familiar to have issues with confidence and identity, and the act of finding your voice through an inanimate extension is a colorful and mechanically-inclined variation on what all of us do.

Jay Johnson, who was a regular on the sitcom Soap, is the modern vent who's least like your typical stand-up comic. This is a good thing. Interactions with his dummy Bob are not so much wacky hijinks with The Other but strange meditations on the fragmented self. Body language alone makes him stand out; most ventriloquists engage their charges straight on, but Johnson's interaction with Bob is more dynamic, as he frequently looks away from his dummy and even appears to ignore him, much as we often do our fragmented personas.

A long section on old-school ventriloquists focuses on names you may know (Senor Wences and Edgar Bergen) as well as names that are forgotten outside vent circles, like Jimmy Nelson and Paul Winchell. Winchell was not only an accomplished vent, but an inventor — of, appropriately enough, the first mechanical artificial heart.

The mechanics of the ventriloquist dummy are best seen in one of the DVD's extras titled "Jeff and Skinny," in which Dunham demonstrates a rare dummy built in the 1930s. Skinny Dugan is more far more expressive than your average dummy, with movable eyebrows, nose, ears, upper and lower lips, and rolling eyes. Dunham's act may not make me laugh, but his enthusiasm for his craft is palpable as he takes off Skinny's head to show you the controls underneath –  five typewriter keys that set the dummy in motion. If I didn't own a Carol Channing ventriloquist dummy, one of the best presents I ever received, I may not have been compelled to watch I'm no Dummy, but I'm glad I did.

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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.