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Tips to Become a Ventriloquist

Arun Prabhu
When is first saw the act, I had no idea how they do what they do on stage. Ventriloquism is one of the funniest and the toughest things a comedian can do. Think you have what it takes to become one? Learn the 'secrets' of their art.
It is slower than slap-stick, making punch-lines all the more important. Unlike regular stand-up comedy, ventriloquism has, over the ages, earned a bad name of being repetitive and old. The tougher thing about ventriloquism is not the throwing your voice part, but it's about coming up with the best set of jokes. People might laugh when a stand-up comically insults the guy in the front row, but the same cannot be said about the little puppet nagging the same guy in the next act. Very few people like a puppet making fun of them.

What Makes a Good Ventriloquist

A lot of things are at work to making a ventriloquism act successful.
➦ You need to think fast and change dialogs in case the audience isn't really laughing.
➦ You need to figuratively tear yourself up in two, totally unrelated parts - one for you and one for the puppet. Because you need to be able to have (and enjoy) a conversation 'with yourself'. Sounds crazy, but you need a little crazy to make people laugh.
➦ Your jokes need to be original above anything else. If you're a funny person, it will translate into your dialog-writing and consequently, to your act. So don't be afraid to dish out anything you feel is funny.
➦ Another problem with ventriloquism is the staging. Your jokes are meant to be (and have to be) intentional. Even if you make it look unintentional, the audience will see through you, making you look less funny. That said, I'll just add that if you thought being clumsy in stand-up was hard, try doing it with your hand stuck up a chicken's butt.
➦ Like all comedy, you need to develop a resistance to heavy criticism, even when you're on stage. People won't think twice to tell you that you're bad, even if it's in the middle of a performance.
➦ You will also need a good hand puppet. Start from the basics until you get it right. It is important for you to make the puppet yourself. If you just can't, ask someone who can listen to your idea and interpret them properly.

Speaking With Your Mouth Closed

Enough with the tough talk. We now move on to the real business of ventriloquism.
Before you even touch a puppet, you need to be able to speak without moving your lips. Ever seen Jeff Dunham in action?
The guy is perfect! He never moves his lips and even when he did, you'd be so engrossed with the puppet that you won't even realize. Now that, is good ventriloquism! Here's a simple set of things to do that will help you do the same (the speaking part, that is).

The Principle

Any ventriloquists biggest weapon? The audience themselves. The human brain is weird and amazing at the same time. When we are in conversation or are hearing someone talking, we can assume the right things at the wrong time and the wrong things at the right time.
Even if what someone said is not what they meant, you'll always try to misunderstand what they said and get mad or sad. The same goes for plain speech. We have, somewhere deep in our brains, the latest version of 'speech auto-correct' embedded with our perception.
It is similar to the auto-correct of Microsoft Word when you type- if you write 'teh', auto-correct will set it right to 'the'. The same principle applies to the game of Chinese whispers, the last person in the circle will rarely end up with what the first person said.
Now that you know, here's what you need to do to fool the human ears: a set of exercises of pronunciations that you need to perfect for becoming a good ventriloquist.

Vowel Recital

This the easier part; just relax your jaw, just let the lower jaw drop and hand as loosely as possible to release the strain on the muscles. Now without straining your jaw too much, say the letters 'A', 'E', 'I', 'O', 'U' one after the other.
Say them as slow as you can. Keep your voice at the regular pitch you talk in, and try to stress on the pronunciations a little. If you have noticed by now, you don't really need to move your lips to say any of the vowels. Now say the same letters, this time deliberately stop moving your lips all together.
You will now try to stress the pronunciations using your throat rather than your lips and jaws. Once you figure this, pat yourself on the back, because you're already 20% of a ventriloquist! Practice this daily for 10 minutes whenever you get some free time.

Consonant Recital

Now relax your jaw even further and say the rest of the alphabets the same way you did with the vowels. You will now come across those letters that you just cannot pronounce without closing your mouth or pouting. Here are the toughest letters and the solutions to help you say them without moving your lips.
Your most difficult letters will be "B, F, M, P, Q, V and W". The trick is to 'mis-pronounce' these letters intentionally, in such a way that the audience will confuse them for the original letter.
I. The letter 'B' is quite easy to say with your mouth closed. All you need to do is replace 'B' by 'geh' in the word. Try saying 'banana', replacing the b with 'geh', making it 'geh-nana'. Your throat makes up for the 'bop' sound that you get when saying the letter 'B'.
II. The letter 'F' can be said in two ways - clicking your tongue against the part of your mouth behind your upper teeth to make a 'tha' sound or going into a deep voice and saying 'huhhh' or 'hahhh', depending on the vowel it precedes. Try saying 'fantastic' either way. Say it as 'tha-ntastic' or 'hahhh-ntastic'. Use whichever suits your voice.
III. The letter 'M', needs a little bit of bending around to get it right. Substitute 'M' with 'nuh' or 'neh'. You're basically replacing 'M' with an overly pronounced 'N' so you don't need to close your lips like you do when you say 'M'. Try saying 'mustard' as 'nuh-stard'.
IV. The letter 'P' is the one I think to be the toughest and needs a lot of practice. Say the word 'cup' and notice how the middle part of your tongue clicks with the roof of your mouth when you say the letter 'C' in 'cup'.
That's exactly what we're going to do with 'P'. Use the same sound to replace the letter 'P' in 'Pull'. It will be like 'ch-ull'. Also notice how you need to stop just before you say the word with your lips still.
V. The letter 'Q' is another tricky little imp. Replace the 'Q' with the 'coo' from 'cool'. You will need to stretch the part a little too. Say 'equality' as 'e-coo-aww-lity'.
Yes, your accent can take 'coo-ite' a lot of beating with these new pronunciations, just keep at it and you'll get it right. Try saying 'quilt' as 'coo-way-ilt' with the 'way' faster than the 'coo'.
VII. The letter 'W' is the easiest. Just replace 'W' by 'ooooh' and you're done. Try saying 'what' as 'oooohh-at'. The key lies in timing the length of the replacement.
VI. The letter 'V' has two ways to get slurred out. One would be to replace it with a drunk accent, a really heavy-feeling tongue and a callous manner. The basic rule is to replace the 'V' with a 'whoa' that sounds more like 'huu-ooohh' and depends on the vowel next to it.

Replacing Words

Apart from all that, another simple tactic to use is to not use the words that have the above tough letters in them. The situation arises especially when you have two or more of the tough letters in one word, like 'vocabulary' and 'women' can be replaced by 'words' and 'ladies'.

Extra Tips

Here's some other things you need to know about the art of ventriloquism.

➦ All men have an Adam's apple. Just face that fact and wear the right kind of clothes to hide it. The best option would be to get used to the heat and wear a turtle-neck.
Other options would be to wear a scarf, grow your hair, use make-up, turn your collar up and sit sideways. But all these options are more or less rejected for reasons too obvious to state.
➦ Imagine ventriloquism as talking with a voice that comes from the belly. This will help you ease the load on the front of your mouth and the lips and help you control your throat and chest voice more.
➦ In all principles, singing is the same as talking, only with long and accentuated words. So it really is no big deal to make your puppet sing. It just takes a little extra practice.
➦ Elaborate your routine. Simple one-liners with you asking the question and the puppet answering with the punchline gets really old, really fast. That's the truth of comedy in general, you always need to be original and innovate.
➦ To the audience, it would help if you make them believe the puppet as more of a human being than a puppet. This is the harder part and you really need to work on controlling the puppet to the fullest. It will take time and patience.
Like I said, being a ventriloquist is very tough. You need to put in hours of practice and even if you do, you will be criticized for old, unoriginal jokes or a repetitive act. Climbing the ladder up to comic success is not for the faint of heart. So steel your resolve, put your hand up that puppet's butt and make people laugh!