Answering Yourself: A Guide to Ventriloquism

Peyton Duplechien • 05 Sep 2009 • 4 min read

Ventriloquism is a form of stagecraft in which an individual, known as a ventriloquist, throws their voice to trick the audience into thinking the voice is coming from a different source, such as a puppet. As with many types of illusions, ventriloquism is a popular form of public entertainment. There are two main types of ventriloquism, near ventriloquism and distant ventriloquism. Near ventriloquism is the modern form used today in which the ventriloquist makes their voice appear as it is coming from a nearby object, usually a dummy. Distant ventriloquism occurs when the ventriloquist makes his or her voice originate from an unseen location, such as a distant object. So how do these ventriloquists do it? They practice speaking without moving their mouths or lips. When your eyes see the puppet or dummy moving its mouth, your brain fools you into thinking that the sound is coming from the doll.
Traditionally, ventriloquism was performed as a religious practice. The Greeks believed that the noises that were formed by the stomach were voices of the dead and that the spirits resided inside the ventriloquist. When the ventriloquist performed, the people believed he was speaking to the dead. They also thought ventriloquism was a way to foretell the future. The comedic style that is commonly seen today in nightclubs began in the 19th century, during the time of vaudeville. These vaudeville acts focused on fooling the audience with the ventriloquist skill of changing and throwing voices. Jules Vernon was a famous American vaudeville ventriloquist who practiced with multiple figures. Fred Russell was an Englishman who first began using one single figure with his puppet. During the 20th century, ventriloquism became increasingly popular. This was partly due to Edgar Bergen who popularized comedic values. With his favorite dummy, Charlie McCarthy, Bergen hosted his own radio show from 1937 to 1956 and maintained a spot as the number one night program during this period. Ventriloquism’s popularity remains today as the public still enjoys the illusion of voice.
Modern ventriloquists utilize a wide range of dummies and puppets in their presentations to entertain the audience. Jeff Dunham is a popular ventriloquist of today which has led him to several successes, including his appearances on “Funniest Male Stand-Up Comic” and Comedy Central’s “Standup Showdown”. Although ventriloquism diminished slightly in the late 20th century due to the popularity of television and film, it has modernly emerged as a fun and enlightening performing art for young and old alike. Learning how to become a successful ventriloquist takes time and determination. The budding ventriloquist must first learn to talk without moving his or her mouth and lips. Begin by closing your mouth and relaxing your jaw. Next, slightly part your lips and rest your bottom lip against your teeth and keep it steady. Practice saying the vowels: a e I o and you. With more practice, you can move on to say words, and then sentences.