GIGGLE CITY: Dummies take the heat for Damien James
The peculiar art of ventriloquism may seem like a crutch, a prop, a gimmick that can hold you back from the true pursuit of comedy, but it’s actually very freeing. You can get away with murder up there – as long as you blame it on your dummy. Also, the audience may wonder if the puppeteer is nuts and know not to mess with you.
Just ask noted ventriloquistic comedian Damien James, whose work as a special effects artist in feature films – werewolves in Underworld 4, aliens in the upcoming District 9 sequel Elysium – make him eminently qualified to create eerily realistic latex characters who can say anything they want. Just don’t ask Sid. That guy is INSANE.
Q: What is the politically correct term for ventriloquists’ dummies?
A: I think that would have to be Latex Canadians.
Q: If you could be any celebrity, who would it be and why?
A: Yan Can Cook. He always had delicious dishes at his disposal, and could cook really well, which is something I would aspire to. I think anything with spicy tofu would be good.
Q: What’s the worst meal you ever had on the road?
A: It had a meal 16 years ago that turned me into a vegetarian. It was labelled “day old meat” from a gas station convenience store, deep fried chicken or something. It was 50 cents less and gave me horrible food poisoning. I had to perform, too. It was at a community centre and the washroom was right next to the stage. I just said, “I’m going to take a short break,” so everyone could see and hear. When I came back everyone knew I threw up. I never ate meat again.
Q: What’s your best heckler story?
A: I had this one last Christmas where I was doing a show and this guy started making a bunch of racket in the back of the room, so through my puppets, which can get away with a lot a more than a regular comic, I started letting him have it. It turned out that he was having a heart attack. They had to bring in an ambulance and the rest of the show was cancelled. I guess he wasn’t technically a heckler, but that was my worst experience.
Q: Can you really get away with anything when you have a puppet?
A: I remember one show I did about 12 years ago where I ended up being booked in a Hell’s Angels bar. The comic that went up before me just tanked. They hated him. So I’m wondering what to do. I go up with my puppets and started making fun of the bikers, as dirty and insulting as I could make it. I think I picked out the biggest guy and called him gay. They loved it. If I would’ve said those things without the puppet I’d be wearing a pair of cement shoes on the bottom of some river.
Q: That kind of power is frightening, don’t you think?
A: It comes with great responsibility, so I take that seriously.
Q: If you had to pick a favourite character, which one would it be?
A: I have this old man character named Sid. The funny thing is the last time I worked at the Comedy Factory, my original Sid was stolen from backstage. He’s probably a bookend right now. I think I’ll probably have to get The Club for the puppet.
Q: There isn’t a single movie that shows ventriloquist characters as anything but completely crazy. Do think this is an unfair depiction?
A: I don’t. I think it probably helps the art moves forward … I’m a big fan of the psycho ventriloquist genre in movies. It’s interesting for me to look at it from the inside out, or the outside in. I’ve done shows where people have come up to me before the show and they’ll say, “Don’t talk to So-and-So with your puppet because they’re deathly afraid of puppets.” … My puppets do know that they’re puppets, so a lot of the act is making mention of the fact that they’re not real. I had one show where there was someone afraid of puppets and she came up afterward and said she wasn’t afraid of puppets anymore.
Q: What is the most difficult thing to say without moving your lips?
A: “Pass the papaya, please.”