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How do ventriloquists do it?

Dear Cecil:

I have long been mystified by ventriloquists. How do they do it? It seems impossible. Try to say "Sherry Lewis" with your mouth closed.

Joyce K., Seattle

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

It’s “Shari,” snookums, not “Sherry.” We like to be punctilious about our spelling in this column. The trick in any case is not say “Shari Lewis” with your mouth closed, but rather to say it without moving your lips, which are kept open about a quarter inch at all times.

But there’s more to voice-throwing than that. Ventriloquism relies on the fact that the ability of the human ear to locate the source of a sound without visual and other cues is very poor. What the ventriloquist does is supply misleading cues through the use of what we masters of deceit refer to as stagecraft and voice. Stagecraft consists of using gestures, eye movements, “patter,” and so on to direct attention to wherever the voice is supposed to be coming from. Voice is the ability not only to talk without moving your lips but also to alter the pitch and cadence of your voice so as to create a second “personality,” which you can then bestow on the object of your choice.

The talking-without-moving-your-lips part is easier than you might think. For starters, you learn to grin like an idiot at all times. This serves the dual purpose of baffling your audience and stretching your lower jaw muscles, making it easier to keep them motionless. There are only six tough sounds–the “labials,” or lip sounds, b, f, m, p, v, and w. Essentially what you do is substitute some vaguely similar sound, talk fast, and let people hear what they want to hear. For w, for instance, we substitute oo. “Where” becomes “oo-air,” “twenty” becomes “too-en-tee,” and so on. Eventually you learn to run the sounds together to more or less eliminate the extra syllable. For f we substitute a th as in think, making the sound barely audible and putting most of the emphasis on the rest of the word. Thus the sentence “Why is Willie feeling funny?” becomes “Oo-eye is Oo-illie theeling thunny?” You may think this sounds retarded, but we must have a positive attitude about this. There are other substitutions for other labials.

Having grasped the rudiments, we may then move on to the fine points, such as projecting your voice while drinking water. To do this you go out to some sleazy singles bar and get a beer stein that looks bulky but actually contains amazingly little liquid (no doubt you’ve come across these before). You raise the glass to your lips while concluding your spiel and pour the liquid into your mouth, making no effort to swallow. Since sound production takes place in the back and upper portions of the mouth, the liquid sloshing around your lower molars will not interfere. You time your rap in such a way that you finish at the same time you get done “drinking,” whereupon you take your bow, swallow, and exit stage left. A child could do it.

As a final touch, the ventriloquist must memorize a vast quantity of horrible jokes, which are to be sprinkled strategically throughout the act. For instance:

A: My great grandfather was killed 75 years ago in a parachute jump.

B: They didn’t have parachutes 75 years ago.

A: I know. That’s how he got killed.

The typical audience will be so appalled by this alleged witticism that any minor defects in your technique will pass unnoticed in the hail of tomatoes, beer bottles, and dead cats that will surely follow. Take it from an old trouper, kids.

Cecil Adams

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