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DVD Review: I'm No Dummy

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When it comes to ventriloquism, my knowledge is pretty hollow. The only bits I could throw off the top of my head are Charlie McCarthy and the Anthony Hopkins thriller Magic. Enter I'm No Dummy, filmmaker Bryan W. Simon's invigorating introduction to the world of venting (as performers dub it). The loving tribute documentary spotlights puppets, performers, vintage TV clips and even a guided tour of the world's only venting museum to trace the roots of this underrated art from vaudeville to contemporary acts.

I'm No Dummy presents ventriloquism as a complicated, controlled, and nuanced exercise. Headlining subjects Jeff Dunham (whose aptly-named The Jeff Dunham Show set Comedy Central records when it premiered), Jay Johnson (whose live show The Two and Only is the only venting act to claim a Tony) & Lynn Trefzger (a rare female venter, mistress of both college and kiddy cruise circuits) open the documentary with the nuts and bolts of the act with and without moving their lips. It becomes apparent that the physical element takes plenty of practice, but can be mastered. The creative challenge lies in crafting characters who are dynamic enough to capture an audience, but not so seductive as to overshadow the performer behind the puppet. It's certainly no issue for these vivid venters. While each claims a shy or impeded childhood, all shine with or without their characters.

Next, I'm No Dummy moves onto old school acts and the historical hurdles of remaining relevant and defining the art. Venters reminisce on how they tackled these challenges by shifting to children's audiences (and how this created a new stigma in the field), and grainy footage illustrates innovative acts pushing physical limitation, meta-textual dialogue, and frequent self-deprecation. Self-referential interactions with TV guests and advertisers predate post-modernism, while the sight of Spaniard Senor Wences blowing smoke rings through a painted hand borders on surreal. I'm No Dummy drives home the entrepreneurial aspect of early artists with peppered facts throughout, the most astonishing being that venting godfather Paul Winchell invented the disposable razor and artificial heart in his off hours!

While I'm No Dummy takes ventriloquism seriously, it's no wooden, talking head affair. It really is a joy to see venters from all over the globe give life to their colorful creations, be they the traditional boys in tuxedos, drunken camels, monkeys, or disembodied heads. The only time the doc plays dummy is when it sidesteps controversial figures like Dunham's "Achmed the Terrorist" puppet. There's also the issue of the uncanny valley that plagues many venting viewers. Admittedly, certain close-ups can be jarring, particularly the rows of dummies in the venting museum. Yet, the venters' passion humanizes their work, and deconstructing puppets does wonders to undo their spookiness. I'm No Dummy isn't interested in throwing the last word on ventriloquism; its only wish is to entertain while it educates, and it does so beautifully. To quote Senor Wences, "'Sok? 'Salright!"

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The DVD keeps the charm coming. A deleted scene features Dunham and Skinny Dugan, an intricate vaudeville-era puppet he calls his Stradivarius, which in its heyday was able to light up its nose, drink and squirt liquids (apparently vaudeville puppets got as drunk as their patrons). Two panels from I'm No Dummy's premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival feature performers Johnson, Trefzger & Tom Ladshaw (a venting historian who brings Thelonious, a Planet of the Apes-inspired puppet) answering questions and improvising with their characters in front of a live audience. Jay mentions his joy at director Simon taking his act seriously, but the real treat is a magic moment at the end of the second panel. Lynn brings Chloe, a toddler character, and befriends a real toddler while signing autographs. It underscores a skilled venter's ability to transform a plush puppet into a real girl.

I'm No Dummy is available on DVD from Salient Media & Vivendi Entertainment. The Jeff Dunham Show is available on DVD May 18 from Comedy Central & Paramount. Dunham also makes his film debut in the upcoming comedy Dinner for Schmucks. Jay Johnson brings "The Two and Only" to the Laguna Playhouse June 11-13 & 18-20. Lynn Trefzger tours the East & Gulf Coasts for the foreseeable future.

Article by Edward Yerke-Robins