The ventriloquist who falls into a state of mental disrepair has been examined many times on the big screen. But the small screen is not immune to the lure of the ventriloquist dummy with a mind of its own. In fact, in some ways, TV shows have managed to do more with the plot device of an increasingly erratic relationship between ventriloquist and dummy or with a dummy on the cusp of pure malevolence on its own terms than the big screen. Here’s a sampling of the most memorable TV episodes involving ventriloquists and their dolls.
For my money, the single best utilization of the plot device that depends upon a certain amount of mental instability in a ventriloquist occurs on the episode titled “Belly Speaker” of the Canadian steampunk-esque cop show “Murdoch Mysteries.” Not only does this episode offer a fantastic examination of the relationship between voice thrower and dummy, it also offers the creator of Sherlock Holmes as a character. The ventriloquist dummy is named Mycroft holds a particularly hilarious disdain for Arthur Conan Doyle. In fact, Mycroft is unquestionably the funniest ventriloquist dummy in the history of this plot device. You should also pay close attention to how the doll is handled when he’s not speaking. Mycroft does some really fascinating non-verbal acting.
If Mycroft is unquestionably the most fascinating ventriloquist dummy in TV history, the Alf’s doll Paul certainly qualifies as one of the creepiest. Let’s face it: all ventriloquist dolls used for this plot device are creepy and it may merely be the fact that you have one puppet–Alf–handling another puppet that makes it feel so off-center. Or, it may be that Alf’s dummy Paul is especially creepy in appearance, speak in a decidedly evil voice and is, ultimately, the conduit through which the furry alien from Melmac can exhibit repressed psychology. That latter piece of the puzzle, by the way, is usually the real purpose for TV shows utilizing the ventriloquist and his dummy.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Of course, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” would do a show about a ventriloquist and his dummy. What is really surprising is how early on in the run they pulled it off. Can’t say a lot here about the plot of this TV episode that engages the concept of a dummy with a mind of its own without spoiling some of the show’s best revelations. What makes Sid the dummy stand out from the pack is his unusually well-formed sexuality. Here is one ventriloquist dummy who attempts to do more than just spout double-entendres for comical effect.
“Soap” remains of the few TV shows to ever feature a ventriloquist with a strange relationship to his dummy as a regular character who pops up every week. Chuck was played by actual ventriloquist Jay Johnson and his character treated his dummy Bob as a sentient being. This belief demanded of others the same treatment. Once Benson left “Soap” to become the star of a much tamer spin-off, Chuck and Bob became the funniest reason to keep watching the sitcom. Benson was one of the few characters who refused to treat Bob as real and the loss of that chemistry hurt “Soap” far more than it helped “Benson.”
Gabbo is coming! When Gabbo arrives amid much hoopla in Springfield, the biggest casualty is Krusty the Klown. Krusty becomes old news when ventriloquist Arthur Crandall and his dummy Gabbo become the biggest new thing on TV. The name Gabbo is very likely an homage to one of the first cinematic examinations the odd relationship between ventriloquists and dummies. “The Great Gabbo” was a 1929 movie in which the titular character is actually the ventriloquist. The end of Gabbo’s rein comes when his character unwitting calls all the kids in Springfield “little SOBs” over the air. What is especially interesting about this example of ventriloquists and their dummies on TV is that there is never any indication that Arthur Crandall believes Gabbo is real or that Gabbo is somehow endowed with life. The only exhibition of any kind of mental disorder by Crandall is unguarded expression of disdain for his audience and since that arrives through Gabbo when Crandall believes he is off the air, it could be read that he does in fact suffer from some sort of very highly controlled dissociative neurosis.