'The Jeff Dunham Show' Proves That America Loves Ventriloquism
Old Forms Of Entertainment Still Score Big On TV
Whatever you think about Dunham’s brand of humor (and clearly there are wildly varying opinions), there's no denying that America loves ventriloquism. Look no further than the Las Vegas Strip, where ventriloquists are as ubiquitous as the illegal immigrants handing out call girl flyers. And they're selling out huge showrooms every night (the ventriloquists, not the immigrants).
Ventriloquists have always had a place on TV, too, from Señor Wences on "The Ed Sullivan Show" to Shari Lewis and Lambchop on "The Shari Lewis Show" to Wayland Flowers and Madame on "Madame's Place" to Terry Fator on season 2 of "America's Got Talent." At its basest level, there is something inherently entertaining about seeing an inanimate object come to life. Nobody remembers a ventriloquist’s jokes, they just remember the vaudevillian spectacle of a man making a puppet talk.
But ventriloquism isn't the only old school profession to find its way onto the small screen. Here are some ancient entertainment forms that have found success on TV.
David Copperfield's CBS Specials
In the '80s, illusionist David Copperfield starred in a series of specials featuring big spectacles, such as imploding a building and walking through the Great Wall of China. It's hard to imagine what the great conjurers from the 1500s or stage magicians of turn-of-the-century London would have made of pretty boy Copperfield and his cheesy stunts, but the audience appeal is roughly the same. People want to be astonished, even if that means watching paid bystanders pretend to be astonished, as in this clip of Copperfield making the Statue of Liberty disappear in his 1983 special.
See also David Blaine's "Street Magic" and Chris Angel's "Mindfreak."
Crossing Over with John Edward
In the 1900s, mentalists drew sell-out crowds by claiming they had the supernatural ability to contact the dead. Though latter-day psychics like Uri Geller were debunked (as Geller’s spoon-bending trick was by Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show"), psychic medium John Edward landed a successful syndicated show in 1999. In "Crossing Over," Edward would talk to audience members and bring them messages from their dead relatives on “the other side.” Psychics have used the "cold reading" technique (throwing a bunch of suggestions out and seeing what sticks) for ages, and editing can certainly help that look more impressive, but regardless of whether you believe Edward is the real deal or not, "Crossing Over" was a hit. I suppose it doesn't matter whether it's a legitimate modern-day séance or an elaborate party trick as long as it's entertaining.
See also "The Mentalist," about a crime-solving psychic, which is currently topping the Nielsen ratings for CBS.
In the 1800s, enterprising hucksters would bring their wagons to town, offering miracle elixirs that could cure almost anything. You'd hear testimonials from sick people in the audience (plants, naturally) who’d made full recoveries after drinking their special vitamin tonic. Infirm men on crutches could walk again! Take away the wagon, add in some religion and TV cameras and you’ve got a televangelist like Robert Tilton, who sold miracle prayer handkerchiefs and spring water on his popular "Success-N-Life" program. Tilton's show was eventually shut down, but similar televangelists are still on the air, peddling snake oil to the masses.
The production values may change and audiences may become more savvy, but these basic forms of entertainment clearly have some long-lasting appeal. Now if only ABC would greenlight that juggling crime-procedural.