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What Could Be More Surreal Than a Film About a Talking Puppet?

Documentary that started out as a whimsical idea became a delightful deconstruction of an obscure art form

On a long bike ride one day, I came up with the idea for a film about ventriloquism. You have to understand that I am a surrealist at heart, and my first two pictures have strong elements of surrealism in them. What could be more surreal than a talking puppet, right?

After doing a little research, I found out there hadn’t been any feature-length treatments of this perceived novelty act. I contacted a “vent” organization, which I found on the Internet, and quickly learned that no one wanted to speak with me.

This was a subject that had very little exposure beyond the creepy and bizarre, and they were tired of being treated like a bunch of schizophrenics. Eventually, I convinced them that’s not what I thought at all. The result was my film "I’m No Dummy."

But it wasn’t until these unique and much-maligned performers and their puppet partners opened up to me on camera, in interviews as well as through their live performances, that I realized their uncanny ability to make me feel like an 8-year-old boy again. I went back joyfully to a time when the responsibilities of adulthood were so far, far away.

They gave me a rare glimpse into the comic delights and complex creative inventiveness involved in how these vents do what they do. A peek behind their curtain.

WhJay Johnson and
 Bobat started out as a whimsical thought on a long bike ride ended up being a delightful deconstruction of an obscure art form.

And the puppets cut me no slack, with Jeff Dunham’s grumpy old man Walter calling me “an idiot” and refusing to answer some questions right in the middle of his interview. Jay Johnson’s wise-ass Bob asked me, “Are you actually reading that?” when I referred to my notes. And before I could even start her interview, Lynn Trefzger’s Emily inquired if i was I available. “Hell no, my wife’s sitting right over there,” I responded.

Being berated had never been more fun.

For me the best documentaries inform and entertain. I don’t think I laughed as much making a film as I did on this one.

Each great vent has a style, an approach and a comedy all his or her own.Lynn Trefzger 

Jeff Dunham tapped into a post-9/11 zeitgeist with his hysterical puppet Achmed the Dead Terrorist and Muppet-on-crack partner Peanut.

Jay Johnson wows audiences with his subtly intellectual rapid-fire routines with partner Bob and an overbearing monkey appropriately named Darwin.

Lynn Trefzger shares the angst of every modern-day parent with her popular puppet, 3-year-old Chloe.

These and many other vents have taken their art, which is hundreds if not thousands of years old, and turned it on its head.

Sometimes it takes a good ass-kicking by an inanimate object and a trip back to your youth to realize that what you’re observing is nothing short of brilliance and that ventriloquism has a past and a present and will have a future.

Bryan W. Simon is an award-winning and critically acclaimed director, writer and producer. He most recently directed the feature-length documentary film "I'm No Dummy," the first feature-length documentary on ventriloquism. His previous feature, "Along for the Ride," won Best of Fest - First Feature at the Saguaro Film Festival International. Simon founded and was artistic director of the Chicago-area Stage Two Theater Company from 1984 to 1993. He's currently working on his next project, crime thriller "Crooked Creek."