Those are the three words that come to mind when I think of Jimmy Nelson.
Jimmy Nelson. Known to those of us in the art as, “The Dean of Ventriloquists”.
Jimmy Nelson passed away last night. He was 90.
Jimmy created the seminal ventriloquism educational record, “Instant Ventriloquism”. It was that record that taught so many this ancient artform. Among them, Jay Johnson, Jeff Dunham, and yours truly.
Of all of the many albums (and later CDs) in my collection, none were played as often nor listened to more attentively than that one.
I still have that record. It hangs on the wall in my office. Meeting Jimmy in person and having him sign that record was one of the stand-out moments in my life. To later reach the point where Jimmy knew me by name? Wow. Just wow.
Jimmy was a fixture at our annual conVENTion. He loved to encourage people in the study of ventriloquism. Being such an icon in our art, it was intimidating for many to approach him. Yet once you gathered the courage, you walked away feeling like you had just made a new friend for life – and you had. Jimmy had that way about him.
Jimmy was a true gentleman, an icon in our industry, and his legacy lives on.
God bless you, Jimmy. Thank you for all that you have given to the world. I am honored to have known you.
Have you ever been late for something important? Really late. So late that the people who were counting on you to be there are calling you in a panic, wondering where you are?
Been there. Done that. It happens.
It doesn’t matter what caused it. Once you’re late, nothing you say can undo the fact that you are late. Yes, you should apologize. Yes, you should say you’re sorry – and mean it.
But, after you’ve said it, the most important thing is to move forward. Put the past in the past and get on with whatever it is that you were supposed to be doing in the most expeditious way possible.
This was brought home to me again this past weekend. On Sunday, I had a big event. Things did not go according to plan. Let me tell you the story.
[I should pause here and point out that every event I work is a big event. It doesn’t matter if it’s 20 people or 2000. To the people who planned it and the people who are there, it is a big event. So I treat it that way. When you hear me say “it was a big event”, don’t be overly impressed. It might be my neighbor’s birthday party. Having said that, this story is about a bigger than average event.]
This particular event took place in a high school auditorium. If you’ve ever been involved in the technical side of theater, you know that there are components that require special skills and knowledge. Some things are safety issues, e.g. raising and lowering curtains, screens and other things in the fly space. Most theaters have rules about who is allowed to operate those mechanisms, for very good reasons. Then there are the lighting and sound consoles. While there are similarities, every installation has its own quirks that require specialized knowledge to properly and safely operate that equipment. Most theaters have these locked down, either by controlling physical access to the equipment, or through passwords, or both.
There were many complicating aspects with this particular event. The vast majority of events I work, it’s just me. I am a one-person roadie handling transport, setup, performance, and teardown. This particular event was complex enough on my end to enlist the help of a 3-person crew.
Because there were so many pieces to this event, and having a crew, I had a 4-page document with a detailed timeline and all of the steps that needed to happen at what time in order to make the show happen. For several weeks leading up to the event, I had exchanged a number of emails with the lead teacher (we’ll call him Bob) in charge of the technical side of the school’s theater. Everything seemed to be in order, ready for the big day.
It was going to be a tight schedule to make it all happen. The show was scheduled to start at 3:00. Doors to the auditorium were to open at 2:30. We couldn’t get into the building until 1:00. That didn’t leave a whole lot of wiggle room.
We arrived as planned, got into the school at 1:00 as planned, and started our setup. By 1:30, I noticed Bob had not yet arrived. No worries, I told myself, I’m sure he’ll be here soon. We had this all covered in our emails. When it got to be 2:00 and he still wasn’t there, I raised the flag with my client. Without Bob, we would not be able to pull off the event.
(If it had come down to it, I would have figured out a way to do some kind of performance. It just wouldn’t have been the one we had planned.)
My client started the phone tree and I went back to my checklist, jumping ahead, doing things a bit out of order, covering as much as I could to be ready to go back and catch up when (if) Bob arrived.
By 2:30, Bob still had not arrived.
It was at this point that I was exceedingly grateful for my crew, who are all friends of mine. They helped keep me centered, focused, and breathing steadily. (Thanks, guys!)
One of the added complexities of this show was that I had a 20-minute pre-show video. It is a fun introductory piece, a show before the show, full of little hints as to the show that is about to happen. It’s not really possible to cut it short. It needs to run in its entirety, because it sets up some things that happen later in the show. In order to start the show on time at 3:00, this video needed to start at 2:40.
Bob arrived at 2:41.
Let me state for the record that Bob is a super nice guy. He was clearly embarrassed that he was late. I hold no grudge against him. How could I? I’ve been there. I’ve been the guy others were counting on who wasn’t where he was supposed to be at the appointed time. I get it. These things happen.
It really doesn’t matter why he was late. Why is not important. I’ll say that again: Why is not important.
What is important is what you do when you get there. Bob nailed it. He jumped into action the minute he arrived.
We got the pre-show video started at approximately 2:47. Only 7 minutes late. Not bad, considering the circumstances.
Thanks to our numerous emails leading up to the event, Bob had the lights preprogrammed and ready to go. He just had to push the right buttons.
It was a bit awkward, but we then did my sound check on top of the pre-show video. Rather than go through the character voices I would typically do in my sound check, I simply spoke to the audience about live theater. This is what happens. Things don’t always go according to plan. You run with it. Usually when you arrive at a show, all of this stuff has already been taken care of. Today you get to see what it looks like behind the scenes. Thank you for your patience. Get ready to have some fun. The show will be starting soon. Excuse me while I go finish getting ready. End of sound check.
How would you have reacted in this situation? Whether you relate more to Bob, or those waiting for him, what’s your typical response when things go wrong?
Too often we find ourselves getting stuck in the “why” of something gone wrong. It is so easy to get lost in the injustice of it all. Who did that? Why did they do that? How could they do that?
To which I say, “Who cares?”
It happened. Move on. Eyes front. We have a show to do. Let’s get this rolling.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage…
As a ventriloquist, I regularly practice in front of a mirror. My practice studio has a large one permanently mounted on the wall.
It is very helpful as I work on the character animation to be able to see how it looks by watching myself in the mirror. Each character needs to act and react, just like in a traditional play.
Sometimes, especially as I am developing a new bit, I will spend hours working on nuanced movement for delivery of a single line of dialog, looking for the precise motion to get the biggest reaction. If I have a joke that I know in my gut is a good joke, but it is not getting the laughter that I think it should, I go back to the mirror and work on the delivery, adjusting timing, phrasing, and gestures.
Dancers often practice in front of a mirror. The dance studio where my kids studied has a wall full of floor-to-ceiling mirrors. It was an essential tool for them to learn movement.
That wall of mirrors in the dance studio also has a curtain that can be drawn across the entire expanse. So does the mirror in my practice studio.
Why? Because at a certain point in the rehearsal process you need to shift from thinking of what is being reflected back on yourself and focus instead on what you are projecting to the audience.
You need to draw the curtain, turn around, and perform for the audience.
Many performers miss this critical transition. Mea culpa. Like many entertainers, I started performing as a way to get attention, to seek approval. The applause was the goal. It signified to me that I was doing something right, that I was valued.
I can tell you the exact moment when it dawned on me that I was spending way too much time looking in the mirror, seeking applause as a way of improving the reflection.
It was a game changer for me in my entertainment career.
More importantly, it was a game changer for the audiences I serve. Now when I walk onto the stage, my focus is entirely on them and what they are receiving rather than on what they are reflecting back.
This same concept applies to leaders. Some leaders are focused on the mirror. They stand looking into the mirror, with their team behind them. They see the team’s purpose as one of reflecting positively on the leader.
Perhaps you’ve worked for a leader like this. Perhaps you are one. It’s annoying.
A mirror can be a useful tool. It helps us develop our technique. The key is to realize that the mirror is not our target audience. We are not here to perform for ourselves. Entertainers need to perform for an audience. Leaders need to lead a team.
Use the mirror. Practice in front of it. Hone your technique. But, know when it is time to draw the curtain, turn around, and focus on the audience.
I have previously written about heroes and role models. One of mine recently passed away. Bob Isaacson. He was 80 years old.
Like many of my friends, I knew Bob from work. Bob was a ventriloquist. He was a staple at the Vent Haven ConVENTion, an annual gathering of ventriloquists from around the world. He was beloved by everyone who knew him.
One of Bob’s joys every summer was to be the Emcee for the Junior Open Mic event at the convention. Occasionally, he would perform as part of his time on stage. But, primarily, he saw his role as supporter of the latest generation of young people learning the art and craft that he loved. He took his role seriously. One aspect he was known to work especially hard at was to pronounce each person’s name correctly as he introduced them. Bob saw this as an important part of showing respect.
Everyone who has met Bob has their own story of why he is so special to them. To me, Bob embodied the term, “statesman”.
Merriam-Webster defines statesman as: a wise, skillful, and respected political leader. If you remove the word, “political” from that definition, you have a perfect description of Bob: wise, skillful, and deeply respected.
Bob was always eager to sit and talk with anyone at any skill level about the art and craft of ventriloquism. He would tell stories from his experience. Then, what made him unique, he would turn the conversation around to you, offering words of encouragement and gentle guidance. Bob had a knack for treating you as the most important thing in the world to him at that moment.
The other word that comes to mind when I think of Bob is, “gentleman”. While I have no knowledge of whether Bob comes from noble birth, he always conducted himself with the spirit of a true gentleman. Again, from Merriam-Webster, “A man whose conduct conforms to a high standard of propriety or correct behavior.” He was truly a gentle man.
Much of Bob’s influence was through his skills on stage. He brought laughter to many. But, as strong as that was, his impact off stage was even greater than on. Bob showed me what it looks like to be a kind, loving human being.
How strong is your competitive spirit? Do you enjoy the thrill of victory? Do you agonize over defeat?
Competition can be good. It pushes us to go farther than we would on our own. It encourages us to improve.
But, it can also cause us to shut down, to give up, to stop trying. We see the competition, realize there is no way we could ever win, and think, “Why bother?”
I have several issues with competition in the traditional sense. The first problem with competition is that it involves rules. These rules are often arbitrary and typically based on what has already been done. They leave little room for true innovation.
The second problem is that competition is relative – relative to others and relative to that set of rules.
Combining these problems, my main issue with competitions is that they do not necessarily measure what is important.
Who won? I’m betting you have no idea. And I’m betting you don’t care. Because the final score was not the point.
You won’t see the Harlem Globetrotters in the NBA playoffs. But, that doesn’t stop them from filling arenas.
Is winning your only measure of success? Being in it to win it is good. It forces us to take it more seriously, to work harder.
However, especially with a competition where the winner is selected by a panel of judges, winning is often subjective. Those judges may not be the ultimate target (consumer) of whatever it is that you are doing.
Who is on your panel of judges? Who are you allowing to determine whether what you are doing is good enough to win the prize?
As a performing artist, the only measure that matters to me is the connection with this audience, right here, right now. Did this audience have fun? Were they entertained? Did they laugh? Are they leaving the event in a better state of mind than when they arrived? Do they have a renewed sense of hope?
That is how I measure the success of what I do.
What is your measure of success? Look to the right judges.
Do you have a vague concept of something rattling around in your brain? You don’t have all the details figured out, but you feel there might be something there. How do you determine whether it is worth pursuing? Where do you start?
Simple. Start here. Right here. Wherever you are right now. With whatever you have on hand at the moment.
You’re probably familiar with the term, “proof of concept”. Or, maybe you prefer the term “working prototype”. These are generally good things. But, when you are doing something really new (to you), there are many unknowns. You might not even be able to fully define what it is you are contemplating. In those cases, these methods ask for too much up front. Too much time, too much money, or both.
Here are two examples.
I had this idea for a new character in my act. It was to be a man who by day is a typical office worker, probably an accountant or some other data-focused desk-sitting cubicle worker. A guy who most people in the office ignore. He comes to work, does his 9-5, then goes home. Nobody in the office has any idea, or interest, in what he does outside of work. This is where it gets fun. What he does in the evenings and on weekends is take to the stage as a female impersonator. And not just some shmucky horrible impersonator, but a full-on diva singing voice, holy cow that’s amazing female impersonator.
I decide that to fully pursue the idea, I needed to have the physical character in hand. I purchased a relatively expensive “dummy”, played around with the character, had his daytime voice and personality down, figured out the basic logistics of how to have him go through the transition to nightclub singer, picked out some songs I thought would work, took voice lessons… And discovered that I do not (yet) have the vocal chops to pull it off the way I wanted. I invested a lot of time and money into the project. I couldn’t do it. In the end, I decided to sell the puppet and put the idea on a shelf. (I still like the idea and hope to be able to do it someday…)
By contrast, I have another character in my act that started out as a sock puppet – literally. His voice popped out one day, and I thought, hmmm, I wonder what I can do with this? His first appearance was at a campout with my youngest daughter. (See photo at the top of this post.) After that campout, I continued to play around with the voice and develop the character over the span of several months, making sure there was something there. Once I was pretty sure it was going to work, I made the final puppet. (Side note: This the only puppet in my act that I have physically constructed myself.) That character has played out extremely well and is still a mainstay of the act 12 years later.
In hindsight, I wish I had taken the “let’s see how this might work” approach with my female impersonator character concept. I didn’t need a puppet to try singing and to develop the voice. I didn’t need to make that monetary investment. Fortunately, I was able to sell the puppet (also called “figure” in the ventriloquist business) and recoup most of that financial outlay. But, that isn’t always the case when we jump into something whole hog before testing a few basic things first.
I’m sure you’ve been there. You’ve bought expensive tools, components, etc., only to later find out that the original concept was horribly flawed. Money down the drain. Notice I only say money down the drain. Time spent exploring new ideas and concepts is always time well spent. Even if you end up going a completely different direction or abandoning the idea, you’ve still learned something.
My preferred approach to wild and crazy ideas is the “mock up”. A mock up is a drastically pared down version of a proof of concept or working prototype. It doesn’t have to be fully functional. It doesn’t have to look like what the final product might look like. It might be a simple sock puppet. All it needs to do is allow you to go further into the concept. Explore. Test.
It is so easy to become bogged down in the process of creating the prototype that we lose sight of the original idea. Or, we give up because there are pieces we can’t figure out how to model. Don’t worry about it. In the early stages, it’s just an idea. Give the idea room to grow and develop. Let it go where it wants to go.
Where do you push the limits? And where do you watch each step, being careful not to offend?
As a comedy ventriloquist, specializing in corporate events, I am constantly challenged to determine where the line is that I should not cross with any given audience. One of the greatest skills of a corporate entertainer is to discern where that line is, and push against it without going too far. Where that line is can vary significantly from one group to the next.
My clients appreciate that my material is clean. Being somewhat of a Boy Scout by nature, what I consider to be edgy is still pretty tame. After all, I’m the guy who once ordered milk to drink at the Playboy Club (a story for another time…) While they appreciate that people don’t get offended, there have been times when the only complaint was that it was maybe too clean. So, lately, I have been pushing that line harder.
Recently, I performed for a large group that I knew would have a much broader definition of “acceptable” than my usual highly sensitive corporate audience. The event included an open bar – always a clue to a group expecting material farther away from a purely G rating – and it was being well utilized.
I came prepared with my most edgy material, specifically from my Gus character. Gus’ material runs the gamut from workplace acceptable office curmudgeon humor to his roots as a rough around the edges country boy at heart. He loves his beer. He’s far from blue humor, but even in the most politically correct versions of his routine, he rarely comes out to play if there are kids in the audience. So, it was a bit disconcerting when I saw a number of families with kids arriving for this particular event.
As the group continued to gather, I decided I’d better check the sensitivity meter with the client. He gave me the green light, telling me my understanding of the group was spot on, and that included the kids.
The show was a great success – including Gus. I received comments and notes from people afterward telling me how much their whole family enjoyed the show.
We can’t always check ahead of time. Sometimes we just need to put it out there and go for it. As a friend of mine likes to say, “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.” I also have friends in the comedy business who say, “If at least one person wasn’t offended, you’re not trying hard enough.”
How does this relate to your work? How hard are you trying to find the line? Are you always holding back out of fear of possibly offending someone? Or are you willing to push harder, to probe, to find the line?
What I am discovering in pushing harder on the line with my comedy material is that the 98% of people who laugh appreciate that someone finally had the nerve to cross the line set in place by the 2% of people who were offended, because those same 2% have been blocking their progress.
I am not suggesting dropping more F-bombs, literally or figuratively. But, there is a case to be made for pushing the self-imposed limits that are holding us back. Be willing to be the one who crosses the line. You might be surprised how many people will cheer you on and follow your lead.
Instead of sending the typical generic Facebook birthday greeting, I decided to list a few of the things I have learned from Jeff along the way. Lots of business and life lessons here for all of us.
Laser focus on your goals – From the very beginning of his career, Jeff knew exactly where he wanted to go. Everything he did was aligned with achieving the level of success that he has now reached. This was no accident.
Character development – Jeff’s characters are very clearly defined and consistent. Watch videos of his earlier performances and you will see the consistency. Yes, the characters have grown. But, they have not changed their core personalities. It is this strong character development that drives Jeff’s material. The photo above is from last year’s ventriloquist convention, where he sustained over 7 laughs per minute for nearly 8 minutes – by reading the cooking instructions on a package of ramen noodles. That is the power of a strong character.
Get help, but you own the result – Sure, Jeff has a team of people who contribute to his material. But, before a joke hits the stage, Jeff makes his own adjustments to the final wording and delivery. Give Jeff a classic joke from an old classic routine, and he will tweak it just that much to make it his own. This hands-on approach to every aspect of Jeff’s stage presence is what preserves his brand. He knows how to ask for help, take the bits he likes, adapt it, twist it, and make it his own. He has a team of people working in the background, but ultimately, it is all Jeff.
Test, test, test – Jeff is always adding new material to the act. He doesn’t just write a joke and that’s the end of it. He tests it. He varies the setup, the punchline, the timing, the vocal delivery, the physical movement that goes along with the delivery. He constantly hones and tweaks the nuances to get the maximum reaction from every line.
Know your fan base – Some criticize Jeff’s material, complaining of the language, the content, blah, blah, blah. Guess what. Those people are not Jeff’s core fan base. He knows exactly who his fans are. He understands in great detail who buys tickets to his shows, who spends gobs of their hard-earned dollars at the concession stands buying T-shirts, stuffed Peanut dolls, and on and on. He knows his fan base, he knows what they want, and he delivers. Man, does he deliver.
I have learned a tremendous amount by watching Jeff over the years – not just what he does on stage, but also what he does off stage to earn the right to be on the stages that he plays.
Thank you Jeff, for all you have taught me. And happy birthday.
It’s time for the annual holiday parties. Is your company hosting one for your employees?
Allow me a moment to play “Captain Obvious” and provide a few tips. None of these are earth shattering, but they are often overlooked
1. Make it count – How often do you get your whole crew together? If you’re like most of my clients, not very often. 1-3 times per year is pretty typical. So, it’s really important to make it count when you do. Splurge a little on your guests and make them feel special.
2. Greet your guests as they arrive – This might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how effective this is and how often it is overlooked. Assign 2-4 people the role of official greeter and position them near the doors. A warm smile and a hand shake will do wonders to get your event off to a great start.
3. Get your leaders to mingle – Let’s face it. We’re all human, even the company leaders. That means we tend to be most comfortable hanging out with our friends. Some company leaders are natural minglers. Others, not so much. Encourage your leaders to step outside their normal circle of colleagues and have them make a point of mingling and talking with people they don’t see on a daily basis.
And one more bonus tip …
4. Book your entertainment early – You knew that was coming. My advice? 6 months minimum, especially for events during major holiday seasons, like December and January.
I hope your event this year is your best one ever.
Last week I entertained at the Huron County Fair in Norwalk, OH, doing 3 shows each day from Monday through Saturday. It was a lot of fun, especially with the fantastic crowds and super weather.
Sharing the grassy area stage with me was Bobby Maverick, a magician and escape artist. For years, Bobby made his living as a street performer, or Busker. We got to talking about how we measure our success as entertainers. Bobby told me how much he loves performing on a street corner, with the only payment being what shows up in your upturned hat when you’re done. He explained that it doesn’t matter how many laughs you get or how loud the applause, the only thing that matters to a street performer is how much money is in that hat.
Many comedians measure their success by laughs per minute during their set. Jeff Dunham, for example, strives for a sustained 6-7 laughs per minute during his 90-minute shows. Do the math. That’s a lot of laughs. It also explains why people are sore for days after going to one of his shows.
My goal is to entertain the audience. Sure, I want the audience to laugh – a lot. But, I’m not going for the level of sustained laughter that Jeff seeks. My act is specifically designed to generate waves of strong laughter with some pleasant rest periods in between. So, a sustained rate of 5-7 laughs per minute over the entire show is not the right metric for me.
Don’t get me wrong. I am always looking for ways to make the peaks stronger and the valleys narrower. But, much like a band that mixes in some slow songs to give the audience a break between the hard driving numbers, I intentionally mix in some segments that are designed to let the audience catch their breath.
During the fair, I realized two metrics that I can use instead. First is repeat audience attendance. I’ve been doing fairs for years and it has always amazed me that with all of the things going on at these events, people would make the choice to come back and see my show numerous times.
It is flattering. It also makes me work harder to do different shows each time.
Second is how many people pull out their cell phones to capture my act on video. I know many entertainers who get all bent out of shape when people record their shows. I find it amazingly flattering. If someone is enjoying what I am doing so much that they have the desire to record it, I’ll take that compliment every time. The reality is that people rarely try to record the whole thing. Something clicks with them and they pull out their phone to capture some small portion of the act. The more this happens, the more I know I am providing a show that they are enjoying.
The repeat attendee metric only works for extended runs like fairs. The cell phone metric, however, is appropriate for pretty much all of my work, including the audiences I serve the most – company and association events. Now my task is to set some targets for these metrics and figure out ways to actually track them.
What are your metrics? What is the best way to gauge the success of your performance?