From the streets of New York to a remote campfire deep in the Northern Territory, ventriloquist David Strassman has faced some tough crowds. But even though he’s now a world-famous comedian, his toughest critic is still himself.
Writer: Ben Cameron
Ventriloquist visionary David Strassman should have been a stockbroker. After shelling out $90 for a mail-order dummy more than 40 years ago, the canny venture continues to pay handsome returns.
He tells Bendigo Magazine his most famous creation, Chuck Wood, was no spark of genius but merely “just a damn good return on my investment”. Arguably the industry’s most recognisable and revered dummy handler, Strassman pays little attention to his contemporaries.
“I was never one to follow other ventriloquists. In fact, I haven’t really watched many ventriloquists and their routines,” he says. “Except for Nina Conti; I love her work. Frankly, ventriloquists bore me and I really consider myself a comedian who plays with dolls.”
So when and where was the seed planted? The son of a psychiatrist, Strassman says his father’s DNA, or influence, had no bearing on his career in throwing multiple voices.
“Funny, you journos all want to think I’m half-crazy cause my dad was a shrink,” he says. “I don’t suffer from multiple personality disorder, I enjoy it.”
He says his puppets are actually you. Yes you, faithful reader. “My puppet characters represent all of us, not just facets of my personality,” he says.
“Chuck Wood is the naughty boy, the part in all of us that wants to be naughty but we can’t because of societal constraints. When Chuck tells a bloke in the front row to ‘get stuffed’, we find that funny ‘cause we wish we could do that. On the other hand, Ted. E. Bare represents the child in all of us, the unsure, self-doubting and emotional part in us. My puppets are you.”
Destined for a life in entertainment, Strassman’s stagecraft was first sharpened on the streets of New York.
“You had to be really funny or they wouldn’t stick around and drop spare change in my basket. No funny, no eat,” he says of those dog-eat-dog days. After being accepted into the invite-only American Academy of Dramatic Arts, he soared from the sidewalk to the stages of New York’s comedy clubs in the late 70s; trading gags with the likes of Seinfeld, Eddie Murphy and Jim Carrey.
“Amazing talents who were gods on stage back then,” he recalls. His initial plan was to become a serious thespian.
“I would love to be in a drama on the big screen, but I’m not actively pursuing it,” he says. “When you think about it, I really am a dramatic actor. I have to react to my puppets as I make them talk and exhibit a particular emotion at the same time. I am displaying a completely different emotion as a reaction to what I’m making them say… Confusing?”
Kinda. “How do you think I feel?” Strassman’s break out in this country came on the former television show Hey Hey It’s Saturday; he says those appearances back in the 90s put him “on the map”.
“Funny, the entire country watched Hey Hey while they were getting ready to go out on a Saturday night, but no one would admit to watching it,” he says. “I owe a lot to Daryl Somers and the Hey Hey gang.”
A lover of Aussie comics Carl Barron and Greg Fleet, Strassman says he has gravitated towards Antipodean humour and our way of life since he watched the film Walkabout in year-seven English.
“I’m pretty sure we share the same funny bone,” he says. “And, not many Yanks would even know what The Castle is, let alone laugh at it. I loved Australia the minute I got here.”
Strassman continues to break new ground, from his his signature robotics back in 1986, to Duality, in 2010, the first dramatic play created by a ventriloquist.
“I’m never one to sit still and I’m always thinking of new and twisted ideas,” he says.
“I try and create what I would want to see if I was sitting in the audience at one of my shows, and I’m a hard one to please.”
David Strassman plays two shows at Ulumbarra Theatre on October 23.