When he’s not copyediting or proofing, Johnny Lowe practices the art of ventriloquism, where one “throws his voice,” making puppets come alive.
Once a television staple in the 1950s and 1960s, ventriloquists later became associated with little more than bad horror movies. But today, several ‘vents’ have brought the craft back into the entertainment limelight. Jeff Dunham performs to sold-out arenas worldwide, and Forbes.com has ranked him as the third highest-paid comedian in the United States. Jay Johnson, who first became known via the TV series Soap, won a Tony for his Broadway show, The Two and Only. And in 2007, Terry Fator came out of nowhere to win America’s Got Talent.
Lowe first became enamored with ventriloquism after catching one of Jeff Dunham’s concert shows on Comedy Central. Not long after, a college friend told Lowe about an annual gathering of ventriloquists in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, the Vent Haven ConVENTion, and Lowe decided to check it out.
“It reminded me of the first comics convention I ever went to,” said Lowe. “So many things are going on, you don’t know what to do first. But I learned a ton from all the panels and discussions — and met lots of interesting people.”
Until recently, Lowe’s appearances have been “walk-arounds,” where he walks around with his characters at different events interacting with attendees. Venues have included events for the CARA animal shelter, the Tractor Supply Co. store in Clinton and several appearances at the Quisenberry Library. Just recently, Lowe performed his first-ever show at the Trinity Mission Health and Rehab in Clinton.
“It was my first ‘show’ show, where I had everything memorized and worked out,” said Lowe, “and except for my timing, technique, jokes and comedy, it went pretty well.”
Actually, he said, it went better than he thought it might as a first-time performance: “I did blank out once in the first couple minutes. Fortunately, I had my cheat sheet. I do have to work on my timing and delivery. I want to be as good as I can get, and not just be some guy having a conversation with a puppet.”
His main characters are Homer, a retired sheepdog, and Hunter, who calls himself “the super-amazing purple cat.” Both are soft puppets, but Lowe plans to get a hard figure made of wood or plastic with a control stick that works the figure’s eyes and mouth. Soft figures, like Lowe’s Homer and Hunter, are similar to Muppets, less expensive and much easier to manipulate.
“People today know how the puppets ‘talk,’” said Lowe, “so the important thing is to be funny. And when performing, you have to think of the puppet as a living being, not a puppet. Like watching a movie, you know it’s not real, but you want the audience to be in the moment and believe you’re actually interacting with another individual.”
Lowe plans to do more nursing home and library shows as he gains experience performing in front of smaller groups. Later, he says he wants to do banquets and other venues.
“It’s great when you can make people laugh,” he said. “And it’s really great when you can do it deliberately.”