Ventriloquist, puppeteer, stand-up comedian and actor David Strassman has certainly done a lot in his career. Not the least of which is give us a whole new way of looking at ventriloquism, through the use of traditional puppetry combined with robotics. It has allowed him to bring such popular characters as Chuck Wood and Ted E. Bear to life on both stage and screen. With Strassman’s iTedE coming to the Regal Theatre from October 17-29, DAVID O’CONNELL spoke to the ventriloquist about what’s next for his band of puppets.
First off, and this is purely for personal interest, is it true you had a bit part in a Roger Corman film in the 1980s?
You wouldn’t believe what I’ve done. I was in Humanoids from the Deep in 1980, I was onstage with Steve Jobs when he introduced Next Computer after he was fired from Apple 1988, Tom Hanks, Dan Brown and Ron Howard visited me backstage at Duality (Strassman’s 2010 critically acclaimed dip into drama). In fact that was the pinnacle of my career – Tom Hanks telling me I’m fucking brilliant! I’ve got to say I don’t think anything will top that in my life. I have nothing more to prove. I’m very blessed, I’m a grown man that plays with dolls and makes people laugh for a living. It is fucking awesome.
OK, so what is iTedE about?
So my show’s about the fact that I can’t get the puppets from their screens. It holds up a very dark mirror to society… it is a comedy show… there’s no serous message, but I do the fact that we’re all on Instagram, and Facebook, and Snapchat, and i-pads, and tablet and computers, and downloading movies, and music… there’s fake news, and social media, and it has literally changed the way humans interact with each other!
The message of this show, and a lot of the topics I talk about with my characters, is that I am afraid that social media and technology is keeping us from using our imagination. Knowledge is delivered to us, it desensitises us, and we no longer reach into our brains for knowledge anymore.
The iPhone when it came out in 2007, killed maps, small talk, calendars, buying cameras – it’s pretty daunting when you think it. But I don’t think anyone in the 1800s could have imagined a world without stables and horseshit everywhere. That’s just how you got around till the automobile came along. I’m all for technology, I love it, but my show is about this technology hurting us. Then I use that technology to show how amazing and dark it can be. The second half of my show is a hilarious mind-blowing comedy routine with myself and five puppets, where I’m throwing my voice to five character for 25 minutes. Which has never been done in theatre before.
That’s got to be like running a marathon by the end?
Considering this is all I do for a living, it is relatively easy. When you get on a plane and see a mass of dials and buttons in the cockpit, you have no idea what that shit does! But every pilot or co-pilot does, because that’s their job.
Some of these characters you’ve been working with for… well… decades. Are you ever surprised by how fleshed out they’ve become over the years?
Always. Every time I write a new show the puppets grow in their neurotic personality. When I was a fledgling artist in the comedy club scene, my show was more one-dimensional – gaggy jokes, and stupid bullshit. Over the years I’ve put in the same parameters that you would find in a stage play. My characters have hopes, dreams, fears, neurosis and foibles. As their fictional lives grow so does the scope of who they are, and what they would do. All my puppets achieve amazing places in their personality that I would never expect them to go.
So did your use of robotics in puppetry actually come from getting drunk with a mate from NASA?
That is what I always tell the press, but we were certainly not drunk. We were in other states of altered consciousness. In retrospect, he and I were radio control plane nuts, so the idea had been there all my life and it was a natural progression to make Chuck move. We were tripping out imagining how to scare the audience. How we did that was, me having a fight with Chuck, him sacking me, me leaving the stage, and him coming to life. You know, Twilight Zone. It allowed me to bring drama to an art form that was relegated to singing songs, which it still is. Seriously this is what the top ventriloquists in Vegas do. And all the power to them, but to me it just reeks of primary colours and clowns.
(Strassman still uses Buttons, the very pissed clown, to represent his alcoholism on stage, although Strassman himself is now 5 years sober)
Have you thought about what you want to do next with puppetry?
All my puppets work manually, traditional ‘hand up the bum’ puppetry, and they work robotically. So they’re dual operation. I’ve always had this fantasy of me sitting in California while the show’s on the road. I wake up in the morning press the button and it’s showtime over here.