Oliver and Irving bring good, clean fun to WPAC
The Wilson Performing Arts Center will host a pair of unique performers for two shows this weekend.
Nationally-recognized ventriloquist and comedian Todd Oliver and Irving the Talking Dog will be on hand for shows at 7:30 p.m. March 4, and 2:30 p.m. March 5, at the WPAC at 300 Commerce Dr.
Oliver has performed on a number of late night talk shows, and also was a fourth place finalist on the seventh season of “America’s Got Talent.” Oliver grew up in Minneapolis, Minn., and currently resides in Springfield, Mo., where he’s been for the last 20 years. Oliver said he was fascinated with ventriloquism at an early age.
“When I was 8 years old, I saw Edger Bergen and little Charlie McCarthy. The show was very charming, and he was so funny, and it was so cool. The show just knocked me out. I went to the local library and got a hold of and read every book on ventriloquism that I could get my hands on,” Oliver said.
Two years later, Oliver got a dummy of his own, but the event turned out to be a bittersweet one for Oliver.
“I got a dummy for Christmas when I was 10 years old. Three days later, my dad died. So I kind of threw myself into performing, and it really helped me as I was freaking out about losing my dad, and it was good time spent in general. I tell people to use their time wisely and keep themselves busy. It made a big difference in my life,” stated Oliver.
As a teenager, Oliver said he started out honing his skills and perfecting a show through volunteer work.
“I became a volunteer through the Minneapolis Public School System. They had a program then called Community Resource Volunteers. Initially, I had been trying to call around and get my own bookings, but a person at the school recommended I join this volunteer program,” commented Oliver. “Before I knew it, I was doing shows all over the place and getting great experience. I do ventriloquism, magic, and I’m a musician. Since I was a kid, I just went to where the opportunities were.”
As demand grew, Oliver said he worked hard to hone his act, writing jokes, doing a mix of ventriloquism and magic, and performing material for 30- and 45-minute shows.
“The big thing is the material and the comedy. In today’s world, we see a lot of singing ventriloquists, which I completely respect. However, I prefer to entertain the audience through being funny. The big challenge after learning basic ventriloquism skills, for me, was the material. That was a hard challenge, and it will be a challenge for every ventriloquist. You have to write, edit, and make it into a routine. When I was growing up, the audience became a great teacher. They let you know what works, and what doesn’t work, beyond your own instincts.”
After high school, Oliver toured schools, clubs, county fairs, one-night shows, and for more than a year, went around the world on cruise ships. Also during that time, Oliver performed at schools, which was a venue he really enjoyed.
“I liked the school assembly tours for about nine months out of the year. I didn’t make a whole lot of money, but I knew I was in the right situation. I would perform at three or four schools a day, five days a week, which was a total of around 500 schools per year. I did shows all around the Midwest. I didn’t have Irving at that time, I just performed with the dummies, in gymnasiums and auditoriums,” Oliver said.
Oliver said there used to be around seven booking bureaus that only did bookings for school assemblies. By the end of the 1990s, they were all out of business. However, Oliver said he still gets a chance to perform for schools.
“When I play a theater like the one in Red Oak, I offer, as part of the package, to go visit the schools. That allows the students to see the program. My shows always have a message. When you make someone laugh, they listen. When they listen, you can get the message across. I don’t care who it is, people always want to hear what the dummy has to say,” Oliver stated.
Also around that time, comedy clubs started springing up across the U.S. While some of the performers were edgy, Oliver said he was then, and still remains, a clean act.
“The dummies never cussed or talked filthy, because all of my ventriloquist heroes were clean. When I was growing up, the charm and the endearing personality of the dummies would make the people laugh,” Oliver explained. “My biggest inspiration, and what really got me to pursue ventriloquism as a career, was the feeling that you have laughing with your mom, and your dad, and your grandparents. There’s no better feeling. That’s my goal, it’s to bring back the families. Having a clean act makes me accessible to an entire family, not just adults. ”
It was around 1989, Oliver said, that his act picked up the performer he’s now most associated with: Irving the Talking Dog. Oliver said he had heard from friend with an old circus act about a ventriloquist with a talking dog in the 1960s, and there had been a few others in Europe, and one performer in Las Vegas who performed with a dog for a short time. Oliver, at the time, was so busy with his current act that for a number of years, he didn’t act on the idea. In 1996, Oliver said a TNN producer and several other friends encouraged him to pursue the idea, as no one else was performing with a talking dog at the time.
“I had always loved animals, dogs, horses, and other animals, so I finally did it. Irving debuted with me in November, 1996, the dog went on stage at the Showboat in Nashville, Tenn., and the audience went nuts. Irving was an instant hit. At the time, an agent from Los Angeles, Irvin Arthur, he saw me, and I signed a deal with representation, and before I knew it, I was on a bunch of television shows,” Oliver commented.
Among the shows Oliver and Irving performed on were “The Today Show,” “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson,” “The Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno,” and “Penn and Teller’s Sin City Spectacular.” Oliver’s biggest highlight from that period was being chosen as one of the top five ventriloquists in the world to appear on Ventriloquist Week in 2006 on “The Late Show Starring David Letterman.” It was filmed at The Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City, where many of Oliver’s heroes appeared back on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Irving was also part of his act when Oliver did the performances that brought him to national fame: on season seven of “America’s Got Talent.” Ironically, Oliver said he hadn’t intended to appear on the show, turning down audition requests.
“I ended up doing the show because a tornado hit a theater I was supposed to be at in Branson, and I was out of work for the first time in my life. I turned them down prior because I didn’t think it was a good fit,” advised Oliver. “However, my manager at the time reminded me that the viewership of the show was in prime time, and it got three times the viewership that the late night talk shows got, easily, and it definitely led to further exposure for me. In fact, I knew Howie Mandel before appearing on that show. I actually appeared on his talk show in 1999. He still had hair then.”
Irving is a Boston Terrier. Oliver currently performs with Irving the sixth, and recently adopted Irving the seventh. Oliver said he keeps two Irvings on hand, in case the lead performer is unable to do the show due to injury or illness. Oliver said his Irvings perform until they’re around 10 years old, and then they retire and become just the Olivers’ house pets. Even when they’re performing, Oliver said when they’re not on-stage, they live a relaxed life as house pets.
In addition to Irving, Oliver performs with Alice the Magic Bunny, the Bird Buddies: Petey, Frances, and Sheldon, and his three dummies: Joey, Miss Lilly, and Pops. However, performing with a talking dog, Oliver said, definitely is more of a challenge than his other pets, and keeps him on his toes.
“If the dog decides to turn around, you have to go with it. You must improvise; you don’t have a choice. Having experience with audiences and comedy helps, and I’ve learned as I’ve gone on. Fortunately, the Boston Terrier just wants to be with you, and I’ve also learned that dogs like having jobs. He lives to perform as Irving because he gets lots of attention from the audience, and treats,” Oliver said. “You also have be very careful of your surroundings. When I walk him, I have to be wary of other dogs. When I go to a dressing room, I have to make sure it’s safe for Irving to be in. I also have to be very careful of his diet, because if he’s sick, he can’t perform. I don’t do a lot of training with the dogs, I just spend a lot of time with them. We’re together all the time. As long as you use encouragement, and love, the dog will go along with the program.”
Oliver said this weekend, audiences can expect an all-original show with situational comedy, lots of audience participation, original music, and magic.
“It’s a fast-moving 90 minutes. There’s a lot going on. I try to put more in 90 minutes than most shows you can see. The audience can get their questions answered by Irving, I will even do some puppetry with a couple of members of the audience. It’s a fun, clean, contemporary show and it’s for kids, parents, grandparents. I’m looking forward to meeting the people of Red Oak and Montgomery County and performing at the school,” said Oliver. “The people in Iowa laugh louder and longer than any other audience I’ve ever performed for.”
Tickets are $30 for adults, $20 for kids. Call 623-3183 to reserve tickets, or order online at wilsonartscenter.org.