Best known for his four seasons on “Soap,” actor and ventriloquist Jay Johnson has been entertaining audiences for decades. Mr. Johnson began his professional career at the tender age of 11 and continues to wow audiences around the world even today with help from his “Wooden American” sidekicks: Bob and Darwin the Monkey.
In 2007 Mr. Johnson added another impressive credit to his resume: Tony Award winner for his one-man — make that two-man — show, “Jay Johnson: The Two and Only.” Mr. Johnson discussed why some people find what he does creepy, his time on “Soap” and the just-released DVD of the Tony Award-winning show.
Question: What drew you to ventriloquism?
Answer: I had to write a show to try to figure that out. The best that I could come up with is that being dyslexic — not severely, but dyslexic [nonetheless] — limits a lot of the things you would excel at. But it doesn’t limit anything vocally. Spoken word. Singing. Ventriloquism was sort of the offshoot of something I loved.
Q: How old were you when you first started doing it?
A: When I started performing an act I was 11. Before that I was always talking to myself on a telephone and making puppets talk. But I didn’t really connect those things with ventriloquism until later.
Q: Was there one ventriloquist that inspired you?
A: I had an appreciation for all of them. Edgar Bergen after I understood what he was doing. I always loved Shari Lewis; her technique was great. Jimmy Nelson and his character Danny O’Day from the Nestle’s [Nesquik] commercials. Anybody I saw influenced me.
Q: What was your first dummy? Though I know you don’t call them “dummies.”
A: I call them “Wooden Americans.” [laughs]
Q: What was your first “Wooden American”?
A: It was my cousin Jerry Mahoney’s novelty doll sold through Sears. She had one that had the stick with the head movement. I had always wanted that doll, and there it was at my cousin’s house. To get me out of their house they gave it to me. My Uncle Charlie said, “You can have the doll if you leave now!”
Q: When did your professional career as a ventriloquist start?
A: I started at 11 doing club dates: Lions Club, Kiwanis Club. As a kid I was kind of a novelty. In high school I did some commercials for a car company. They were successful. Then theme parks. Six Flags. That was my senior year in high school.
Q: Where did your most famous character, “Bob,” come from?
A: He came with my job on “Soap.” I auditioned with Squeaky, who was the character I had made for me. He was going to be my character for the rest of my life. But “Soap” had very specific ideas about the character and what the puppet looked like.
Q: Where did Bob’s personality come from?
A: From [“Soap” creator] Susan Harris more than anything. Just the writing. They thought Squeaky was too sweet-looking. Bob really came out of biting [commentary] on the people on the show. So I kind of had to adopt that.
I really thought I would do “Soap” and then go back to doing live shows with Squeaky. But I got so identified with Bob that Squeaky and Bob merged into one character.
Q: How did you end up on “Soap”?
A: It was an open call. At first they thought, like most people think, the easy way would be to just hire an actor, teach him to work the puppet and maybe loop the voice. That seems easy. But it is so much harder to do it that way. It was Jay Sandrich, the director on “Soap,” who said, “I think it has to be done in real time.” So they put out an open call for ventriloquists, and I answered that call.
Q: What do you say to people who find what you do creepy?
A: You can’t argue with that. If someone doesn’t like a clown, they don’t like a clown. They don’t like a mime, then they don’t like a mime. If ventriloquism scares them, you have to say, “OK, I don’t understand it.” You’re talking to yourself on stage, so when you boil it down, it is kind of crazy.
Q: How did your show “The Two and Only” come about?
A: I was doing a benefit show for an arts high school. The producers of that show said, “We think you ought to do a one-man stage show on Broadway.” I said sure. We talked about it for a year.
Finally they said, “What will it take to do this?” I said, “It is gonna take somebody saying we have a theater in a week, so you better be ready.”
They called back in an hour and said, “We have a theater in three weeks.”
Q: Did you think you were gonna win a Tony?
A: The minute I was nominated, I thought, “Wow! Forever and ever I will be a Tony Award-nominated show.” I didn’t even know there was a Tony called “best theatrical special event.” It is a category they created for “At Liberty” with Elaine Stritch. The category is about a show that can’t be recast. Liza Minnelli has won. Billy Crystal has won. Pretty good company.
Q: To what do you attribute the recent resurgence in popularity of ventriloquism?
A: I think the art form found a new outlet. In Jeff Dunham’s case it is YouTube for sure. Then Terry [Fator] wins on “America’s Got Talent” the same year I won the Tony. Maybe it was the year of ventriloquism?
Jay Johnson’s “The Two & Only” is now available on DVD.