- - Tuesday, February 7, 2017

When Forbes released its 2016 list of the highest-paid comedians, it was topped by two obvious names — hot comic of the moment Kevin Hart and longtime success Jerry Seinfeld. But the name at No. 3 may have surprised some, as it was occupied by Terry Fator, unknown to many.

But the Texas-born comic and ventriloquist (yup, he works with puppets) won’t let that bother him. After all, the “America’s Got Talent” winner-turned-Las Vegas headliner raked in a whopping $21 million last year, beating out Amy Schumer.

But how did a guy from Texas with a turtle puppet become one of comedy’s top earners? I flew to Las Vegas and met Mr. Fator backstage at his showroom in the Mirage Hotel to find out.

Question: Who was the first ventriloquist you ever saw?

Answer: The first ventriloquist I ever saw was a guy who came to my church when I was 5. The funny thing is I distinctly remember how bad he was. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand what he was talking about, but I knew he was horrible.

His puppet was talking about Jesus’ “tear rattles.” It wasn’t till I was older that I realized he was talking about “parables.” But he couldn’t say that because he was such a bad ventriloquist. So that wasn’t like an inspiration, I just remember seeing this guy with a puppet and he was awful.

Q: When did you first see a good ventriloquist?

A: On TV. The good ones. I saw Edgar Bergen in the early days. Then Jimmy Nelson, Shari Lewis, Paul Winchell. Followed by Willie Tyler. Those are the ones I remember first seeing when I first started wanting to do this in 1975.

Q: How old were you when you got your first puppet?

A: I got my first puppet when I was 10 after I found this book on ventriloquism. I babysat the next-door neighbor’s kids. I then took the babysitting money and went to Sears and bought a “Willie Talk” puppet. Then I started doing shows for kids. I tried to find my niche.

I knew I wanted to be a professional ventriloquist from the time I was about 11.

Q: Did the ventriloquism come before the singing?

A: I started singing at 3. One of my first memories that I even have is me standing on a table singing for people. I remember thinking, “I like this feeling. I like how people are smiling and clapping and enjoying this.”

I started singing before I became a ventriloquist. Once I became a ventriloquist, one of the first things I started doing was singing with my puppets. And I would do impressions.

Q: Do you consider yourself a singer who does ventriloquism or the other way around?

A: That’s kind of a case of the chicken or the egg. It’s one and the same.

I love what I do. I’m very proud of being a ventriloquist and feel like I’m part of that community. But I’m also very proud of being a singer. But I’m also an impersonator and a comedian. I don’t really consider myself any one of those niches. I’m a conglomeration of all of them.

I’m a really strong believer that people should use whatever talent they have. Don’t pigeonhole yourself. I never did. I just went ahead and explored any and every bit of talent that I thought I had.

Q: Why do you think some people find ventriloquism scary?

A: If you can make your puppet seem like it’s a living, breathing character, you can get people to overcome that fear. People have come to my shows and say afterward, “You know, I have a deathly fear of puppets and ventriloquism. But I wasn’t afraid of yours.”

Q: How do you make an inanimate object come alive?

A: The trick to making puppets seem alive is practice. If you’re not ready to put the time in, you’re never gonna be able to do it. When I was about 14, I told my family, “Look, you’re gonna think I’m nuts. I’m not. But I really want to be a professional ventriloquist when I grow up. So I’m gonna have a puppet in my hand 24 hours a day when I’m home.”

I told my folks, “I have to learn to make these puppets seem real, and I have to be able to engage in a conversation.” I also asked them to engage in conversations with the puppet as if it was real. They were great sports.

It was a solid six months where I had a puppet with me everywhere I went in the house.

Q: Do you call them dummies, figures or puppets?

A: Truth is it really doesn’t matter because they don’t have feelings. You can call them whatever they want. There is not an emotional attachment of this for me.

Q: What do you credit for the recent rise in the popularity or ventriloquism?

A: It’s interesting to watch the history of ventriloquism and see how it rises and falls. It was incredibly popular around the world when Edgar Bergen was doing his thing. Then Paul Winchell took over. Then you had Jimmy Nelson, Shari Lewis and Willie Tyler, Jay Johnson and Ronn Lucas.

Anytime people put out quality material and do quality entertainment, it’s gonna be popular, and right now you’re just seeing a lot of skilled quality entertainers, and that’s why it’s popular.

Q: What is the secret of your success?

A: I spent 20 years traveling doing shows. During the school year I was doing five days a week, three to five shows a day. During the summer at county fairs I was doing seven days a week, three to five shows a day.

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