I Hate Al Getler, The Interview
In February 2020 I had interviewed Al Getler for over an hour. Unfortunately, none of it recorded, which completely took the wind out of my sales. (My bad) Then, the pandemic hit. I took a break from the vent-o-gram blog for most of the year. But, with the recent conVENTion, I decided to get back in the saddle again and start posting new interviews. Obviously, I owed Al, so he was up first.
Al Dale Brown
On Friday night, July 16th, I connected with Al at McKenna's restaurant at the conVENTion hotel. He showed up with Jay Johnson, Dale Brown, and John 'Brook' Brooking, the president of Vent Haven Museum.
I thought to myself, this could be a disaster in the making. I wasn't far off the mark. By the way, some of you may wonder about the title of this article. It is an interesting story. Al had sold $60.00 worth of raffle tickets to an attendee. She won nothing. As the evening drew down, and each time a raffle number was called, which wasn't hers, she muttered, "I hate Al Getler." Of course, when Jay and Dale overheard this, they knew it would be fodder for the evening. Thus the origins of the title of this interview!
Before going further, we we might offer an explanation of what you are about to read. Al, said it best: "Dale and I have traded barbs on Facebook for years. I love Dale. It is all in good fun. At the convention, when the very funny Jay Johnson jumps in, it becomes a free for all. The volley begins and it is one of the favorite parts of my year. It is not for the faint of heart! It is out of love for the art, love for humor, and love for one another."
We found a long table at the restaurant. Al and I were at one end, while Jay, Dale and Brook, were at the other end so as not to create a distraction during the interview. As you will see, the best laid plans.....
So, here is the long awaited interview with Al Getler, ventriloquist, media man, Vent Haven Board of Directors and Associate Director of the conVENTion.
Al, what kept you busy during the pandemic?
Oh, I lived streamed and interviewed every notable ventriloquist in the world.
You didn’t interview me. (laughter)
Yeah, you’re right, you’re right, let me start that again, (laughter)
David, you and I are very similar in that we really enjoy our art, we work very hard at what we do, but don’t have household names. Let’s just say I interviewed a lot of the household name ventriloquists and went after a lot of people that I hadn’t had a long conversation with before.
For example, Jeff Dunham. Also, David Strassman. I could never nail him down, or Willie Tyler, I’ve known him for years, but have never had a deep conversation with him. Everyone was stuck at home, I’m a nerd and wanted to figure out live streaming, so the world’s collided, I figured out my technology, and then I went to town interviewing people.
David Strassman Lester and Willie
Are you going to keep doing the interviews?
Probably, after the convention because so many people couldn’t attend. But my other dream is to put a panel together. A panel on comedy, a panel on this, a panel on that. I’ll probably do that next.
And where would you present these panels?
I’d put them on the internet.
So, how long have you been working as a ventriloquist?
I started at 8. I got paid for my first show when I was 12. A friend of my dad’s asked me to come and do a Christmas show. I did it and he handed me 20 dollars. That became my rate. (laughter)
You got paid more than me. I only got 15 dollars for my first show… (laughter)
So then, some lady asked me a week later to come and do a show. She said, “How much do you charge,” I said, “20 dollars.” So, my brother, who was 7 years older than me drove me to the gig. I come out with all my cases, put them in the car and go and do the show. When I’m loading up I stupidly flashed the 20 dollars at my brother. He said, “Did you get paid for that?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “I need gas money.” (laughter)
Did you get laughs?
You know what? I did. It was amazing.
Off mic, Dale Brown to Jay Johnson: "Amazing? I’ve always thought it was “amazing” that people would pay Getler to do his act. (more laughter)
What is it about the ventriloquial art that captures some and not others?
I can only speak for myself and why I’m so fascinated with this art. I grew up in the New York city area during the golden age of after school television. So, after school you had Chuck McCann…….
You’ve seen the video of McCann as a vent haven’t you?
Yes, he was brilliant. I had Soupy Sales, I had the Three Stooges who eventually teamed up with Paul Winchell and did, ‘Stop, Look and Laugh.’
Stooges Soupy McCann
And then there were the talk shows. I remember especially Mike Douglas. He always had Jimmy Nelson on. He had Bergen, Willie and Lester, Aaron Williams, Shari Lewis…so I had exposure to ventriloquism in a concentrated way. And then my oldest brother bought me my first dummy for Christmas.
What was it?
Danny O’Day. That’s how I got started. And then, a couple of weeks later, he bought me the record.
When you were in school, and it got around that you were a ventriloquist, was that considered cool or not?
You know, I kind of made it cool. My Dad gave me a black suitcase he used when selling Amway products, so I would haul that to school with me. I would do Jimmy’s material from the record and then I started doing my own stuff.
Jay Johnson to Brook, “He should have stuck to the Jimmy Nelson material.” (laughter)
So Jimmy Nelson was the biggest influence?
Huuuge influence. Then Bergen’s record, I bought that a little later on. Bergen’s tracks were funny.
What was the most important book you read on ventriloquism?
For fun and profit, without a doubt. (Ventriloquism for fun and profit, Paul Winchell) I still have my original copy with the binding broken and the pages tattered. I went through it so very many times.
Did you use the routines in Winchell’s book?
No, not in Winchell’s but I did use Jimmy’s.
Dale Brown: “After Jimmy heard Al do his routines he wished he had never put that record out.” (raucous laughter)
How did you get into corporate work?
Well, one day in Alpine NJ, I was at this gigantic home doing a kids show. You can relate to this…I had the kids on the floor and the parent’s behind them. It was like a Bugs Bunny cartoon, you know the kids would laugh at the silliness, but the jokes were aimed at the parents. Well, when the show was over the dad walk's over to me and says, “My wife is turning 40 in a couple of weeks, would you be able to do her birthday party?” And I said, “Sure!” I didn’t know if I could do it or not!
Was that your introduction to adult shows?
Yes. Adult shows weren’t even a concept I had entertained before. I was a family entertainer.
How did that show go?
Brook to Jay and Dale, "He did kill. After the client saw the show she had a stroke and died." (laughter)
Al: Listen guys, the show was a giant hit and I booked more shows from that. (more laughter)
Did you ever consider going full-time?
Many, many times. But I’ve never been a full-time vent for reasons that aren’t important here. One of the things I learned from Mark Wade was that I could build a strong regional business, not travel far and make some decent money, part-time. During the comedy club period in the 80’s I would sometimes be offered $75.00 to do a slot and I would say, ‘no offense, no offense but on any given Saturday I can make upwards to a grand doing birthday parties.’
Early in your career when doing corporate stuff did you ever bomb?
No. I was a corporate guy and manager for so many years, so I understand those audiences. I take that back, I did have one bomb. I was doing a show for the Pennsylvania Christmas tree growers. Now think about this, their Christmas party was in February. Of course, that’s because their busy season was over the holidays. Anyway, the client has placed on every table a sizable, decorated Christmas tree. So I get on stage and I realize that 3 or 4 people out of every table couldn’t see the stage. So I say, “Let’s take those Christmas trees down folks and set them on the ground!” Well, the lady that booked me was in charge of the banquet. She had been working on those Christmas trees for quite some time. She had a check in one hand and a very angry face as she looked at me. She scolded me severely because I made the Christmas trees come down.
So what did you learn from that?
I learned that people have expectations and that I needed to ask more questions. I have a rider in my contract now that covers a lot of this but there is nothing in there about Christmas trees! (laughter)
What is the key factor in being a success for a corporate crowd?
Do your homework. When I get booked I call the client. I ask for names of key people in the company. I would then interview these people. Then I would type it all up and put It in a folder marked ‘top secret’ in bold letters. I would use that folder on stage so I wouldn’t have to memorize everything.
You have a blog on your website. One entry is entitled, ‘10 ways to blow a presentation.’ How many ways are there to blow a show? (laughter)
There are more than ten. The number one thing I tell people is this: If you don’t own the stage from the second you walk out on the stage, if you don’t make it your territory that says, ‘I’ve got this,’ you risk blowing the whole show.
Is performing warfare?
At this point the conversation between Jay, Brook and Dale from the other end of the table starts getting louder
Al: No, it’s not warfare. It is a game of catch. Can I catch you into my world. Essentially, I’m saying, “Trust me, we’re going to have some fun.”
Al turns to Jay, Brook and Dale, “Hey, could you guys hold it down over there I’m trying to do a damned interview!
Laughter from the other end of the table, then Dale says, “Getler thinks Coconuts should be considered mammals because they have hair and produce milk! " (chaotic laughter ensues)
Al: Uh, I have this character…..wait a minute, let’s move to another table, with all the noise I’m having a hard time concentrating. (We move)
Jay, Dale and Brook start offering apologies through their laughter, Brook is laughing the hardest.
Al to Brook: "C’mon you’re supposed to be my trusted attorney.....You’re fired! " (laughter)
Jay, Dale and Brook all offer apologies again.
Al: “Hey he is the only attorney who pays a retainer to ME! “ (laughter)
How many idea failures do you have in the basement?
I have tons. I’m very spontaneous especially at the convention. I buy a puppet, the voice comes, I think there is something there. But then sometimes I have the lack of discipline to really flesh out the character or sometimes I just buy a puppet that doesn’t work. I read the ‘War of Art’ probably twice a year. Most of the failures on my part are a failure to concentrate.
Well, I do pretty well on the stage spontaneously. I can go sometimes up to 20 minutes without a script.
Yes, but it doesn’t give you the discipline you need to write good scripts. Plus, I don’t record my shows.
Dale to no one in particular, "If he did record his shows he would have quit vent years ago." (laughter)
Do you write your scripts out?
I do. Yes.
Who told you to do that?
Just from reading the early books when I was a kid. You know, getting the structure of V: F: V: F: and learning that.
Plus I learned comedy structure from Gene Perret. He used to have a news letter I subscribed to. I also had some good middle school teachers who used to run index cards through the mimeograph machine for me so that I could write ads for my act. I would post them all over town.
Laughter and conversation in the background, from Jay, Brook and Dale now two tables away starts getting louder.
So I had teachers who also pointed me to the library for joke books and the like.
More background laughter from the three.
And then when I was a freshmen in high school (now trying to compete with Jay, Dale and Brook) I was in the talent show….the talent show…the tal…. (exasperated) ……YOU GUYS ARE THE ABSOLUTE WORSE! YOU’RE AWFUL! (TO JAY) I’M COMING TO THE NEXT TONY AWARDS AND I’M GONNA TAKE A DUMP RIGHT ON STAGE!) (pandemonium breaks out)
I’m going to put THAT in the interview! (more laughter)
Let me give you a definition. Someone who lives in and out of the system. That is the definition of an outlier. Do you know that?
Yep, on my website.
Why do you call yourself an outlier?
I have over 10,000 hours of performing on stage. So when I read the Malcolm Gladwell book, (Outliers) and started assessing my life I thought ‘hmm, that’s me.’
I went to a high school where public speaking was required and the football coach was the director of the high school musical. You didn’t have a choice you had to be in theater. So, all of that added up to credibility as an outlier.
Brook to Jay and Dale: "Getler is an outright liar." (laughter)
Ok outlier, what is going to happen to the singing ventriloquist?
That’s a great question. I saw Darci Lynne perform in 2018. She is every bit as good as a stage pop singer as she is a ventriloquist.
Is she a trend setter now?
Yes. And she is young enough now to go in whatever direction she wants to go.
iBut here is the other side of things. I’ve seen a lot of singing ventriloquists. I think it is entertaining to a point. Look not everyone is a Darci Lynne or Terry Fator. Right now, if I were a ventriloquist and wanted to sing, I would do two refrains and one verse and get out of the song.
That is pretty much what Willie (Tyler) did on the Letterman show.
Is that right? Basically, I believe, that when people see a ventriloquist they want to hear humor.
More nuts and bolts. A lot of soft puppets out there these days. Are we going to see the disappearance of the hard figure?
We are not. The raffle at the convention just proved that. A young man won a hard figure by Lovik. He was just blown away. Guys like Tyler Ellis, Austin Phillips and Chance Wolf who know how to make a quality figure and ship it out on time…these guys are going to assure the continuance of the hard figure.
Tyler Chance Austin
There are also guys out there that are kit builders as well. I’ve seen more people on our ventriloquist Facebook groups building more figures than I have ever seen in my life.
I think that everyone feels that if you have a least one hard dummy, you have arrived. However, I also find soft puppets to be very versatile. But there is something that makes me feel I have arrived when I bring out Floyd, my Semok hard figure.
How long have you had Floyd.
Were you good friends with Alan Semok?
I was. I didn’t know other ventriloquists. I didn’t go to the convention until 1988. I only heard stories. Anyway, someone told me that there was a guy right in New Jersey who made figures. So I tracked down his number, and I ended up going to his parents house. That is how I met Alan. He and Mary lived with his parents at that point.
On your website you talk about the human element. Does that apply to ventriloquism?
One hundred percent. It is one hundred percent connecting with your audience. One hundred percent seeing someone laugh.
Is political correctness important in corporate work?
PC has always been an issue with corporate. That is why when I show up for a corporate gig I have always been able to say, “I understand the line.” I have been using that line for years. Yes, I’ll make jokes that are fun, yes Floyd is going to flirt with the ladies. All that stuff. But, I’m never going to go over the line, never going to drop the ‘F’ bomb, I’m never even going to curse on stage. To me innuendo is far funnier than ‘flat out.’
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you think something is really funny. Then you try it out on an audience and it bombs?
Dale: "Yeah, like half his show…." (laughter)
(Al gives a dirty look and sighs) All the time. Every show. Because I do work the crowd and I have a funny line about someone’s profession and nobody gets it. I think it is funny but nobody gets it.
Does it terrify you to try out new material?
Not at all.
Never. Look, I grew up watching Johnny Carson. And I learned that when a joke bombs the next thing you say, better make fun of that joke that just bombed.
Let's talk more about the art for a minute. In our lifetime we’ve seen animatronics enter into puppetry. We’ve got Steve Axtell doing amazing things, and David Strassman to name two. At what point does it cross the line from art to technique.
It’s a dangerous thing. By the way, David Strassman uses it to shock his audience. It is not the core of his act. It’s funny, but he doesn’t use it entirely. Steve has the bird on the perch and it’s cute….
I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m saying…
I’m saying it is if it is for the duration of the act. Axtell has animatronics to use as an illusion by the vent. The bird, the drawing board. If you go 100% with it, it may bring the audience too far from tradition. It becomes something different. Want to see an absolutely wonderful use, see the Tiki on Axtell's live stream. Killer comedy.
So you think the art form itself is still defined by human contact
The performer and the figure.
Recently I was reading through some of the old ventriloquist magazines. The Oracle, Vent-o-Gram, those kinds of things. And I was reading about those who have gone before and it dawned on me that more often than not, many pro ventriloquists have died broke. And yet, through the years we have been told that because of its uniqueness, ventriloquism would make a great career. The facts don’t bear that out.
Well, one guy who wrote a book that you just asked me about and started my career in ventriloquism turned out hating the art for quite some time. He despised the fame that resulted from him ‘hiding’ behind characters. It wasn’t until people helped him to recognize his contributions did Winchell wake up and smell the flowers so to speak.
I think a lot of ventriloquists work way below their earning capabilities, if they're good. On the other hand, there are a lot of ventriloquists who are not good. Now mind you this is an observation, I’m not bashing anyone. You’ve got to practice, you’ve got to work on your humor, you have to do a lot of things that are different. Not everyone is going to win America’s Got Talent.
Do you practice?
I practice (with emphasis) All…The…Time. All the time.
Waiter interrupts: Here is your change sir, thank you very much.
Al: Thank you. By the way, you think you could drag one of those appetizer plates over to this table?
Waiter: Well, of course.. Waiter turns to Jay, Dale and Brook and says, “He (pointing to Al) would like some of this, is that OK?
Al: (incredulously) I bought it, of course it’s ok, I bought it! (laughter)
You ask three drunks whether or not I can have some of my own food? ! (laughter)
David Malmberg: What about my drink? I haven’t paid for it yet.
Waiter: The manager says after what you’ve gone through tonight, the drink is on the house. (laughter)
Dale: So Al, you really bought all this food?
Jay: Well then, we take back everything we said about you tonight.
Vent-o-gram note: Al has many fine attributes, but his ability to laugh at himself is stellar. This was proven beyond a doubt in this interview. One of the most enjoyable I have done and proving beyond a shadow of a doubt what an absolute gem of a person he is. We laughed until our sides hurt. I'm proud to call him my friend. Oh, and did I mentioned he is a superb ventriloquist? A true pro.
To find out more about Al, visit: algetler.com
To see what is still one of the funniest spoofs on ventriloquism, see this Chuck McCann clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gVPZ4jYkzKc&t=38s
Next month on Vent-o-gram. A conversation with Jay Johnson
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