Taylor Mason...The Interview, Part I
A few years back I received a note from Taylor Mason. He was making an appearance in Minneapolis, Mn and the airline had lost his luggage. That means Taylor's band of hooligans, Paco, Robert, Romeo et al were in some kind of airport twilight zone. "Help! Does anyone have any puppets?" was the call sent out by Taylor. I answered. I had a box of cheap little hand puppets I had used for some children's ventriloquism workshops a few months before.
It was my first meeting with Taylor, and an amazing one at that. I had the privilege of watching a Master comedian and ventriloquist do 90 minutes in front of a bunch of college kids with a bunch of crappy little hand puppets he had never seen before. Not only that, but due to the nature of the various hand puppets Taylor's show was about 70 percent improv that night.
In show biz vernacular: he killed. It was an extraordinary display of improvisational talent. A display that very few of us would be capable of delivering in similar circumstances.
Taylor's resume is as diverse as his talent. He is a world-class ventriloquist, a prolific writer, a talented musician, and a successful comedian. He has written for The Second City Theater in Chicago, the Emmy winning comedy series Bananas-TV, and his children's television program, Taylor's Attic.
Taylor has performed in hundreds of comedy clubs and colleges, made numerous television appearances such as Evening at the Improv and Comic Strip Live, (to name just two) produced a number of DVD's of his work and was the grand prize winner of the Ed McMahon hosted Star Search, the forerunner of America's Got Talent. His career has been one 'been there and done that' episode after another. But, there is no indication of any letting up.
After his successful 2010 book 'The Complete Idiots Guide to Ventriloquism,' (available on Amazon) we are about to be gifted with a new release: Taylor Mason: Irreversible, The Life and Times of a Traveling Ventriloquist.
Between doing club dates, comedy clubs, and tours with Disney Cruise lines, I finally was able to catch up with him. You're in for a treat. Here's the interview:
Did you work this weekend?
Yeah, I was busy. I had a corporate on Friday night and then I was in a comedy club Saturday night.
When did you first discover that you had a sense for comedy?
I think when I was in grade school I remember my 6th grade teacher. She was trying to describe in an English class the structure of a joke. How a joke worked. I remember my first joke:
Taylor: Mrs. Pearson there are lot’s of people on LSD right now. (This was in the 60’s)
Teacher: Yes Taylor, there are.
Taylor: Yes, people are driving to work on Lake Shore Drive as we speak.
And that was my first, putting two and two together and trying to come up with something that was funny. I was very proud of myself. It was the first time I thought about how a joke worked. I had been doing little shows, I was Scrooge in a Christmas play and I had done some puppet stuff with socks á la Shari Lewis for my family. So I started doing stuff and getting positive feedback at a very young age.
Without the instruction as to how a joke worked, did you find that you had an innate ability to do set up and punch?
You know, I don’t think it was innate. I think I enjoyed more the feeling of everybody laughing. Not so much the set up and punch or how to organically do the work. I just liked the feeling of everybody laughing and being in on the joke and me being the ‘star’ of the moment. That had a huge effect on me.
My Father was really into that kind of stuff. My Dad looks a little bit like Jonathan Winters.
He used to put on a white wig at family functions and do one of Winter’s characters, Maude Frickert. My Dad would do that and everybody would laugh and clap. I thought it was really great and I really admired him for that.
In spite of that early influence though, didn't you gravitate more towards athletic endeavors as opposed to show business?
You know, sports and show business go hand in hand. Sports is a form of entertainment, especially professional sports in our country. The uniform, the way people act and what they do. I played little league, high school and college football. It’s similar to getting a positive response like when I was a kid performing comedy. You get the same kind of positive reinforcement in sports. I enjoyed football the most. The idea of dressing up like a gladiator… you know, you’re in this incredible uniform. It was thrilling for me; similar to getting a response as a comedian. I liked the response from coaches and fans. I played for the University of Illinois. So we were a bad football team, but I was a favorite son, too small, too slow, but I was out there butting heads, and somehow I lived to tell the tale.
But you were injured weren’t you? And didn’t that act as a springboard to move on to more stage related activity?
Yeah, I was really too small and I suffered a severe knee injury. I had really damaged it on astro turf. My foot got stuck on the plastic turf and a guy hit my knee from the outside and basically ripped up everything. They put me in this big cast, literally sidelined. So, I’m at a party, having a pity party for myself, while people are dancing I’m sitting with another guy and we are just spinning records so everyone can dance. I’m moaning about my circumstances and this guy hands me the microphone and says, “While I change the records, you talk.” So, I start talking about the people there, making fun of my friends who can’t dance; you know just making fun of everybody. So now, people at the party start urging me to go out and do more of this. So I do, between every record. And now the kicker: At the end of the night a kid from another fraternity comes over and says, “I’ll give you fifty dollars to do that next Friday night at our party.” Dollar signs start going off in my mind and I thought, I can make money telling these stories and just being myself and goofing around. My gosh! The last three years I was in college I worked on a regular basis. And, that led to a career.
Did that make you a believer in serendipity?
(pause) It made me believe that when you are blessed with an opportunity, don’t blow it. Don’t ignore it. Be smart enough to know this is something that might work for you. Be aware of that and take advantage of it for the most you can possibly get out of it. Put all your effort into it and if it’s is going to work, great, if not, then move on to something else. And for me, it has never stopped, for whatever reason I have just continued performing and working and letting my “career” lead me by the nose.
So rather than concentrating on one thing you allowed yourself to be led by many opportunities?
I concentrate really hard on how we started this conversation. That is, with the set up and the punch lines, and getting to the jokes in as an efficient manner as possible. Then, I make it as easily accessible to a broad range of people as I possibly can. All that came from the positive reinforcement I got when I started with a sock in my hand, with a teacher explaining the structure of jokes, right up to performing as a kid, then sports, then getting my knee hurt and finally getting paid doing what I do today.
Didn't you work with Second City Theater?
Yeah. I honestly didn’t know who they were until I got to college. I started hearing about this group called Second City and they came to the University of Illinois when I was a senior and they let me be their opening act. I only did about ten minutes. My figure at the time was ‘Ted.’ One of the punch lines was:
Ted: I never eat college food
Taylor: Why not?
Ted: Because the stuff we got today, I told it to jump on to your plate, and it did. (laughs)
So that was my comedy prowess at the time. (laughs)
At the end of the night one of the Second City actor’s said, “You should come and audition for Second City.” So, I graduated and I started taking classes at Second City. Nothing is normal for me. (laughs) This is how I got hired: I go to audition at Second City Theater and I have no idea what I’m doing. And the director at the time says to me and another woman, “Ok, you two are next. We’re going to do ‘four through the door.’ I look at the girl and I say, “What’s four through the door?” And she looks at me with eyes like saucers and says, “You don’t know what four through the door is? OMG, this isn’t going to work!” So she quickly explained I have to walk on stage four different times as four different characters. I haven’t planned anything!
I don’t know what I’m doing. So she is standing on stage, I’m back stage and the director yells: “Scene!” I walk through the door and I walk over to her. Now there is a stool on stage and I put one of my arms flat on the stool and I say, “I bought this here yesterday and it doesn’t work.” She doesn’t know what I’m talking about. The premise I came up with is that I bought this bionic arm and it doesn’t work. And I’m lifting it and it falls and I say, “See it doesn’t work.” The director starts laughing and the girl is looking at me like I’m from another planet because I haven’t explained anything to her. Anyway, while this is going on the producer of Second City walks into the theater and says, “Taylor Mason? It says on your resume you can read music.” So, she takes me over to the piano, I sit down, she puts a chord chart in front of me. I play it. She says: “You’re hired.” I walk into her office and sign a contract and became the musical director for Second City Theater in Chicago. As a result of that I ingratiated myself into the whole comedy culture. Now, one block away there was a comedy club called Zanies Comedy Club. I started going down there and hanging out and they eventually hired me as well.
You talk about Zanies as a place where you paid your dues. What does ‘paying your dues’ mean?
There is so much about comedy that goes beyond set up and punch. And for a ventriloquist specifically, you have to be either a really good singer or a really bad singer to make people laugh or you have to be really funny. There’s not a lot of other ways to go. That’s basically it, either music or laughter. You can’t do dramatic scenes. You’re never going to see a Street Car Named Desire with a ventriloquist. You might see it done as a puppet show, but you’re never going to see a ventriloquist do for instance A Glass Menagerie. It’s just not going to happen. Ventriloquism as an art form is based on music or comedy or both.
In the 80’s the comedy boom hit. This was really great for me because it was like getting a master’s degree in comedy. I was working with Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Jimmy JJ Walker…these big acts.
I would meet these guys and watch how they did their acts. How they opened, their middle and working to a big close. It was a real education and I got to learn how this all worked. You come into town and you do a 30 minute set. And if nobody is laughing at your jokes you have to figure out how to, what I call, ‘go to the audience.’ Talking to people in the audience, where are you from, what do you do for a living and are you married? Basic questions and being able to do that in front of an audience without making fun of the person themselves. Without being mean spirited. You have to go away from that but still make everything funny and make them comfortable so they will share something with you and use that as a basis for humor and come up with punch lines on the spot.
In other words, being able to be in the moment, think on your feet and use everything that’s happening at that moment to elicit laughter.
Is it possible to pay one’s dues without standing in front of an audience?
I don’t think so. To pay one’s dues you have to get on stage and see whether or not you’re really funny. And if you are, then figuring out how to turn being funny for five minutes into ten minutes. Paying your dues is turning 10 minutes into 30 minutes, 30 minutes into an hour. You’ve paid your dues if you reach a point where you can be on stage and people are literally paying 25 dollars to see you, because you’ve already put your time in. You’ve paid your dues by figuring out how to be professional and have a knock out performance. You can only get to that point by working clubs, and theaters, and observing other acts and seeing where your material and performance matches up against them. Why was their material wonderful and you were not? Paying your dues is how you walk on stage, how you approach the stage, how you win over the audience. Paying your dues is following someone who has just blown the room away and now you have to go on and do 30 minutes and the audience is just completely laughed out and you have to figure out a way to bring them around. All of that is paying your dues.
Would you define that as being a professional?
I think so. Yeah, but I don’t think being professional has anything to do with the amount of money you make. In the comedy business, when someone comes into a venue, they pay a fee. Now you as a performer may not be getting paid a fee, but the person who did pay to get in, they’re expecting a professional performance. You may not be getting paid but you still need to give them what they paid for. So, yes, by paying your dues you reach a point where you become a professional comedy performer.
To be clear, during this entire period, you were working as a ventriloquist?
Yes I was. Here is the great thing about that. When I was first asked to come and perform at that fraternity, my first realization was that I was going to need something to earn my money. It just so happens I had that old ventriloquist figure, Ted, that I had been practicing with for many years. I had never been in public with him. Now I was forced by circumstance to perform with this figure. As the years went by I used it more and more and by the time I left the University I realized I was a ventriloquist.
What decade are we talking about?
This was the 80’s. Ventriloquism for the next ten to fifteen years was basically a profanity. I can’t tell you how many people told me to drop the puppets. One agent told me to my face, “Drop the puppets. You’re never going to have a career if you keep the puppets.” That’s a quote. So I started using Ted at Janie’s Comedy Club. But, sometimes I would be the MC, and a touring act like Jay Leno would say, “Please, don’t introduce me with the puppet OK? I don’t care if you use it before I go on but put the puppet away before you introduce me. Don’t have the puppet introduce me.”
I understood that, it just wasn’t hip anymore.
I started at Zanie’s Comedy Club as a ventriloquist only. But as time went by, I had to start using stand up comedy and/or musical comedy to do my performance. The benefit of that for a ventriloquist, and I would tell this to any ventriloquist: a great way to get better as a ventriloquist is to get better as a stand up comic. There are three reasons for that.
Number one: if the audience gets to know your personality as a stand up comic in a funny way, that makes your ventriloquist act even stronger, because you’ve made your personality and your character so clear to the audience your figure becomes even more lifelike.
Number two: for joke writing, stand up comedy would help anybody. Because in stand up you are so focused on trying to figure out a way to get to the punch line as quickly as possible that it is going to help you in writing dialog jokes for you and your ventriloquist figure.
And finally number three: being able to do more than one thing from an audience standpoint, comes across as being well rounded or even more talented than the talent it takes to be an excellent ventriloquist.
© 2018 Swampsong, LLC
Next week, Taylor talks about clean versus blue comedy, winning Star Search, fame and family, famous ventriloquists who have passed and his upcoming new book entitled: Taylor Mason, Irreversible, The Life and Times of a Traveling Ventriloquist. See you then.