'America's Got Talent': Will a ventriloquist win again?

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment

On Tuesday night, the live show quarter-finals resume on America’s Got Talent, as part of this great nation mourns last week’s elimination of Puddles Pity Party. Because of the time-tested tin ear of judge Simon Cowell, one of AGT’s most intriguing contestants — a sad clown who declined to talk but sang morose songs like Morrissey with a face dipped in white powder — was sent packing, leaving the show with an overabundance of child performers who seem destined to stay in the judges’ favor.

These range from 9-year-old Angelica Hale to 9-year-old Celine Tam. Notice a trend there? The judges favor pre-teens with outsized voices. They also like pre-teens with fluid dance moves, to judge from the huzzahs received by 12-year-old Merrick Hanna. But the kid frontrunner — measured by applause, the judges’ reaction, and Internet chatter — is 12-year-old Darci Lynne, the singing ventriloquist. She is poised to win AGT and become the third ventriloquist to do so, following Season 2’s Terry Fator and Season 10’s winner, Paul Zerdin.

This is an odd state of affairs. In the context of 21st century show business, ventriloquism has a cult audience at best, and is viewed by many of those who think about it at all as a dying art. Aside from  AGT and Jeff Dunham’s occasional Comedy Central specials, where do Americans see ventriloquists plying their voice-throwing trade? Decades ago, the variety show was a healthy TV genre, and shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show, The Perry Como Show, The Original Amateur Hour, The Andy Williams Show, and others provided showcases for great ventriloquists such as Senor Wences, Paul Winchell, and Edgar Bergen.

Now, only AGT exists as a successful variety show, and the reemergence of ventriloquism as a crowd-pleaser suggests there is still an interest in the form, if only as a novelty act. Contrary to what you may think, ventriloquism is alive and well, and I understand that at this year’s Vent Haven Convention — held in July in Hebron, Ky. — Darci Lynne’s brief appearance there was met with rapture. Ventriloquists from around the world who gather there each year there couldn’t wait to have their pictures taken with Darci, who was lauded for both her popularity and her polished technique. Veteran ventriloquists praise Darci’s lip control (that is, she barely ever moves her mouth) and manipulation (translation: she makes her puppets move in a natural manner). And anyone with ears can hear that she’s got a strong singing voice.

And given the fact that Darci’s performance from last week’s AGT has five-million-plus views on YouTube as I write this, it’s entirely possible that she’ll take the big prize. The awards show prediction website Gold Derby maintains that Lynne is the current frontrunner to beat. I wish Darci Lynne luck. I also wish Puddles Pity Party was still in the game.

America’s Got Talent airs Tuesdays and Wednesdays on NBC.

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