“I started ventriloquism when I was 11,” says Norma McKnight. “I was in the hospital and my mom bought me a dummy out of the Sears catalogue.” Soon, the other kids in the ward started gathering around her bed, and a ventriloquist was born.
“It wasn't something I aspired to be; you'd have to be a little weird,” says McKnight, laughing. But Pete’s Place—a CTV Vancouver kids series featuring ventriloquist Peter Rolston—was a childhood favourite, and McKnight met him at Disneyland soon after.
“He was my first example of an adult making a living at it; that put the bug in my head,” she says.
On the same trip, McKnight’s mother bought her a second dummy—Sir Bradley—at a magic shop. In a bank at Disneyland, McKnight started playing with her new dummy and a crowd gathered. “I ended up doing a little show,” she says. “That was the first indication that I could actually handle a crowd.”
After high school, McKnight started doing birthday parties and over the years, has worked her way up to corporate shows and cruise ships. She has material for a “squeaky-clean” act, but that doesn’t mean she can’t get dirty. “I do more adult material if the venue fits,” McKnight says. “I’m not a conservative person.”
McKnight’s ascent was deserved; her complete lack of lip movement and ability to maintain facial expressions that contrast with her tone of voice put her a cut above. She now has three main dummies: Cecil, a young edgy guy; Norbert, a deep-voiced frog; and Grandma Lucy, fashioned partially after her own grandmother.
She also has two new characters in development, including a Scotsman fashioned after her own father.
As with a lot of comedians, McKnight’s humour started from adversity. Between the illness and passing of her parents and the neurological problems of her sister, illness has played a large role in her life. Humour, she says, helped them keep going: “we were always getting kicked out of hospital waiting rooms because we were laughing,” says McKnight. Like many female comedians, McKnight has faced other difficulties. “When competing for a gig, if you're up against a male ventriloquist, you know they're going to try to get the male. Then they'll take you if he can't make it.”
She says the climate of sexism has been improving, however, and she keeps it out of her act. “Of course, it is fun to take a male out of the audience and use him as a dummy,” says McKnight, laughing.
For her upcoming Halifax show (Casino Nova Scotia Harbourfront Lounge, April 20, 8pm, $20/$15) she’ll pick two human dummies from the audience for the first time. “They're random people,” she says. “So you never know what's going to happen.”