Comedian-ventriloquist Dan Horn has earned a reputation as one of themost technically adept ventriloquists in the business, working with a cast of hand puppets whose arms he manipulates with a rod in his free hand. As one newspaper critic said, Horn's "visual effects are almost as stunning as the vocal ones."
But Horn, an Irvine resident, is careful about how he is introduced on stage.
"Usually when I'm introduced I don't have them say 'ventriloquist' at all because many times people just go, 'Oh, ventriloquist. Great.' They just kind of prejudice themselves right off the bat.
"I think the stereotype of the ventriloquist is the guy who tells bad jokes with a puppet that doesn't look real and he moves his lips."
Horn laughed, adding, "I like to think I'm not that."
The comedian-ventriloquist, who will appear at the Laff Stop in Newport Beach today through Sunday, headlines at comedy clubs around the country and has appeared on such shows as "Comic Strip Live" and "The Showtime Comedy Club Network." Next week he'll tape a segment of "Stand-up Spotlight" for the VH-1 cable channel.
Horn, who has a likable on-stage personality, shares the spotlight with an offbeat cast of characters.
There's Orson, a 91-year-old retired vaudeville singer. He's a crotchety old guy who, when Horn asks him what he attributes to his long life, shoots back: "The fact that I'm not dead yet."
Orson is usually the audience favorite, but there's also:
* Cassandra, "your typical, saucy 13-year-old female."
* Polly Esther, Orson's former vaudeville partner whom he's had a crush on for years.
* Little Gary, Orson's own small, wooden-head ventriloquist dummy.
* E.P., who vaguely resembles E.T. and whose initials stand for Extra Puppet.
* Fuzzy, a little dog that is only a small part of the show and doesn't talk.
All of Horn's "co-stars" (except for Little Gary) are "soft-sculpture puppets" made of foam, cardboard and cloth that are made by Horn. (He said the soft puppets are not only far less expensive but capable of more movement than the traditional wooden-head dummies.)
Horn's interest in ventriloquism dates back to when he was 4 1/2 and saw Vonda Kay Van Dyke perform at a Phoenix amusement park. You remember Van Dyke, the 1965 Miss America whose talent was ventriloquism?
For Horn's fifth birthday, his parents bought him a little Danny O'Day dummy along with ventriloquist Jimmy Nelson's "Instant Ventriloquism" record. "I still have the record," Horn said. "I probably played it a thousand times when I was a kid."
Growing up, Horn was something of a "closet ventriloquist."
"When I was older, it wasn't something I talked about much. I wasn't a popular kid and I didn't need to add fuel to the fire," Horn said. "When I was kid, the other kids said (in a singsong taunt), 'Danny plays with dolls.' Now I like to say (in the same singsong voice): 'I'm playing with dolls all the way to the bank.' "
He made a few dollars a week in eighth grade doing puppet shows at nearby children's nurseries--"I was kind of sick and tired of mowing lawns for a living." Yet it wasn't until he was majoring in music theory and composition at a community college in 1978 that Horn began performing his ventriloquism act at talent shows and did a show for city officials in Phoenix.
That led to a five-year contract with the city to use his puppets in teaching traffic safety tips to elementary-school students. He couldn't have asked for a better training ground: He did two 30-minute shows in the morning and two in the afternoon five days a week.
"That gave me plenty of time to work out the flaws in my technique," said Horn, who also appeared on a Phoenix children's TV comedy show for six years in the '80s.
For Horn, when it comes to doing comedy, there's nothing like ventriloquism.
"I really like the aspect that the entire thing is just pure fantasy," he said. "I think comedians who do political or topical humor are very clever, but it's still kind of reminding you of all the troubles in the world.
"I think my show takes people out of their worries and just gives them a little vacation from that."
Unlike the typical stand-up comedy act, Horn said, "I look at my set more as a little sitcom, sort of like a 45-minute play rather than just a string of joke after joke because there's an actual story that unfolds in my show, especially when I'm using Polly and Orson together."
Horn said he has always tried to be as "technically perfect" as he can be as a ventriloquist. Anything less, he said, "just takes a little bit away from the charm of it. . . .
"It's a whole symphony of things that go together that creates the final result, which is an illusion that there are two people on stage."
And that's one of the advantages a ventriloquist has over a stand-up comic: Horn never feels alone on stage.
In fact, he said, he has a section in his show where he does a couple of jokes (sans puppets) about being a ventriloquist: "I talk about situations where I've thrown my voice and because I did I'll never be asked to be a pallbearer again."
When he first started doing the solo segment, he said, it was "a real insecure part of the show for me because it was just me and the audience."
Although he now feels more confident being alone on stage, he concedes he is "much more comfortable with the puppet."
And in working with a puppet, he said, the importance of comedy timing is even more crucial than when doing a solo stand-up comedy act.
"Sometimes going back and forth with the dialogue I get to the point where I have to swallow, and it just makes the next line come out a fraction of a second late," Horn said. "It's amazing how much it can weaken the punch line if it's just a swallow off."
Dan Horn appears with Dave Conrads tonight through Sunday at the Laff Stop, 2122 S.E. Bristol St., Newport Beach Wednesday. Show time today: 8:30 p.m. Tickets: $7 to $10. Information: (714) 852-8762.