On the heels of Farmer’s win, we got Fator on the phone who reminisced about his own America’s Got Talent run, along with what it was like to mentor Farmer, how he felt when she won, and how he’s changing people’s perceptions about ventriloquism.
First, let’s begin with how you got into ventriloquism.
I randomly decided to do it. It wasn’t like I saw it and thought, Ooh that looks like fun. I found a book in my school library and I always knew I wanted to be an entertainer. At first I was a magician and looked into singing and acting. And one day, I found this book when I was 10 years old and boy, it just looked like fun. One of the things that attracted me to it was that nobody else was doing it. That’s not true nowadays. A lot of people are doing it, but at the time, I was the only one doing ventriloquism. I liked that. I wanted to do something that no one else was doing, and I knew that this was what I wanted to for my career—I never faltered from that ever.
Did you have an idol? Or anyone you looked up to?
I look up to any good entertainer, any comedians—those are the ones that had the biggest influence on me. People, like Carol Burnett, Dick Van Dyke, Tim Conway, these were my idols. As far as ventriloquists are concerned, I’d have to go with Edgar Bergen, Jimmy Nelson, Shari Lewis, and Jay Johnson—these were the people who were popular when I was a kid. They’re the ones I watched. If it was a ventriloquist who influenced me, it was those guys, the ones who were always on TV all the time in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Is it crazy for you now that you’re Darci Lynne Farmer’s idol?
That’s really surreal. That was also one of my dreams. One of my dreams was to be able to influence another generation and to also help coach people and encourage them. I had to do this on my own. I had nobody. It was just me. I didn’t have anything to do with the ventriloquist community or anything. There were very few books, so I had to figure everything out on my own. I would have loved to have been in Darci’s situation. She had a mentor who’s a professional ventriloquist since she was about 10. If I had that, then I could have progressed a lot faster, but it took me 20 years to learn what she did in two. But it’s surreal to think now I’m the idol of someone who won America’s Got Talent, and I won it 10 years ago. It’s so amazing and such an honor to be someone who influenced and inspired her—wow. It made me feel so good.
Do you think she’s following in your footsteps?
I hope so. I would love to. Sky’s the limit. I want her to be successful, I want her to be more successful than me. There’s no jealousy. For me, it’s about the next generation. Sooner or later, it doesn’t matter how good you are, sooner or later, you have to pass the mantle onto somebody else. She’s 40 years my junior, so hopefully, when I’m ready to retire in 40 years [laughs], so when I’m 92 and I retire, she can take over.
What was it like meeting her? Were you following this season really closely?
They didn’t want to let this out until after the show, but she actually contacted me about a year ago and told me she wanted to go on the show and if I would help her. And I did—I was helping her the entire time, so every single week, I would meet with her, I would talk to her, give her advice, help her along. I wrote a lot of the material she did to make sure she had quality material. Talk about surreal—to be able to advise and write the material and have her win it.
What advice did you give her?
She would call me and ask for routines. I would write jokes and write routines for her. She didn’t use all the material. Some of the material was written by her, Gary Owen, and her dad. Most of it was stuff I wrote for her and she would do the routines and I would critique them. A couple of times, I would have me and one of my puppets do the routine for her on video to show her how to be more natural and how to look more professional.
But the credit really goes to her because you can only coach somebody as good as they are. The fact is, it’s her because when I would give her advice, I was amazed at how every single time, she would do it exactly the way I told her to do it. She’s so good at taking advice and I have to say, she was so grateful for the help. I wasn’t doing it for any other reason than to help her—I really wanted her to win. I was more nervous when I was watching her than when I was doing it myself. I was 100 percent positive I was not going to win, so there was no pressure. But I wanted her to win so badly. I thought she was going to win, but you never know with that show, because who knows what America’s going to do. Who are people going to vote for? Who knows.
What was your reaction when Tyra Banks announced that she was the winner?
I was holding my wife—we were hugging each other. She was crying while we were waiting. The pressure got to her. When Jerry Springer was announcing me, it took him 15 seconds for him to say who the winner was. This time, she waited 20 seconds. That is torture for a 12-year-old! I was 42 when I got mine, but 20 seconds! You will never know how long that feels. Fifteen seconds felt like an eternity for me, but I know that must have been torture for that poor girl. She was crying. And then, of course, Angelica, who’s 9, how can you do that to a couple of kids, but hey, it’s good TV.
I thought Angelica was so precious and had she won, she would’ve deserved it as well. The top two were exactly who should have been in the top two. But working with Darci—her talent is astounding. She’s one of the most talented human beings on the planet, so to be able to see that get validated at 12 years old, I can’t wait to see what the future holds for her. It took me a heck a lot longer to achieve that kind of notoriety, but I’m so proud of her. I felt like a proud dad.
When you were starting out, you said you were the only one—did it make you that much more challenging for you? Was it hard to get people to take you seriously?
Yes, 100 percent. It’s changing because of people like myself, like Darci, like some of the greats that are coming out. There are a lot of really good ventriloquists out there now. Paul Zerdin won two years ago. People consider ventriloquism a dying art and now, a quarter of the 12 winners on America’s Got Talent are ventriloquists. When I was starting out, I cannot tell you how hard it was to get anyone to take me seriously. Everyone would look at me and say, ‘Oh my kid would love that. You would be great for my kid’s birthday party.’ Well, actually, I was never a kid’s entertainer. I don’t do kid’s entertainment. But now, people are starting to realize ventriloquism can be a legitimate form of entertainment for all ages and not just for kids. I’ve had the top show in Vegas now for almost nine years as an evening headliner. No ventriloquist has ever done that before. There have been afternoon headliners, but I’m the only one that’s ever been able to sustain an evening show and keep it as one of the top shows.
For so long, there was a stigma attached to ventriloquism. You’re breaking the mold, changing people’s perceptions of what it can be.
It feels really good to be one of the ones who are changing that perception. I feel so good about that. I don’t even remotely begin to delude myself that I’m the only one because there are a lot of really good ventriloquists out there and those are the ones who are going to the ventriloquist convention and influencing the next generation as well. Every year I have a scholarship for two or three young ventriloquists who can’t afford to go to the convention. I have them send videos and I choose the two or three who I feel are the most worthy, who will learn the most and get the most out of it.
Why is ventriloquism so popular now? Do you think it’s because of America’s Got Talent?
No doubt about it. America’s Got Talent has completely changed everything for us. Not just for ventriloquism, but for everyone because I was in my 40s and really had no chance ever at all getting discovered. Ever. And then AGT came along and changed everything. It allowed me to have a national audience. It allowed me to get in front of millions of people, and what a difference does that make. I owe it all to America’s Got Talent. What an honor to be a part of the family. I’m just so thrilled.