Terry Fator turns most unhip showbiz gig into $100-million career
There may be no show business gig more unhip than being a ventriloquist.
Once the mainstay of burlesque shows and vaudeville houses, guys holding puppets in their hands and throwing out one-liners feels as old school as Robert Goulet working the promenade deck on a episode of The Love Boat.
So how do you explain Terry Fator?
The best-known winner of NBC’s summer unscripted hit America’s Got Talent, Fator’s knack for mimicking famous singers through a range of puppets landed him the show’s $1 million top prize and a five-year gig at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas worth millions (inside a custom built theater, no less).
In September, he and fellow ventriloquist Jeff Dunham were ranked at the top of Forbes’ list of most profitable comics (Dunham was No. 1 with $22-million, Fator ranked third behind Dane Cook with $20-million). Which leads to an understandable question:
If ventriloquists are such an endangered, old school species, why are these two guys making so much money?
“I think the key to becoming rich is to find something no one else has that you can do or that you have which everybody wants,” said Fator, calling from his Las Vegas home. “And no matter how much I search, I can’t find anyone else who can do singing impressions without moving their lips.”
That’s right; Fator doesn’t do speaking impressions, because he says he’s not good at them (though he’s got a take on South Park’s Eric Cartman that would kill, if his audiences weren’t so family-friendly).
Instead, the Dallas-raised, onetime band singer turned his talent for mimicking other pop stars into a unique act channeling the voices of Michael Jackson, Garth Brooks, Cher and the Bee Gees.
Here’s what happened when we got him to drop the puppets and talk a little about his amazing showbiz ride:
When I heard you were appearing locally, I thought ‘This guy’s got a $100 million contract in Vegas. Why’s he coming here?’ I’m just trying to do the right thing for my fans. I get so many people that tell me they can’t make it out to Vegas and they really, really want to see the show. So I wanna be here for them.”
It seems like there’s three parts to doing what you do: throwing your voice well, nailing the impression and being funny. How do you balance all of that? Just imagine working on an assembly line. At first, it’s going to seem like it’s absolutely impossible. But the more you do it, the easier it gets and the more you can do it without thinking.
It seems great comic impersonators like Kevin Pollak focus as much or more on being funny and creative than producing a great impression. Oh, I’m exactly the opposite. My main No. 1 concern is, do I sound just like the person. Whether I’m doing, you know, Louis Armstrong or Michael Jackson, I want to make sure I sound just like the original record that people are used to hearing. I feel like I’m not doing my job if every single time one of those puppets opens their mouth and starts to sing that the audience just doesn’t almost gasp in amazement.
Sounds like you spend a lot of time focused on what your audience wants to see or hear. I think that comes from spending 20 years traveling around, doing shows for nobody. When I was doing the fairs and I was an unknown, they said, ‘oh, he’s a ventriloquist, he must be a kids’ performer,’ so they would stick me over at the petting zoo. Now, when I started mixing impressions and ventriloquism, it was an interesting phenomenon because all of a sudden, I went from having 10 to 20 people at a show to filling up every single chair.
How did you make that work on America’s Got Talent? My main focus on America’s Got Talent was: I have to create something every single week so that all of the people that are watching at home sit there and say, ‘I have to see what he does next week.’ And that drives them to the phone.
So why did most other ventriloquists fall off the show business map? You have to also change with the times. What Jeff Dunham is doing, with (his puppet) Ahmed, the dead terrorist, he’s taken something that was the biggest negative of our lifetimes and turned it into something funny. Any time someone does something that is really, really good quality and they’re willing to work and make sure they’re staying with the times, I think they will always be a success.
You’re like a mascot for America’s Got Talent now. They always mention your $100 mllion contract at the Mirage. Simon Cowell actually said that I was the most successful reality-show contestant in history. He told Oprah that I am more successful than all the American Idol winners combined, which is … to come from (America’s Got Talent executive producer) Simon Cowell is absolutely unbelievable.
For sure. I mean, two ventriloquists are now in the top 10 of comedians. I mean, you can look at it either, wow, ventriloquism is really improved or you can say, ‘Has hell frozen over?’ (laughter) There’s two ways of looking at it