LARGO — When most dog owners attempt to teach their dog to "speak,'' victory is found in a single bark. For Todd Oliver and his pooches, however, success comes in complete sentences. Oliver, along with his Boston terrier, Irving, a West Highland mix, Lucy, and a basset hound, Elvis, will appear Friday at the Largo Cultural Center. The show, billed as "Todd Oliver's Dogs Gone Wild Tour,'' will be an evening of comedic chitchat between the comedian/ventriloquist and the canines. Oliver received his first ventriloquist dummy at the age of 10 as a Christmas present, and he learned the art of ventriloquism by checking out books on the subject from the Minneapolis Public Library during his middle school years. "By the time I was 13, I was doing shows at schools in the area, and by 16, I knew I had no interest in pursuing a college education because I was already doing six to nine shows a week,'' he said. For 20 years, Oliver had a successful career in comedy and ventriloquism, but in 1996, he realized it was time to come up with new ideas. "I asked myself, 'What would my dog have to say?' The show came from there,'' he said. For the past 13 years, Oliver has headlined with his dogs on the Showboat Branson Belle in Branson, Mo. They've also appeared on the Late Show With David Letterman, the Tonight Show With Jay Leno and the Today Show. We caught up with the entertainer by phone Dec. 22 from his 20-acre ranch outside Branson, where he lives with his wife, Melissa Woidela, their daughter, Isabelle, 5, five horses and seven dogs.
1 Can you give me a hint as to how you get those dogs to talk? It's an illusion that I invented.
2 What's harder, getting the dogs to cooperate or for you to be funny all the time? It's always a challenge when it comes to creating the material for the show. The dogs are easy. Remember, the talking is just an illusion.
3 Do you think you're a better comedian or better ventriloquist? I think it's all rolled up into one thing because I've been doing the show for so long. But the fact is that I love family comedy, clean comedy. Here's the deal. When I was growing up, one of the great memories I have is me, my parents and grandparents laughing at the same joke. When the family can laugh together, I think that's one of the most important things in childhood.
4 If someone wanted to take your career path, what would you say is the first step? In order to succeed at both comedy and ventriloquism, you have to first realize you have to be bad at it before you're good at it. When I was 13 and doing mother-in-law jokes, it didn't go over very well. But I kept doing it. I had the dummy in one hand and the joke book in the other. It takes practice.
5 Are the dogs taking an airplane to Florida? We never fly. For the show, we usually travel in two cars, and the dogs ride in an SUV with me.