I love monkey puppets.

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Dear friends, I have been remiss in not mentioning one of my all-time favorite performers who is a crossover talent–the scintillating Nina Conti.  Ventriloquist, comedian, actor, and sometimes-singer (check out the clip at the end of the post).  Now some of you may groan and picture some cheesy–or worse, creepy, Vaudeville-esque wooden dummy with a sad sweaty guy trying not to move his lips.  Throw that shit away promptly.  Nina is smart, creative, and dare I say lyrical in her interpretation and use of ventriloquism as a comedic art form.

Somehow she slipped under my radar for a while, but lucky for me she’s back again, front and center.  I recently watched a documentary of hers that came out in 2012 entitled, Her Master’s Voice (not to be confused with the erotic novel of the same title, and you can throw that away too).  It follows Nina on her pilgrimage to the Vent Haven 2009 convention which is held annually in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky.  Words are almost not enough to paint the scene to which the viewers are privy.  There are more puppets and puppeteers/ventriloquists than I could have possibly imagined existed.  If you are a young person interested in puppetry and/or ventriloquism, nag your parents into visiting.  Even if you can’t go to the convention, you can always be inspired and amazed by the collection of “retired” puppets at the Vent Haven Museum (which is open May – September by appointment only).

I don’t want to say too much about the film’s narrative except that it is a very strange and moving story with some wonderful bright moments of intense humor and it features some really fantastic bifurcation or “voice throwing.”  We also get a very personal window into Nina Conti’s creative inspiration; including information to pique your interest to learn more about the incomparable and sometimes incomprehensible work of Ken Campbell.  What’s also a super-treat is we can watch her interacting with a much wider variety of puppets than seem to be typically featured in her act.

At the end of the day though, I would like to point out that Nina once and for all proves ventriloquism and puppetry can be as relevant, vibrant, and entertaining as any theater art form.  Her website http://www.ninaconti.co.uk, a.k.a. “Monk’s Treehouse” is a bit broken and barren, but there are Youtube clips galore where you can enjoy Nina and the antics of her snarky, foul-mouthed simian hand-puppet.  Pure genius.

P.S. One of my favorites is her short “One Free Hand.”

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I love monkeys.

I not only love monkeys, but I love the word “monkeys.” It has the right amount of syllables, it includes a bilabial, velar, and sibilant consonant, and in the plural form, it is one of the rebellious nouns that ignores the rule of changing from “y” to “ies.”  I admit that I use this term improperly, since I love not only monkeys but most species which fall under the Order “Primate,” which includes: monkeys, apes, prosimians, and humans.

But I am certainly not alone in my love of all things simian.  When at a zoo featuring our phylogenetic cousins, I have noticed that the time and attention spent on these guys is rivaled only by time spent with the “big cats.”  They are so like us in so many ways that it’s positively mesmerizing to watch their interactions.

I think we connect with monkeys and apes on a deep level because whether we know it consciously or not, we share over ninety percent of our genetic code with them; more than 95% with our closest relative–the chimpanzee.  Sorry creationists, but DNA don’t lie.

Back in the 1970’s, there was a documentary by Barbet Schroeder that centered on Koko (full name: Hanabiko), a gorilla that was part of a psychological experiment to teach animals a form of American Sign Language to determine if they have intelligence and emotional responses on par with a human’s.  One of the key members of the project, Francine “Penny” Patterson, has devoted her entire life to training Koko and assessing her communicative intent.  Watching the documentary, I was disappointed that Penny was so intent on “humanizing” Koko–asserting physical dominance while acting as Koko’s mother, imbuing her actions with human moralistic value judgements of “good” and “bad,”  and even offering her make-up; telling her it’s to make her “pretty.”  Give us a break, Penny.

While I agree that we don’t afford primates enough protection and we don’t give them credit for their high levels of intelligence, they are not people.  The differences between us are critical and it’s inappropriate to treat monkeys and apes like our children or pets.  That’s how people’s faces get ripped off.  For goodness sake, we share over 90% of our genome with mice, yet we don’t treat them with commensurate respect.  I believe strongly that animals should be allowed to form social bonds with their own species.  If this experiment had given us undeniable, solid results, then I feel we might have been justified in they way we’ve experimented with these animals.  Unfortunately, the studies have fallen prey to the criticism that too much of the evidence is  subjective and there aren’t enough controlled empirical studies.

Koko is now forty years old and she has failed to mate thus far.  This to me, is a great tragedy as her species is dwindling in the wild due to interference from humans.  We clearly don’t know how to encourage mating in captivity, which I believe, should be our number-one focus before teaching them to “talk.”

If this has sparked your interest, check out Readings In Animal Cognition, edited by Marc Bekoff and Dale Jamieson.  In particular, give Chapter 18,  Animal Language: Methodological and Interpretive Issues a read.