Terry Fator is pure entertainment. His act, including more than a dozen puppets and an astonishing range of impressions and characters, is non-stop fun. There is something to make anyone laugh, but, even harder to find, there is a lot to make everyone laugh. In this divided world, Fator manages to find a way to make everyone in the audience feel comfortable and welcome, and to leave his audiences astonished by his versatility and delighted with his gentle humor. He is one of the most popular performers ever to appear on “America’s Got Talent,” where he won the top prize, and is now a headliner at The Mirage in Las Vegas. In an interview, he talked about getting started in grade school, the only thing that made him nervous on “America’s Got Talent,” and the trick to doing Donald Trump.
Have you always loved performing before an audience?
Yes, I was always an entertainer from the time of about two or three. I could always impersonate everything and anything. I was the kid that probably was incredibly annoying because I could be at K-Mart and then they would say, “There's a Blue Light Special in the Boys Department.” And I would go, “There's a Blue Light Special in the Boys Department” in exactly the same voice. When a siren went by I tried to impersonate the sirens. I was one of those kids that just knew how to copy people and things and animals and everything else.
I remember standing on a table, singing to an audience and they were cheering and laughing. I remember distinctly thinking, “I really like this feeling. This is a great feeling.”
You appear in the wonderful documentary about ventriloquists, Dumbstruck. Some of the families are not very enthusiastic about ventriloquism. What was your family like?
I was always kind of a weird little comedy kid anyway so I kind of brought laughter into the family. We had a difficult childhood. My father was very abusive and we worked a lot. I was always the kid that could find the comedy in whatever situation so you know we also worked a lot. My parents had a janitorial business. Because there were no other workers other than the family there were times when we had to work thirty-six straight hours with no sleep. We would clean apartment complexes and we would have to do two hundred fifty apartments in a weekend and so we would just work, work, work a whole weekend without any kind of rest or sleep. I was that kid that was always finding the comedy in whatever and cracking jokes. So I think when I started doing ventriloquism, it was something new but I was making them laugh so they didn't really care.
My dad was never supportive but my mom was supportive and my brothers and sister were. One time, I was maybe eleven or twelve, and I told my family. I said, “I can't seem to get a rapport with my puppet. It doesn't feel like it's a real person so I'm going to carry my puppet when I’m around the house and bring my puppet to dinner. And don't think I've lost my mind. I'm not losing my mind. I'm just trying to learn to talk with my puppet as if it's a real character, a real person.” So I would sit there and I would have the puppet interject at the dinner table and I never did cross a line. I felt like they were family members - the puppets you know. And no, I'm not afraid for a puppet to sit alone in the room with me at night. They don't come alive unless I'm holding them.
What kind of an adjustment did you have to make going from relatively small audiences to the kind of audiences that you get now?
The odd thing about the “America's Got Talent” thing, the only time I got nervous was when I was when I wasn't sure if I was going to go through to the next level or not. That was when the nerves were but it was more of trepidation. “Oh my gosh, is this the end? Am I going home or am I going to get to go through?” It never even occurred to me that I was on television in front of millions of people. I totally forgot that there were cameras there. All that mattered as soon as I set foot on that stage was the live audience and the judges.
An audience is an audience and I do it for the love of the audience and for the love of the craft. Being famous has its perks and being successful is great. But the only reason, the real drive for me and the reason I want that fame is because it translates into people in my audience that enjoy what I create. The rest of it just doesn't matter to me at all. It really matters that for every person that's there to give them the best show that they can and the fact that somebody is enjoying what I create is what drives me.
What makes someone a great ventriloquist?
I think the real key is creating characters that people fall in love with and identify with. We are kind of magicians in a sense in that we make inanimate objects talk.
How long does it take you to introduce a new character?
Every character is different. It depends on who that character is and the characters also evolve over time. With Donald Trump I tried really, really hard to get the voice but it's really physically impossible to do Donald Trump's voice without moving your lips and the reason is you have to purse your lips in order to get that certain tone. So I really didn't focus as much on trying to get a real legitimate impersonation of his vocal tone and more just to keep the bigness of his character. I don't do political humor, I don't bring politics at all into my act. I'm one of those people that just feel that you know we're entertainers and it's not our job to try to convince one person, any one of our political opinions one way or the other. They are there to be entertained. The reason that I never had a Barack Obama or George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton puppet is because those people are known specifically for politics. With Donald Trump, he is an iconic person that we all know of for several different reasons, whether it's a reality show or the guy who owns the Miss Universe pageant or the Trump Tower or a casino owner. I don't make fun of Donald Trump because I don't want to irritate half of my audience. I just have fun with the bigness of his character, with his personality. I just want to have fun and make people laugh so I am a very positive person and all my comedy is very uplifting and positive.