Clean, hip and funny. Those are the three requirements for the humor of Todd Oliver and his canine pals.
Dogs are to take over the The Ritz Theater stage at 2 p.m. Sunday as Todd Oliver brings the Dogs Gone Wild Tour to Tiffin.
Oliver and his dogs have been regular entertainers in Branson, Mo., for more than a decade, and their television appearances have included late-night programs with David Letterman, Craig Ferguson and Jay Leno.
Todd Oliver poses with his canine performers (from left) Lucy, Irving and Elvis.
Oliver previewed his family-friendly show and shared some of his experiences in the entertainment business recently.
A native of Minneapolis, Minn., he has been a traveling performer for about 30 years. He has played in rock bands, appeared in clubs, presented motivational programs at schools and colleges, and performed a standard ventriloquist act.
"I used to play four towns a day, five days a week, on the school assembly circuit. I've been all over Montana, the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin. I really, really enjoyed that. Weather never kept me down. Every now and then, a show would be canceled because of some terrible blizzard," Oliver said.
His interest in performing began at an early age when he saw a ventriloquist on television. He learned from library books, recordings, experts and from performing.
"I loved the library when I was a kid," he said. "They had about a half-dozen books on ventriloquism. There was a nostalgic appeal about it, too. Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy had such class.
He said he read every book he could find on the subject. Then he found a recording - Bergen's "Laugh and Learn Ventriloquism."
"I listened to that record until it wore out. Then I took four lessons from an older pro when I was in my 20s, probably what you would call finishing school lessons," he said. "Really, the audience is the greatest teacher. In the long run, the audience can teach you a whole lot. That's how I learned."
Although Oliver made a good living as a ventriloquist, he wanted to do something different. He had always loved animals, especially dogs, and was living on a small ranch with dogs and horses.
"One day, I was looking at my dog and I thought, 'Man, I bet you've got a lot to say. Wouldn't it be funny to see the world from a dog's point of view?'"
To turn real dogs into puppets, he invented an illusion that gives the dogs a moveable jaw. Before using it, he consulted his veterinarian to be sure it would not harm his four-legged performers.
Instead of dummies, Oliver started looking for dogs to deliver his lines. The dogs needed to be good natured and able to sit calmly during a comedy routine in a crowded theater.
To test temperaments, he would turn each dog on its back to see if the dog would submit to him.
First, he adopted a Boston terrier from an elderly woman who no longer could care for the dog. Then he found Lucy, a west Highland mix and Elvis, a Bassett hound. All had been well cared for, and all adjusted well to being performing house pets.
"I picked the names. I just wanted ordinary, fun names," Oliver said. "They don't really have to do much. The illusion does most of it, and I do most of it. They just have to sit there. I think they've got the easiest gig in show business."
Through the dogs, Oliver wants to deliver a message of the responsibility people must take for their pets. These are domestic animals who depend on humans for medical care, nutrition and love. He gets people's attention with humor and blends in the educational message.
"Hopefully, it will get people to spay and neuter their pets, and make sure their water bowls are clean every day and always full, and make sure that, when it's really hot outside, they're not left outside and, when it's really cold outside, they're not left on a chain," Oliver said.
Also a musician, Oliver wanted to incorporate music into his act.
He composed original music for the show, to be played by his band, The Smiling Eyes. Band members co-wrote some of the songs. They call it "power pop."
In choosing material for the dogs, Oliver said he avoided racy or gross material. Adding a new segment requires three to four weeks of preparation before an audience sees it.
"When I was a kid, one of my great memories was laughing with my mom and dad at the same time. ... It's not a just kiddy show, either. It's for all ages - universal," Oliver said.
So what has Oliver learned from his canine companions?
"They like being with their owners. ... Dogs provide different services, and my dogs provide comedy and communication. They wag their little tails when they go to work. They enjoy working. I believe dogs can teach you patience, and they really can teach you a whole lot about quality communication," Oliver said.
The artist said he enjoys performing in older theaters, such as The Ritz, which tend to have good acoustics and an endearing charm. He promises an energetic show with talking dogs, rock 'n' roll, audience participation and clean fun for everyone.
"I love traveling and coming to new towns. We're going to have a ball," he said.
Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for those 18 and younger. For tickets, visit www.ritztheatre.org, stop at 30 S. Washington St., Tiffin, or call (419) 448-8544.