OCEANSIDE — At front stage center, Orson, an older, more mature cloth dummy was talking to a younger, wooden dummy.
"What's your favorite class in school?" Orson asked.
"Wood shop," Little Gary replied.
"What are you building?"
Dan Horn was standing behind the two Wednesday evening at Comedy Nite, not saying a word but doing all the talking.
Blending physical gags with good back-and-forth exchanges, Horn and his entourage of puppets put together a racy, entertaining and at times positively hilarious 50-minute set. The 150 fans even brought the stand-up ventriloquist back to take a bow, uncommon at comedy clubs.
Horn's material is top-notch, and he is gifted at throwing his voice, but what's best is the way he makes you forget him as he works his puppets--Orson (the 91-year-old dirty old dummy), Little Gary (Orson's young pal), Cassandra (a little red-haired moppet totally taken with herself), E. P. (Extra Puppet) and Polly Ester (an older, matronly type).
It was easy to feel that Orson had his own mind and thoughts. And that he really was arguing with Horn. That Horn really did hurt him when he bopped him on the head with the microphone.
The crowd got lost in the act and forgot that Horn was pulling all the strings and that there is only one person on stage and the others are just cloth, wood and glue. The illusion was complete.
Even Horn seemed to be caught up in this dichotomy, having a great time and making himself laugh, particularly at the end of the show when Cassandra's eyes and hair kept popping off and flying about.
At one point in the show, Horn, who has been performing professionally since 1979, used a live prop, plucking Leslie DuFresne of Oceanside from the audience. (This was a busy night for DuFresne. Earlier, she had also been the object of Orson's dubious affections.)
Standing next to her, Horn squeezed the back of DuFresne's neck to make her mouth move and attached over-sized marionette sticks to her wrists to manipulate her arms.
DuFresne's first words sounded like they were coming from Mr. T, deep and guttural. The crowd roared. She asked for a different voice. Finally settling on a falsetto, the pair continued the act.
Unfortunately for Leslie.
She discovered she had a new-found favorite word, which she kept repeating--much to the crowd's delight, but causing her to turn redder with each syllable.
The opening segment, which featured Orson, had some weak points despite some strong visual gags, but the show finished very strong. Orson's fight scene at the end, before he was returned to his crate, made you believe that Orson had a chance to win and would be stuffing Horn into the suitcase at any moment.
Horn, 32, started learning ventriloquism when he was 5 years old after seeing a ventriloquist perform in his native Phoenix.
Horn now lives in Irvine and spends about three weeks a month on the road doing comedy clubs and colleges.
His television appearances include Showtime, Fox's "Comic Strip Live" and a date for "Evening at the Improv" on tap.
During a break between puppets Wednesday, Horn talked about having off-hours fun with his talent, including one time at a restaurant when he made a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth's syrup talk.
"People didn't even know she knew those kinds of words," Horn said, laughing.
He also recounted the time he was in a funeral.
"I'll never be asked to be a pall bearer again. That probably wasn't in the best of taste."