Pinocchio the puppet may have told a few lies but this is small beer compared to the vices of comedian David Strassman's boy made of wood.Perhaps the Canadian-born ventriloquist hasn't provided an environment as nurturing or supportive as did the Italian toymaker Giuseppe in the fable. His little companion, Chuck Wood, an outright delinquent, certainly has plenty of complaints on that score.
The puppet, once described as "an obnoxious teenager who has the bratty sarcasm of a clever thug," is about to be let loose on local celebs in a new TV2 chat show,
The stand-up comic and ventriloquist has made 10 half-hour shows in Australia for a transtasman series featuring well-known Kiwis and familiar faces from across the ditch.
Interviewed after the series was completed and while touring his stage show in New Zealand earlier this year, Strassman explained the attraction of the television chat-show format for a performer with a wooden alter ego. "I could ask the questions a normal presenter would ask and Chuck could ask the questions that we all wish we could ask."
The egotistical, backchatting puppet meets
star Jay Laga'aia and Olympic boardsailing gold medallist Barbara Kendall in this week's first episode. The second features Dr Feelgood and comedian Mike King.
Strassman says he felt the King interview worked the best of his encounters with his Kiwi guests. "With him I kind of grew up as a presenter, as a chat host. I figured out how to be more conversational in an interview. I look at these guys like [American chat-show host David] Letterman and the ease with which they talk to any celebrity. That's from years and years of experience."
He first studied as an actor before turning to comedy. "I went through years of ballet, theatre, the classics. I've studied Shakespeare, Pinter, Chekhov and I've got instruction in theatrical lighting and stagecraft."
During his six years of training he used ventriloquism to busk on the street "to make money because I was a starving actor."
Then he joined a burgeoning comedy-club scene in the United States, working alongside the likes of Seinfeld, Paul Reiser (
), Jay Leno and Michael Keaton.
Throughout his career he has struggled, he says, to distance himself from the "lame" acts of many ventriloquists. "Just think of the word. It evokes a geeky guy with a puppet that has a bow tie.
"Whereas every other ventriloquist is doing weddings and lame cruise ships, my background is really stand-up comedy. I'm a stand-up comedian who happens to have a puppet."
Strassman's first foray into television was a pilot picked up for a series by British network ITV and then in Australia.
After a year as a chat-show host he says he's still learning about the format and the medium. Interviewing guests in front of a studio audience has an element of unpredictability his stage show doesn't, he agrees.
"I have a background in improv so I feel comfortable not knowing what to expect ... My [stage] show isn't that tightly put together. I do have a script but the script changes nightly because I have the ability to improvise a character's feelings, a situation, improvise my response and the puppet's response."
He also has an interest in robotics and says his act has "some of the highest state-of-the-art robotics you'll find on stage anywhere."
There is only one Chuck puppet, which he made himself and maintains. Ted E. Bare, a dim-witted yet manipulative teddy providing a little light relief on the chat show, is not so unique - which might explain the character's insecurity.
Viewers should perhaps be made aware of the bear's sad story. Ted E., it transpires, once spent six months in an institution after trying to commit suicide, is on lithium and goes to therapy once a week.
But while Chuck "gives everybody a hard time", some guests are more than up to the treatment. Laga'aia, for example, has no problem in stumping the stump.
One thoughtful guest brought a well-sharpened axe with him on to the set. "Chuck is made of wood so there was a great tension during that interview."
Strassman promises both he and the wooden-top have done their homework on the guests for the show, albeit from slightly different perspectives.
"There's a lot of preparation that goes into interviewing someone. You've got to know every aspect about their career and their personal beliefs and have questions that follow a path and hopefully garner some good responses."
Sounds very genial and well-intended until the comedian reminds us of the presence of his vitriolic, upstaging, jealous and sex-obsessed young sidekick. "On the other hand, I've got Chuck, who's going to comment on certain [other] aspects of their career."
9.30 pm, Tuesday