Nina Conti: Don’t blame me, I’m not my monkey’s keeper

Going ape: Her sidekick Monkey has outspoken views on women and charity workers Claes Gellerbrink

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There’s a section, midway through my new show, where Monkey takes the floor without me. He takes questions and gets the chance to bond with the audience without me guffawing and apologising and generally getting in the way. And I’m finding it to be a much cleaner, happier and occasionally more vulgar place.

My late, eccentric, genius mentor Ken Campbell came to my flat once with a special and urgent message for Monkey, which I’ve tried to live by. I started my sound recorder and Ken spoke directly to Monkey, ignoring me. I transcribe:

“Let me tell you about human beings. Human beings are in fact far crazier than they would let it be known – and creativity and insanity are almost the same thing. Now through their education and whatnot they’ve learnt to armour and guard against their own insanity. Once your insanity starts to leak, that’s when you’re put away.

“However, the ventriloquated doll gives us access to the insanity of the ventriloquist. Schiller said ‘there is a gatekeeper in the mind and it’s the gatekeeper that stops you being creative’. It’s your job, Monkey, to kill off the gatekeeper. She can’t do it – you can! Kill off the gatekeeper so that we can go raw into spontaneous imagination and creation.”

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Conti says: 'My greatest regret is that I didn't start ventriloquism younger'

I found that to be very stirring stuff. So I try to give Monkey free rein but it’s dangerous. It means that he’s entitled to the first thought that occurs, the one we’re conditioned not to say.

Recently at a gig in Brighton I found Monkey attacking someone for working for a charity. “What an arsehole!” he said. “What a lot of bull! What a waste of a life, just so you can make us all feel bad for doing less.” I was mortified. This is not what I think about a person who works for a charity and yet Monkey came out with this torrent. And calling the host “a fat lazy git” at a corporate event certainly wasn’t my idea either.

So the thoughts occur in my head, but I don’t own or stand by them. And Monkey is abhorrent with women. If a male stand-up was to go on about someone’s tits the way Monkey does he’d be reviled. I don’t want to be making an excuse for that kind of thing, I hate page three culture, but Monkey still gets past the gatekeeper. Of course Monkey would treat men the same way. He’s not at all respectful, which to me and my intellect is a great relief.

I’ve just been made a doctor of letters by my old university – University of East Anglia. They did a good job of connecting my subject – philosophy – to ventriloquism as I have never been able to, in that it’s a dialogue with the self. So through Monkey I’m allowed to have an irresponsible thought beyond my consciousness and then I try to work out where we’ve got to.

God forbid one day I get myself into libellous trouble by saying something really foul or politically monstrous while in a Monkey ecstasy. I can just imagine trying to explain to the court that it wasn’t me, it was the monkey.

But Monkey is not all horror, he’s transient. Yes, he can be a filthy misanthropic anarchist, but also a wise and loving Buddha, switching allegiances without apology. He’s not worried about his ego, he never messes up his close-ups, and he doesn’t know fear. He lives beyond the bounds of responsibility with no onus to be consistent.

Let me tell you what happened in my head just now. I looked at what I’d written and doubted the truth of any of it. Honestly, an acrylic glove can’t be that helpful. But my next thought was, maybe I should write this piece as a dialogue with the Monkey? So I just put Monkey on – and the relief that my proper pen was back in my hand was palpable. 

Monkey: What’s this pseudo-intellectual shit? How long you been at it?

Nina: It’s an article about why you’re a useful tool.

Monkey: Don’t mention the doctor of letters thing Nina, so pretentious and hateful.

Nina: I’m worried this whole thing is going to make me look mentally ill…

Monkey: Shut up! It’s ART! Stop getting in the way and worrying what people are going to think about you. It’s living art. Suggesting it’s a mental illness is a crime against those who suffer one. And what’s all this about me going on about tits? I don’t give a shit about tits. You’re the one that finds them funny.

Nina : Yeah, but they’re not supposed to be. And it’s not very sisterly

Monkey: Well you’ve been socially conditioned. Get over it.

Ken was known for telling people that rather than disbelieve outright, we should try to suppose things. “So just suppose for a moment that ventriloquism was the greatest art form known to man. You don’t have to think it, just suppose it.”  Ok. I will. 

Nina Conti is playing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to 31 August and  then touring the UK.  For information go to ents24.com

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