Before I wanted to be a writer, a filmmaker or even a film critic, my first dream job was that of a full-time puppeteer. I grew up marveling at the Muppets on Sesame Street, the citizens of Mr. Rogers’ Land of Make Believe and the animal companions performed by ace ventriloquist Shari Lewis on “Lamb Chop’s Play-Along.” The puppets didn’t need to blink their eyes in order to convince me that they were real creatures. Their personalities were vividly conveyed through the movement of their mouths and bodies, an act of magic seamlessly executed by puppeteers, the most influential of whom was my lifelong hero, Jim Henson. Even as computers have gradually overtaken every special effects department in sight, puppetry remains as entrancing and euphoric an art form as it has been throughout the ages. In the same year that Julie Andrews and her ensemble of puppets channeled Henson’s nurturing spirit on the marvelous Netflix series, “Julie’s Greenroom,” the grand prize on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” went to a 12-year-old ventriloquist named Darci Lynne Farmer.
Just as last year’s “AGT” finalist, opera singer Laura Bretan, revitalized a type of performance widely thought to be archaic and uncommercial, Farmer has demonstrated how past forms of entertainment can lift our spirits, disrupting the onslaught of anxiety generated by the current news cycle. With her infectious songs and spirited humor, Farmer’s act is straight out of the vaudeville era, a period in American history that culminated in the rise of pint-sized movie star Shirley Temple. Depression-era audiences flocked to her pictures, embracing their innocence and optimism as a remedy for the hopelessness pervading the nation’s collective psyche. During her five extraordinary performances on “AGT,” Farmer emerged as the Shirley Temple of 2017, winning over audiences with her ventriloquism skills, which she embraced as a method to conquer her shyness. Though she had been competing in talent shows for years, developing an astonishingly versatile singing voice that has mastered everything from opera to yodeling, it was her own persistence with ventriloquism—which she first observed at church—that caused her parents to realize that she was serious about puppetry.
When she appeared onstage for the “AGT” auditions, Farmer recounted how her parents gave her a puppet on her tenth birthday. This encouraging gift would prove to be the first of many characters in her ever-expanding ensemble, allowing the child prodigy to up her game with every gig (she’s already been featured in the U.S. and U.K. versions of “Little Big Shots”). I wasn’t even planning on watching the current season of “AGT” until I spotted Farmer’s audition on YouTube, in which her rabbit puppet, Petunia, belted out George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” It’s segments like this in which “AGT” is at its finest, championing the genius of its participants while fully involving viewers in the exhilaration of their achievements. No matter how many times I watch this video, I still get choked up when Farmer responds tearfully to the audience’s ovation and judge Mel B’s slamming of the Golden Buzzer, reserving the ventriloquist a spot in the live shows. Yet the most moving moment of all occurs at the very end, as Farmer embraces her father after the show, while overcome with elation and gratitude. From that day forward, she had my vote.
My favorite Darci Lynne performance to date is the one that earned her a place in the “AGT” semi-finals. As a way of thanking Mel B for her support, Farmer’s new mouse puppet, Oscar, serenaded the judge with a rousing rendition of Smokey Robinson’s “Who’s Lovin’ You.” Watching this tour de force is akin to gaping at the men who kept multiple plates spinning at once on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Not only is Farmer singing her heart out while keeping her mouth closed, operating the head of her crooning puppet and expressively moving his arms—she’s also providing facial expressions of her own, reacting in awe and delight to the neurotic mouse’s sudden confidence at the mic. A great performer never breaks character, and Farmer is as gifted an actor as she is a singer and ventriloquist.
Without question, the best character of Farmer’s young career has been Edna Doorknocker, a cantankerous octogenarian whose flirtations with younger men cause her punchlines to be sprinkled with double entendres. In a must-see routine posted on YouTube, Farmer brings down the house in her home state of Oklahoma, trading impeccably timed jokes with Edna before the feisty old lady proceeds to rap her own version of MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This.” When Farmer insists, “Without me, you can’t sing,” Edna responds with the priceless retort, “Well, without me, you wouldn’t have a college fund.” After a lewd joke from “AGT” judge Simon Cowell caused Mel B to temporarily storm off the set, Farmer roasted him during her semi-finals performance by having Edna cuddle up next to Cowell, while singing the classic Carole King tune, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
Though Farmer noted that “With a Little Help From My Friends” was written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, her performance of the song during this year’s “AGT” finals was most certainly an homage to Joe Cocker, whose rendition of the tune is one for the ages. In a stirring duet with diva Petunia, Oscar nailed the essence of Cocker’s bellowing vocals. If only the great soul singer had lived to see this spectacular tribute. Afterward, all four judges predicted that Farmer would win the competition, and though she appeared giddy, the self-assured composure she had sustained throughout the live shows was fully intact.
Having said all that, Farmer’s final performance on “AGT,” aired live a week ago today, may have been her greatest triumph of all. She was joined onstage by veteran ventriloquist Terry Fator, who won “AGT” during its second season and had been mentoring Farmer throughout the competition. The nerve-jangling environment of the results show combined with the limited rehearsal time appeared to briefly take their toll on Farmer, as she flubbed the first line of her duet with Fator. As she began singing Irving Berlin’s “Anything You Can Do,” she accidentally flipped the “you” and “I” in her opening line, “Anything you can do I can do better,” causing her to momentarily freeze onstage. But as soon as Fator responded with his line, “No you can’t,” she was back in the song without missing a beat. Suddenly, her refrain of “Yes I can” took on a whole new resonance, as she wowed the crowd with her melodic feats, hitting notes that were staggering in their operatic pitch and sustained length. Yes she can, and she did.
Only in the last few moments of the “AGT” finale was Farmer again reduced to tears. She found herself onstage with her only remaining fellow contestant, 10-year-old singer Angelica Hale, who had become her close friend. Hale is an electrifying talent in her own right, blessed with pipes that rival those of the R&B singers she adores. Host Tyra Banks paused for an agonizing thirty seconds before finally announcing Farmer as the winner. Hale immediately crossed the stage and hugged Farmer as they cried into each other’s arms. In that moment, both girls embodied the soul of a true winner, unbound by ego or avarice. All that existed between them was love, and when Farmer headlines her November show in Las Vegas, Hale will be joining her. As for her million-dollar prize, Farmer’s plans for the money are reflective of both her youth and her strength of character: she wants to get her mother a dishwater, donate money to her church’s missionary program and—pending her parents’ approval—adopt a Pug. Regardless of what the ventriloquist’s bright future has in store for her, the ray of joy she provided Americans in the midst of such dark days will be savored for years to come. Here’s to you, Darci Lynne Farmer, Entertainer of the Year.