“RICKY GOES TO CHURCH!” said the front of the VHS box. “RICKY GOES TO CHURCH!” said the back of the VHS box. “Sure,” I said.
When you come up with a title as good as RICKY GOES TO CHURCH! you don’t need a tagline or a description. And sure, it’s about a puppet named Ricky that goes to church, but I’m making it sound too complicated. Ricky is a generic wooden dummy wearing a baseball football sweater that says “ALL AMERICAN SPORTS.” It’s what an AI would generate if you forced it to look at the same tax attorney obituary 1000 times, but still less than that. RICKY GOES TO CHURCH! is the Christian knockoff of your first impression of the VHS box, only whiter.
If you’ve never been to white Christian church, it involves a lot of hymns, which are dull songs read aloud by the bored and uninterested. It’s very much worse than anything, and probably why the box for this only mentions how a puppet is here. Because RICKY GOES TO CHURCH! opens with Geraldine Ragan and Pastor Doctor Larry Davis moaning a sad poem about Jesus Christ’s love. It’s the kind of music that would make you run to the nearest phone and scream, “Fredrich, it’s Kevin! Your cousin, Kevin Nietzsche. You know that externalized expression of suffering you were looking for? Well, listen to THIS!”
You’re not going to like this, but after the song, Pastor Doctor Larry Davis says to the puppet, “Ricky, while we was gettin’ spiritual, I saw you was flirtin’ with Abigail.” He speaks in a sing-songy Kentucky church accent that is both gay-coded and extremely homophobic-coded.
The puppet does not deny this as Geraldine’s mouth clearly form his words, “I love that girl.” It turns out Abigail is a real person, but not one of the performers. She’s a little girl in the audience, and after half an uncomfortable minute, they finally get a camera on her.
This does not seem like part of a planned bit, and Ricky has no jokes prepared for this type of crowd work. Pastor Doctor Larry just went off script to cock block a puppet rather than praise God. It’s a bold way to open your direct-to-consumer VHS Christian puppet show. “She’s about your age,” Dr. Davis continues. It’s not for me to tell anyone how to worship, but this sexual harrasment of a little girl went on so long I opened Google and learned that when they filmed this (1997), Ricky would have been about 34 years old. “Oh, come on. He’s a doll. He’s only playing a character who is nine,” you might say. “Are you fucking hearing yourself,” I might reply.
I’m not exaggerating when I say they then talk about the weather in the nearby state of Alabama for several minutes. Geraldine says “the dogwoods are just about kinda over right now,” and then turns to the crowd to tell them the dogwood is “one of her favorite, favorite trees.” I don’t know why I put that down in my notes, but the silent way the crowd ignored this information felt like a win. It felt like there was still a bit of sanity left in these people’s lives who could clap for a man and woman using a puppet to flirt with a child, yet still know not to give a shit when some lady has a favorite, favorite tree.
It turns out Geraldine rating her favorite trees wasn’t small talk, but a planned entry point into a discussion about the crucifixion, where Jesus was tortured to death on a cross made out of tree. With her own mouth and not the puppet’s, she points out, and I quote, “There is life in tree.” With the cheerful tone she might use to deliver hot chocolate, she explains how the cross that caused our Lord such unspeakable agony was made from dogwood, a fact the tree is still embarrassed about to this day. “I LOVE YOU,” the puppet says to Doctor Pastor Larry, unprompted and unrelated to anything. “oh man that was fucking weird,” my own notes assure me.
Geraldine tells a story about how Ricky used to carry a stuffed dogwood tree with him, pointing to his pocketless American sports pastime sweater. “You LOST IT!?” prompts Doctor Pastor Larry, now back on script. “Yeah, I lost it when I lost the Lord’s quarter,” delivers the puppet. Larry throws his head back and laughs. I don’t know what it means. None of this is how humans talk to themselves or their gods. I feel like a ghost hunter listening for voices in radio static. If everyone on this tape turned to look at me and chanted, “You’re the puppet now, you’re the puppet now,” I would nod my wooden head because what else could this be but a puppet trap?
I should mention Geraldine isn’t a great ventriloquist. She’s better than she needs to be here in this half-remembered echo of Earth behavior, but it’s weird she’s chosen to do this with her life. It’s not only that her lips move with every syllable, but her head bobs around and she talks with her hands. For a good amount of her act, it looks like nothing more than a talkative lady waiting for her ventriloquist friend to finish in the bathroom.
I obviously misheard the puppet’s punchline of “I lost the Lord’s quarter,” so I rewound the tape several times to hear it again and again. But no, my ears kept telling me the wooden boy lost his stuffed dogwood tree when he lost the Lord’s quarter. “Oh well, I guess I’ll never know,” I thought. I let the tape play and heard Doctor Pastor Larry continue, “Ricky, you’ve gotta be a good boy tonight.”
“What are you gonna do if I’m good?” asks Ricky, in the same tone you’d use with a woman you paid to stomp on your balls.
Larry holds up fifty cents and tells the puppet he can have it for being a good boy, but he has to promise to later give one of the quarters to God. Larry drops one of them and Ricky laughs. “That’s God’s quarter,” the puppet shrieks, taunting him and Him. It’s insane, sure, but it solves the mystery of what Ricky meant when he said he lost the Lord’s quarter! Don’t you see? Ricky was making a callback to… this spontaneous moment that hadn’t happened yet? And… no, wait, that doesn’t explain how the puppet l-lost its tree pillow… here? In this future? Oh no. Oh no, I think the tape can hear me questioning it.
Ricky does a long series of quarter gags. He makes Larry hold up a quarter with one hand and two fingers with his other hand. “You know what that is? A quarter past two.” The crowd laughs. He tells Larry to stick them to his forehead. “You know what that is? Head quarters.” The crowd loves it. He then asks Larry to pound on his microphone with a quarter. “You know what that is? A quarter pounder.” The crowd explodes. This is what these Ricky maniacs came to see, but I can’t even look at it. I find it disgusting. I’ve never seen entertainment of lower value. If Corey Feldman sang Laffy Taffy wrappers at the Jonestown massacre I couldn’t be more disappointed in a performer or an audience. Then Ricky says, “I been trainin’. I’ve been doin’ karate,” and suddenly the video has my full attention.
Why did it bring up karate? This is a puppet who calls back to improv lines said ten minutes into the future being piloted by a woman who thinks tree pillows are a relatable hobby. I truly have no idea what to expect next. “I’ve been doin’ so much karate I can even beat up some people,” says the goddamn thing.
This is not a case of his ventriloquist losing her mind again. In fact, I’m starting to think not a single line of this incoherent gibberish has gone off-script. Because Larry pulls out a piece of paper and says, “I saw a list of people you can beat up! Mickey Mouse. You can beat up Mickey Mouse.” Where in the goddamn fuck are you going with this, Ricky?
Larry keeps reading the list of people whose ass Ricky could kick. “Donald Duck. Minnie Mouse. Cinderella. Snow White. And Barney.”
Ricky stops him. “Barney, he already got beat up.”
I’m not leaving anything out. For a very long time this pastor reads a list of cartoons, mostly women, this doll could fuck up with its karate. Then he adds, “and Danny Nailer.”
You’re probably wondering, “Who is Danny Nailer?” Guys, it’s another child in the audience. We’re over halfway through with this act they recorded for retail sale and Doctor Pastor Larry is still doing uniquely-personalized-for-YOUR-corporate-retreat crowd work. And there’s no payoff. The camera never cuts to Danny Nailer’s reaction. Maybe the little bitch ran out when he heard this karate puppet was gunning for him, but the point is we are 15 minutes into this and not a single coherent thing has happened. It’s like a mad artist wanted to deconstruct the very concept of performance by removing all meaning and structure from it. It’s such aggressive nonsense every detail skitters into the shadows of my brain like faces in a nightmare. Like puppets in a fading flashlight beam.
Speaking of, the puppet abandons the bit so his operator can groan a song about a strange man who gives her water in the desert. It’s probably Jesus, sure, but all meaning is three allegories deep and it’s hard to understand a woman singing in Elephant Seal. It is not a duet, but Doctor Pastor Larry Davis fills every moment of silence with the word “Amen.”
To be clear, Brother Larry does not add what I counted to be forty seven “Amens” in any kind of rhythm. He absent-mindedly mutters them like he doesn’t know his microphone is on. Sometimes the puppet will answer back with an “Amen” of its own. It’s singularly weird beyond my ability to describe. This video existing is less likely than all of this being something I think is happening while my restrained body screams, “It’s hot dog upsetting day, and the doll boy says Amen! Warn Danny Nailer of its karate!”
Anyway, it’s over. It’s been enough. After the song, brother Larry tells someone named Bill to get Ricky’s suitcase. Ricky pleads not to be put away. He openly blasphemes, looking up to hear the word of God and telling Bill that God wants him in the choir room. He screams and begs and finally looks Brother Pastor Doctor Larry dead in the eye and says…
Geraldine starts to fold Ricky up and put him in the suitcase while he struggles. While he squeals in pain. She sits back down, but we don’t know why since she’s not one of those ventriloquists who can talk while her puppet begs for its life. They repeat this many more times– her getting up to put Ricky in the box, him losing his fucking shit, and then both of them sitting back down. Prince would look at this performance and say, “Jesus Christ, this is like fifteen too many encores.” Ricky wasn’t built for this type of violence, and at one point his right foot snaps off.
The puppet looks up to the Heavens again and says, “What’s that, God? God said to stay out.” Geraldine knows better than to listen when one of her puppets is talking to God, so she jams him one final time into the box while Larry laughs. After 30 minutes of watching his canned laughter I can tell when Brother Doctor Larry is legitimately tickled by something, and he is having the best time watching this little puppet fucker get smashed into a suitcase.
At about six full minutes, “putting the boy in the box” is by far the longest bit in the routine. This gave me a lot of time to think, and I started wondering if this “please don’t put me in the suitcase, I’m alive” thing was a standard ventriloquist gag. Because it feels like it must be a cliche. Did Geraldine pull this directly from the “sample routines” section of a ventriloquism how-to book? Maybe. But that kind of research could only be done by, I don’t know, a lunatic who had an extensive ventriloquism section in their home library.
So anyway, on page 41 of 1987’s Ventriloquism for the Total Dummy (Everything You Need to Know and Do to Be a Ventriloquist (Real Dummy Included!)), ventriloquist author Dan Ritchard explicitly says not to do this to your puppet. Mainly because it scares children, and if a man living alone with 300 dolls and 301 tuxedos tells you something scares children, take his word for it.
There is some controversy around this subject. In 2010’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Ventriloquism, ventriloquist author Taylor Mason suggested wrestling a belligerent puppet into a suitcase was “a wonderful opportunity for humor.”
So Taylor says go ahead, even if it may be downright scary for kids. No, especially if it may be. However, Taylor Mason may not be the leading ventriloquist authority on this. For instance, in the same book, in a section called “Where to Get Material,” Taylor’s first suggestion is “Steal It.” So it’s possible he’s a hack. Shit, he might have even stolen this idea from Ricky.
So a doll refusing to be put away is either a classic bit or an industry taboo. Maybe the rules are different for Christian puppets? The only way to know would be if someone had a section in their library labeled “Puppets, Christian.” Ludicrous. Absurd.
So anyway, I looked it up in 1975’s Puppets go to church by married puppet authors, Wilma and Earl Perry.
All I found inside were 110 pages, completely blank except for the words “let Ricky out.” Oh, Ricky, that reminded me– I was watching a video about him going to church. I looked up just in time to see Geraldine had finished sealing him in the suitcase and was receiving her standing ovation.
After 25 minutes, 24% of which was putting a doll away, Ricky’s trip to church was over– a full 31 minutes and 26 seconds less than the “Total Playing Time” promised by the back of the box. There will never be anything which fulfills less purpose and with such strangeness as RICKY GOES TO CHURCH. I can already feel it clawing its way into my irretrievable memories. You and I won’t remember what this means, but if you’re reading this, don’t let the puppet out.
What’s a puppet?
This article is dedicated to our fine sponsor and Hot Dog Supreme: Neophont, who never resists, who is a good puppet, who knows the box is home. Box is not punishment. Box. Punishment.