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‘Some people take umbrage — but you can’t cancel a puppet’

Comic ventriloquist Nina Conti is back with a stage show about dating, and after two decades together, isn’t afraid to speak her cheeky monkey’s mind, she tells Deirdre Reynolds

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Nina Conti and her furry sidekick are ready to set hearts racing in their new comedy show

Nina Conti and her furry sidekick are ready to set hearts racing in their new comedy show

Conti: The Dating Show is at Dublin’s Vicar Street on June 12 and The Limelight in Belfast on June 13.

Conti: The Dating Show is at Dublin’s Vicar Street on June 12 and The Limelight in Belfast on June 13.

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Nina Conti and her furry sidekick are ready to set hearts racing in their new comedy show

SHE’S one of the best-known ventriloquists around, but Nina Conti says she has no problem being outshone by a foul-mouthed monkey. The British comic has been bringing her cheeky hand puppet to life for the past two decades — and she admits that fans are usually more excited to get a selfie with Monkey than his wingwoman. “I’ve always managed to keep a very comfortable under-the-radar level of fame,” she tells Magazine+ in a quiet corner of Brooks Hotel in Dublin. “I mean, if you went down the street and put him on — long dark hair, smiling with a monkey — ‘That’ll do, that’s Nina!’ “People sometimes ask, ‘Oh, can we meet the monkey?’ No, not in heaven or hell!” she laughs. “I don’t think I can just bring him out socially — I’d feel like a deluded woman in middle-age holding onto a teddy. “The only place apart from the stage that I would talk to the monkey is like if I’m making videos on my own, but in company, it’s incredibly weird and awkward and I avoid it like the plague.” Since swerving from acting to ventriloquism in her 20s, Nina — flanked by Monkey — has appeared everywhere from Edinburgh Fringe Festival to The Ellen De-Generes Show and Christopher Guest movie For Your Consideration.

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Conti: The Dating Show is at Dublin’s Vicar Street on June 12 and The Limelight in Belfast on June 13.

Conti: The Dating Show is at Dublin’s Vicar Street on June 12 and The Limelight in Belfast on June 13.

Conti: The Dating Show is at Dublin’s Vicar Street on June 12 and The Limelight in Belfast on June 13.

And while the daughter of actors Tom Conti and Kara Wilson was probably fated to end up in the spotlight, even she couldn’t have predicted it would be for throwing her voice — not treading the boards.
“Yes, I think so, because my family seemed to be having a good time in it and it was like the world I knew,” answers Nina of whether a career in entertainment felt inevitable growing up.
“And then I had a little bit of anxiety that I better not just follow in [their] footsteps and get accused of nepotism and everything. So it was very nice to find an art form that no one else in my family wanted anywhere near — it could be all mine.
“Speaking without moving your lips is actually first base,” explains the performer, who has previously also acted in shows such as Black Books. “But then you’ve got to relearn other things, like not to shadow the emotion of the puppet on your own face… and that’s the stuff that takes more time.
“I have to be rigorous to remember to do it because I feel like it became second nature. And then I make a little video and I watch it back and I go, ‘Oh come on! You’ve forgotten not to move your mouth!’”
Described by the comedian as ‘Tinder run by a monkey’, Nina is currently on tour with The Dating Show, which deploys her famed ventriloquist masks to get the audience in on the fun, with upcoming Irish dates in Dublin and Belfast.
“It’s called The Dating Show and then it doesn’t do what it says on the tin at all,” laughs Nina, who confirmed her separation from comedian husband Stan Stanley, with whom she has two sons, in 2020.
“Monkey is in charge of the dating process, so me and the monkey talk for people and I go off their body language. I came up with it more cynically as a TV pitch, but as soon as my bonkers show gets involved, there’s no hope of a proper matchup.
We’ve ended up with people’s parents on stage and everybody’s sexuality is mismatched — it’s very chaotic but really fun.”
So will the 48-year-old share any of her own dating secrets with the audience in return?

“Yes, I probably will let a few slip out,” teases Nina, who has a podcast called Richard & Greta with her partner and comedian Shenoah Allen of The Pajama Men.
“I mean I take the notion of finding true love and all that with a huge pinch of salt, any adult probably does, and whilst falling in love is a wonderful thing, I also find it a ridiculous preoccupation and learning to
be alone is as enriching as anything, or having lots of partners — anything goes. But it’s not like a Cinderella show.”
Over the years, Monkey has allowed the award-winning comedian to discuss everything from heartbreak to abortion, but Nina reveals how she’s not afraid of overstepping the mark with her act either after developing a feel for allowing participating audience members to “self-select”.
“Occasionally [I’ve had] a pig-headed kind of person who takes umbrage or acts like they’re taking umbrage to something that I’ve made another character say and you think, ‘Oh you’ve forgotten the game’.
“I’m not interested in harming anybody. All that hot air around the cancel culture conversation that ‘you can’t say anything anymore’, I’m wondering: ‘What is it that you want to say that you feel like you can’t?’ So, no I’m not feeling like there’s anything I can’t say. I’m not frightened in that way. Like, a monkey is not a person — you can’t cancel it.”

  • Nina Conti: The Dating Show is at Dublin’s Vicar Street on June 12 and The Limelight in Belfast on June 13. See ticketmaster.ie

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