Jeff Dunham has a confession to make: He’s been playing with dolls since he was a little boy.
OK, so technically they’re ventriloquist dummies, but his passion for the art did start at a young age.
“I was just a little kid in the third grade and I got a plastic Mortimer Snerd dummy one year for Christmas,” Dunham told Pollstar. “So I got books and records and just taught myself.”
His public debut gave him his first taste of the spotlight, and the future ventriloquist and stand-up comedian was hooked.
“My first show was a book report on the story of Hansel and Gretel,” Dunham said. “I did about three minutes on the story and then, for the next 10 minutes, proceeded to pick on all my classmates, the teacher and the school and got big laughs. That’s pretty much the formula for what I do now.”
Despite its humble beginning, that formula has earned the affable Dunham legions of fans across the country. Not many comedians can fill a 12,000-seat arena, let alone one who works with dummies.
"Merry Christmas, infidels!" says Achmed the Dead Terrorist.
But don’t think that Dunham’s partners Peanut, Walter, José Jalapeño on a Stick, Achmed the Dead Terrorist, Bubba J, Melvin and Sweet Daddy D are slow on the uptake. As a matter of fact, he’s the straight man in the act.
Interestingly though, he doesn’t think of himself as a ventriloquist and often opens his own shows with a straight stand-up routine.
“When you say, ‘When did the stand-up get into it?,’ I think a more pointed question would be, ‘When did you actually get funny?’” he said.
That’s something Dunham said started in college when he would fly to Los Angeles while his friends were going to football games.
“I started dipping my toe into the comedy club world just to see what the real comedy scene was like – instead of the middle of Texas,” he explained.
It soon became apparent that he wasn’t up to speed in a town where comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno would just show up at a club and kill with 20 minutes of material, not to mention the performers who weren’t as well known but just as funny.
“I realized early on that the ventriloquism needed to be just a vehicle for the comedy,” he said. “It couldn’t be the focus of the act. In other words, I needed to focus on the material and the jokes and keep people laughing. The ventriloquism just happened to be my instrument.
“Even though people looked down on me – other comics looked down on me – and I was kind of chastised for being a ‘prop’ comic, I looked at it as an advantage because I could carry on dialogue, rather than monologue. It was a secret weapon. People would listen more closely and there could be conflict just like in a sitcom.”
Levity Entertainment’s Judi Brown-Marmel, who manages Dunham, has a similar take.
“In the 10 years I’ve worked with him, I don’t think I’ve even used the word ventriloquist when I describe him,” Brown-Marmel told Pollstar. “I’ve always looked at it as he’s a brand of comedy and he has these characters he’s created.
“So in selling it, it was always a question of exposing them to the variety of different characters that open up these different streams of comedy that appeal to a wide variety of people.”
The comedian poses with alter ego Walter.
Dunham says that working with a dummy also gives him greater freedom with his material.
“There’s some sort of unwritten license that allows an inanimate object that becomes animate to get away with stuff that a mere mortal never could. Look at Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.”
The journey from comedy clubs to arenas didn’t come without a few sacrifices. Dunham has had to limit the amount of ad-libbing in his shows – a big part of the act early on – because “with 8,000 people sitting there, it’s tough to do a one-on-one with somebody in the audience.”
Moving into much larger venues, coupled with the current economic climate, has also upped the ante for getting the show right every time.
“I don’t like thinking about it because there’s too much pressure,” Dunham explained. “I understand that so much of our country is suffering right now and just trying to make ends meet. To know that these people set aside X amount of dollars and their time in a horribly tough economy – and by the way, we’re keeping ticket prices low just for that very reason – it’s a lot of responsibility on me. That’s a lot of pressure on one guy.”
But standing in front of thousands of people instead of dozens and being responsible for their happiness doesn’t seem to have changed Dunham much from the Texas kid fresh out of college who moved to L.A. in 1988.
“I try to never let any of this stuff go to my head because you never know how long it’s gonna last. It is great fun right now. It’s been 20 years on the road and the last two have been the payoff.”
That doesn’t mean he’s not thinking big though. Dunham, who has shows scheduled across North America through summer when he plans to take a short break to tape his fourth Comedy Central special, said future touring plans include performing in-the-round in full arenas.