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By Amy Serna
It might seem hard to imagine making a successful career with puppets, but that is exactly what stand-up comedian and ventriloquist Jeff Dunham has accomplished.
His fame, however, wasn’t handed to him from the get-go. Dunham has been working with dummies ever since he was a kid, but now the puppets he brought to life have quickly become classic comic icons.
Forbes magazine didn’t name Dunham the highest-paid comedian (along with popular comics Chelsea Handler and Dane Cook) in the United States for nothing. In the past year, the puppeteer earned up to $22.5 million, and Pollstar named him the top touring comedian for the second year in a row.
Dunham’s “Very Special Christmas Special” was the highest-rated show, making Comedy Central history, and his videos on YouTube have received more than half a billion hits (yes, billion with a “B”). While he toured the United States last year in stadium-sized venues, he made more than $38 million in ticket sales.
Dunham is definitely not your average stand-up comic. He uses the personalities and voices of five famous puppets to tell the jokes. As far as the audience is concerned, he is just the “straight man,” and his puppets are the comedians.
There is “Walter,” the grumpy old man; “Bubba J,” the NASCAR-loving redneck; “Peanut,” the crazy animal; “Jose Jalapeno,” the jalapeno from Mexico; and America’s favorite, “Achmed,” the dead terrorist. But keep in mind that Dunham’s puppets are no dummies to fame.
“The ‘Achmed’ sketch is the fourth-most-watched online video ever,” Time Magazine reported. “It's been viewed nearly 200 million times, more even than footage of style-deprived singer Susan Boyle.”
“You really are dead,” Dunham informs Achmed in his 2007 Comedy Central’s Spark of Insanity. “Are you sure?...I just got my flu shot….Wait, if I am dead, that means I get my 72 virgins,” Achmed says, excited. But he soon becomes very confused as he scans the audience and says, “Are you my virgins?”
It seemed that after almost every line from Achmed, a roar of laughter could be heard from the audience as Dunham and his puppet interacted with each other.
Dunham began ventriloquism at age 8, when his parents bought him a Mortimer Snerd dummy for Christmas. Soon after he checked out a how-to book at his local Dallas library, he tried to get as much exposure with ventriloquism as possible.
The New York Times reported that “Dunham trotted out his dummy for whoever would hire him, or at least tolerate it: doing an oral book report on Hansel and Gretel in third grade or retelling Bible stories at church; performing at Six Flags as a summer job, or at fund-raisers for the Christian summer camp his mom sent him to.”
Jeff graduated from Baylor University and moved to Los Angeles to begin his road to comedic fame. He landed a performing spot on both “The Tonight Show” and “Late Night” with David Letterman.
Before long, he landed his first hit Comedy Central special in 2006, called “Arguing With Myself.” Since his fame began to shine brightly, he has made numerous cameo roles in television and movies, including appearances on the TV show “30 Rock” and movie “Dinner For Schmucks.”
In late 2010, Dunham released his autobiography, All By My Selves: Walter, Peanut, Achmed and Me, which made the New York Times Bestseller list.
AmericasComedy.Com had the opportunity to ask Dunham about his puppeteer adventures so far:
When you do radio interviews, do you bring your puppets with you?
“Yes I do. Sound guys or radio jocks will almost regularly put a mic in the character's face, forgetting for a moment or two that they're a bit misguided. Pretty funny stuff.”
You have achieved so much in your 48 years, what is still on your professional "bucket list" that you haven't accomplished yet?
“I want to be in the next Star Trek movie with Achmed as the villain and Walter as a Spock descendant. Just kidding. But that would be cool.”
“Honestly, it's just a journey and planning of doing bigger and better business in any arena where expansion and improvement can build and enhance the other areas of work. I wouldn't say I've conquered any area, but more that we've done really well in a few select areas and it makes me want to make the lesser and new areas be equally as successful.”
“I hope in the near future that we can do a couple of films and bring the characters to life on the big screen, plus continue to expand our presence world wide. Talk of China is on the table, so at this point we're just having fun filling the dance card.”
You have focused on the comedy in your performances so much. How much of your material do you write yourself and do you have a writing staff?
“I write a good share of my own material. When a good joke is written by someone else, I buy it and use it.”
You have been called the world's greatest ventriloquist. What's your reaction to Terry Fator's success?
“I think a few folks that are good performers as ventriloquists have caused a resurgence in the acceptance of vent as a legitimate form of entertainment, and that there are a couple of generations right now who up until the past couple of years, had never seen a good ventriloquist. The one thing I pride myself on, is I'm trying to put a fresh patina on and old, tired and sad art and make it hip and fun again.”
Catch Dunham’s second time performing at Arco Area in Sacramento, Thursday February 3rd. For more information on tickets visit: Click here for TicketMaster's Jeff Dunham tickets.
Photo Credits: RichardMcLaren
Amy Serna is a contributing writer for AmericasComedy.Com, (formerly SacramentoComedy.Com), the official guide to the Sacramento comedy scene. This website is dedicated to comedian interviews, comedy news, comedian biographies and videos for your convenience. You can send your questions directly to The Comedy Guy at Steven@AmericasComedy.Com.