In 2010, Forbes ran a story about the ten highest paid comedians in the country and at the top of that list was ventriloquist Jeff Dunham. Through television specials, merchandise, and a rigorous touring schedule, Dunham had reached the top of his profession. Dunham is now a household name and a huge draw that sells out stadiums throughout the world.
That’s right, stadiums. Tickets for an upcoming show at the Tampa Bay Times Forum (the home stadium for the Tampa Bay Lightning) start at $90. Jeff Dunham not only plays these places, but tickets frequently sell out and they are not sold for a small amount of money. Dunham’s touring success naturally extends to his televised triumphs as well. His standup comedy specials continually set viewership records for Comedy Central and the only mis-step in his career seems to be his disastrous sketch comedy show for Comedy Central, The Jeff Dunham Show, that is diplomatically described as a “limited commitment series” on Dunham’s web site.
The question of whether Jeff Dunham is a great comedian or not is moot. The question standup neophytes would most benefit from asking is: what does Jeff Dunham get right? How did a ventriloquist become the highest paid stand-up comedian in the world?
At 8 years old, Dunham was given a wooden puppet for his birthday and in the intervening years, he diligently worked to master the art of ventriloquism. By his account, he even brought his dummy along with him to high school and would entertain his classmates. Like anyone else at that age, he had found the one thing that made him special and used it to survive those harrowing years of adolescence. Unlike the rest of us, though, Dunham was already using his skill to make cash on the side, even scoring a gig as spokesman for the local car dealership in his hometown of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
After college, which Dunham paid for with the gigs he booked as a ventriloquist, Dunham decided to pursue standup comedy. He quickly rose through the ranks, though it was hardly all glory on the stage. Dunham’s wholesome ventriloquist act would leave some of the rowdier venues cold and taking the advice of friend, colleague, and fan Bill Engvall, Jeff Dunham started peppering in some off-color humor, but still worked pretty clean.
At around this time, Jeff Dunham created his oldest and best-loved character, Peanut. A purple alien who practically hums with madcap energy, Peanut proved to be the perfect counterpart to the white-bread Jeff Dunham. In this clip from Dunham’s second comedy special, Spark of Insanity, Peanut spends two and a half minutes goofing on Dunham’s name:
In watching this clip, we see why some purists bristle at Dunham’s rise to the top. In the clip, hardly any jokes are told. There is no wry comment on society or culture. But it doesn’t matter — what Dunham is providing is much more entertaining to this audience. Peanut is silly and weird and would not be out of place on a children’s program (well, minus the dirty stuff) and at the same time the audience is enthralled by Dunham’s mastery of throwing his voice. People are getting a thrill, not just from the humor, but also from Dunham’s ability to do so much. We forget we are watching one comedian and really feel that we are watching some kind of bizarre comedy team. Like a magician, Dunham has tricked the audience into believing something that is not real exists.
Jeff Dunham’s mastery of ventriloquism is a remarkable achievement, and by all accounts, Dunham is the very best at this particular skill — a yearly convention for ventriloquists called Vent Haven ConVENTion, named Dunham a “retired champion” as after years of winning contests, no one wanted to compete against him. This should not be discounted. Dunham worked diligently to master this skill and it’s a sobering reminder of the kind of discipline one needs to make it in show business.
Hard work is not something that Dunham turns away from. He hand crafts every puppet in his act, and is on the road constantly. Nor was his rise to the top by any means meteoric. Dunham has insisted that he was more or less blocked from the “hip” comedy clubs of New York and L.A. early in his career because of his act, but persisted in venues around the country. He was called to Johnny’s couch on his first appearance on The Tonight Show, but soon afterwards, the comedy boom of the 80’s and early 90’s fizzled, but he was not yet into theaters.
For most of the 1990s, Dunham kept plugging away. He was by no means struggling. Between lucrative corporate gigs (which as any comic can tell you, usually pay more in one night than an average club pays in a week), and headlining A clubs throughout the country, Dunham was doing very well.
Throughout the years, Dunham added a large roster of supporting players to his puppet theater. In addition to Peanut, he added, Walter (a crotchety old man), Jalapeno on a Stick (exactly what he sounds like), Bubba J (a redneck good ol’ boy), and a host of others. As Dunham continued to travel, he found that his act was flowering with the addition of these characters. Bringing Walter on stage would get a rapturous applause break, as if he was a crazy sitcom character making a first appearance in that episode. Dunham knew how popular his characters were and knew that if he had an opportunity to do more television, he could make a real push for the mainstream.
After years of petitioning Comedy Central for an hour-long special, Dunham sank his money into a self-produced special called Arguing With Myself. The gamble paid off. Comedy Central aired the special in 2006 and it garnered big ratings. Since then, Dunham has released several specials, including Christmas and Halloween themed specials that are often the highest rated specials for Comedy Central for that year. Dunham’s Spark of Insanity to this day remains the most watched program in Comedy Central history.
Dunham does not get enough credit for this particular maneuver. Comedy Central at the time was resistant to his act, preferring instead to focus on younger, edgier comedians. However, Dunham was confident that his special would find an audience and Comedy Central soon learned that a middle aged man playing with puppets, while not the hippest act out there, was much more appealing to television viewers than the sneering cynicism of the “edgy” downtown comics plucked from Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
But let’s get back to the puppets. What is truly amazing and unique about Dunham’s act is that he has created a rich world filled with an enviable stable of broad, silly characters, not unlike Jim Henson’s Muppet universe, although his characters are often much ruder and cruder than the gentle humor of Kermit. In the following bit, the character Walter gives his views on marriage:
However, Dunham’s most controversial character may well be his most popular: Achmed the Dead Terrorist. Introduced into his act about a year after 9/11, the character has become a break-out star. While many may bristle at the character as an offensive Muslim stereotype, Dunham is quick to point out that he has never identified Achmed’s religion. Nevertheless, an ad for ringtones in South Africa featuring the character was pulled after being deemed “offensive.” However, as this clip shows, the character is rather benign. It is not necessarily the religion that Dunham is lampooning, but the puppet’s ridiculously single minded thirst for terror.
Nevertheless, as a comic working on an international level, it is surprising that this has been the only moment in which Dunham rubbed against controversy. His characters seem to go out of their way to say things that are politically incorrect, such as Walter’s homophobic reaction to the Toyota Prius starting at the 2:15 mark:
In interviews, Dunham often says that his puppet characters allow him to say things that would not go down well if he said them himself. Curiously, without the human element, they wouldn’t be able to get away with what they say either.
Part of Dunham’s genius is acting as the milquetoast everyman admonishing the characters when they say horrible things. He is the only man on stage, after all, and it is his acknowledgement that what the characters are saying is not nice or respectful that lets the audience off the hook for laughing at it. They are cartoonish puppets, after all, why should they be taken seriously?
Recently in standup comedy, there has been a sense of naturalism that has sprung up among comedians. Former absurdists like Louis CK and Paul F. Tompkins have turned toward a more confessional and personal brand of comedy that can mislead younger comics with the thought that the old forms of show business are no longer relevant. This, of course, is a mistake. While Tompkins and CK are not as overtly theatrical as Jeff Dunham, the ability to command a stage and make every word that leaves your mouth seem like it’s the first time its been done is show business.
Watching Jeff Dunham is extremely instructive in this regard; his mastery of the stage and the confidence that he projects allows him to get up there with a half a dozen puppets and leave the audience completely transformed. They believe he is talking to a Jalapeno on a stick. The skeletal remains of a terrorist is threatening to kill everyone and we buy into it. A purple alien is humiliating this poor man and we feel sorry for him.
We may dismiss Dunham because his humor is not to our tastes, but Goddamnit, that is some world-class, old-school showmanship!
Jeff Dunham has shown that hard work, persistence, and a unique vision are absolutely crucial ingredients to becoming a successful comedian. No matter what one wants to do with their comedy, these traits are essential. These traits are why Jeff Dunham gets our begrudging respect.
Justin Gray is a standup comic, podcaster, and writer living in NYC, which is a fancy way of saying he is poor.