Jeff Dunham is undoubtedly the most successful ventriloquist comedian of our lifetime.
The 60-year-old from Dallas made his first appearance on The Tonight Show back in 1990, competed in disguise as “Pi-Rat” this fall on The Masked Singer, and in between, he has released 10 comedy specials. Six on Comedy Central from 2006-2014, followed by a primetime NBC special in 2015, Netflix specials in 2017 and 2019, then back to Comedy Central during the pandemic, where he debuted a “Completely Unrehearsed Last-Minute Pandemic Holiday Special” for the Friday after Thanksgiving 2020. His 11th special, Me The People, comes out this Black Friday, also exclusively on Comedy Central.
Dunham sat down with Decider earlier this week, and before talking about his career and the state of comedy/ventriloquism, he disclosed his home hasn’t yet caught World Cup fever, even with 7-year-old twin sons running around. Perhaps that’s because, as Dunham also revealed to Decider, his parents tried to get him into soccer in hopes he’d stop playing with his ventriloquist dummies. Five decades later, young Jeff’s persistence and determination has more than paid off.
DECIDER: The press release says that your 2019 Netflix special, Jeff Dunham: Beside Himself, still ranks among the top five most-watched Netflix comedy specials?! So many other comedians and showrunners have complained they can’t even get hard numbers from the streaming giant, so the idea that you’d know where you ranked is amazing.
Jeff Dunham: In all these years. It’s like, we have agents and people who go ‘No no, I can get the numbers.’ Like, how do you do that? And then nobody will tell you, but it’s always the agents. Somehow the agents have, I don’t know, backdoors into there. Maybe there’s couches and horrible things that go on to get numbers, but I don’t know.
Your new specials since then have premiered back on Comedy Central, where you earlier broke network-viewership records for the cable channel in the late 2000s. Does that history go back long enough, that that’s what keeps you loyal to them, in the face of Netflix money or an NBC wanting to do a special with you, that you’re like, no, Comedy Central, that’s my home?
I love Comedy Central simply because it’s not the dark abyss that happens on, Netflix is great. But Comedy Central tends to re-air things, and so it’s in your face and it’s different than a subscription service where you have to search for it and download it yourself. They only have X amount of acreage that they can advertise stuff. Your interface looks way different than mine. So it’s whatever you’re interested in, those are the things that get promoted to you, so if you haven’t ever looked for me or searched, then you’re never going to see me on Netflix unless you actually look for it yourself. Which is fine. I get it. But I love that Comedy Central actually does promotions and repeats, so it’s always there. People flipping through the channels. There it is, on cable TV. So it’s great.
You introduce a new character in this special: URL. What goes into the calculus of deciding it’s time for a new character, and this is what the new character is going to be?
I always try and create characters that I think people will respond to. They have to identify with them. They have to know that character and understand them kind of intuitively. That’s where Bubba J comes along. Just this Redneck guy. A lot of people know who that guy is. Of course, Walter, this curmudgeonly old man. Who doesn’t know that guy? Nobody knows a terrorist. But at the same time, I think (Achmed the Dead Terrorist) was just this bumbling idiot with anger. Everybody can at least laugh at that. But then, URL: Everybody gets stuck on their devices. Ninety-nine percent of us gets stuck on our smart devices too much of the time, so we can identify with that. Children are on them too much. Parents have to deal with it. Kids complain because their parents are on them too much. So everybody knows somebody stuck on the smart device. So I thought, I’m going to create a younger guy that also has the problem of living in his parents’ basement. So many families are dealing with that now. The kids come back and won’t go away. So there’s all kinds of things there that people understand, right at the outset. Then you write jokes around that and it’s almost a surefire thing.
Your A&E Biography episode from 2012 showed that even 10 years ago, you were on the forefront of 3D printing. Considering your career now spans five decades at this point, how amazing is it to think of how different character-building is for you now with URL compared to when you were a teen?
I really seriously didn’t get into the dummy-making until the mid-80s when I was in college, and back then it was plastic, wood and fiberglass. And those are the mediums that I used until, like you said 10, 12 years ago. I still sculpt them in clay. I still sculpt them. However, I do have a digital sculptor now that helps me every once in a while. I’ll give him notes and he’ll come up with something digitally, and we put it together. I’ll give him notes and he’ll make changes. But still, though, when I have the time, I make them out of clay, then I do a 3D scan, and then I build the shell of the dummy with a 3D printer. So yeah, there’s still a little human element in there, with the sculpting by hand. But the technology is great. All that’s doing is saving time. It doesn’t make the dummy any better. It’s just a timesaver. Oh and the chemicals, too. I hated doing the fiberglass stuff. This Walter that I use now, I made out of fiberglass and after getting high in the garage, not meaning to, I thought this was a horrible thing. So I then would give the sculpts to somebody else and he would make the fiberglass head for me but that nuts. I got out of fiberglass as fast as possible. That’s for people who have air filters.
You said when you were younger in your career, you had to fight against the industry having more of a stigma against being a ventriloquist. But your success has proven, as well as just watching America’s Got Talent on any given summer on NBC, that people love ventriloquism. At least three have won the TV competition: Terry Fator (Season 2), Paul Zerdin (Season 10), and Darci Lynne Farmer (Season 12).
I don’t understand it. I really don’t. But it is a self-contained special effect. So there’s this dummy talking and it shouldn’t be talking. And it’s talking, so there’s that. There’s entertainment value. Everybody you named right there. I think is pretty musical. For sure, Terry and Darci Lynne. Paul did more tricks. So you’ve yet to name a ventriloquist who does ventriloquism.
Well, I’m serious. Those guys, they focus on music, and they’re brilliant at it! They’re great. Darci Lynne is an amazing singer. Terry Fator, same thing, great impressions and voices. Paul did some amazing effects and tricks, stuff like that. And I’ve done ventriloquial tricks a few times. But I tend to go with the comedy of it. And I knew years and years ago, when I started doing the comedy clubs in Los Angeles. I’d do the ventriloquist trick thing, and then Jerry Seinfeld would follow me and kill. I’d sit there and watch these guys, and I’d go, ‘What is the difference here?’ The difference is they’re just comedians. They’re just telling jokes and funny stories, and they’re entertaining. How am I different? I’m doing tricks that won’t last. I can’t come back to this same audience tomorrow night and do the exact same show because they’ve seen the trick. It’s like seeing a juggler. You can see that guy one time, maybe twice. Then you know the act. And so he’s gonna have to come up with a whole new act of juggling different things in a different way. That’s not gonna last. So a juggler cannot have his show on TV. But somebody who’s funny. I would watch a bad juggler that’s funny for 45 minutes. You’d watch a skilled juggler for how long? Not very long. You know what I mean? All it is is bunch of amazing skillful tricks? How long can you do that?
Right, because on America’s Got Talent, they’re competing to win the prize of headlining a Vegas show. But they’re only performing for three minutes at a time on TV. How does that translate to an hour and a half?
That’s exactly right. You think about that. You wonder about some of the ones that they push on and go forward. I get it. It’s for great TV. Even then, sometimes you go well, they did two really good bits, what’s going to be their third one?
I don’t want to be one of the two boneheads that you mentioned in your special out of the 100, who might get offended. Because I’m not offended, more asking out of curiosity, but some of your references are distinctly partisan. For an audience to laugh at the joke about José Jalapeño On A Stick arriving on a bus from Martha’s Vineyard, that’s not only a very specific reference, but also a partisan one.
Sure. What I try and do is this — whoever’s in office is who I make fun of. I think what’s happened today is comedians pick sides, and then they start getting really nasty about it. They call the other half idiots, and that happens on both sides. I go back to the guys like Will Rogers, Bob Hope, Carson, Leno, you never knew what those guys’ preferences were when it comes to politics. It’s like, you had no clue. They would make fun of whoever was in office. They would make up front of an individual guy. They wouldn’t make fun of big groups. And it was good-natured fun. It wasn’t anything mean or nasty. And it’s the same way in my show. When Trump was in office. I had a hell of a lot of fun with that. The videos I did on YouTube, where Walter dressed up as Grump, President Grump. He had on the big wig and all that and we made a goof of him. I even had a character named Larry who was Trump’s personal advisor, and of course, he was a mess. He was a stressed-out mess, half on drugs, didn’t know what was going on because he was just couldn’t deal with the stress of Trump’s Tweeting, didn’t know if he was supposed to tell him to stop or whatever. So that was then. Now the calendar moves forward. And now we have Biden in office, so I’m having fun with that as well. So yeah, there’s partisan jokes, but hopefully I do a little bit of both throughout the years. It’s whatever’s on the forefront. Whoever is on the pedestal, to me is the one who gets the most tomatoes thrown at him.
You also obviously know that there’s a certain criticism of you, because you introduce it in this new hour, with Peanut being the head of HR, accusing you of all these things.
Oh, sure. Yeah. That was the other thing. Hit it straight on the head is what I think, Peanut is there, and he’s trying to make an issue of all the HR stuff.
Are you trying to address your critics with that?
Oh yeah. I point out to the audience. I say what it is. Peanut says that my act is racist and blah, blah, blah, whatever anybody says all the time. I make fun of that. And I don’t think I defend it. I think I just more make fun of the fact that everybody thinks I’m racist. Where I don’t — I don’t think I’m racist. I think I’ve created characters that are caricatures of certain walks of life and certain people. But We never there’s never any jokes about those groups putting them down. I mean, Bubba J is this redneck guy, is celebrated as being a redneck. Old people don’t get upset that I’m making fun of old people with Walter. It’s just kind of celebrated and people laugh at it. Terrorism, again, I’m not celebrating terrorism, but I do celebrate the fact that Achmed has fallen in love with the Western culture. He loves the movies. He loves the cars. He loves the rock ‘n roll. So that’s the way Achmed works now. He’s certainly not what he was 10 years ago.
That’s the delicate dance of being a comedian ventriloquist. The idea that the dummy is saying the offensive thing, not Jeff Dunham. But that’s a conceit, and as Peanut points out, you’re still the person in control of what the characters say.
Yes. But usually what I try to do is argue the other side. And that’s what I tell people, I love what I do. Good comedy is creating tension and conflict. You use those two things to create the comedy. And so having both characters. Have me and the other character. I think I can argue the opposite side of what they are, and we can have discussions about it. And usually I try, the dummy if they say something that’s completely outlandish. And I think that’s, again, I think where good comedy is built.
It feels, though, that you usually lose your arguments to your characters. You end up being a part of the joke
Of course. Yeah yeah yeah. I have to. Otherwise, it’s not funny. It’s like well, that guy’s not very nice.
Do you care if people think that you’re nice or not?
Oh sure! Who doesn’t want to be thought of as nice? I don’t like people who go, I don’t care what people think. I’m like, yeah, somewhere down there you do. Sure. And again, I just want everybody to come out and have a good time at the show. It’s like driving. I’m a really nice driver, unless somebody is an asshole to me. I’m supposed to live by forgiveness, but it’s like really? You’re gonna tailgate me? Maybe I should tailgate you. So I think it’s a little bit the same way in comedy. If somebody’s misbehaving in public and being an idiot, then that’s who’s gonna get made fun of.
When you did the pandemic special, also for Comedy Central, you mentioned that the pandemic was the first time outside of your honeymoon that you had taken a sizable chunk of time off from performing. How did that impact your approach coming back?
I always wondered. I was worried about the voice, number one, because I had never gone that long without using my voice. I had never gone more than two weeks without doing a show. So to sit there for months I was like, is it gonna be like a muscle where it atrophies? And I wasn’t sure. Then I thought just getting onstage, is it going to be like riding a bike? Is it going to be easy? I went through and I wrote that special, and I didn’t go and try out the material anywhere. I just sat down and worked on that stuff. And I thought, I think I know my craft well enough that I think these are gonna be laughs and I didn’t try a joke out on anybody. I didn’t try them on my wife. Nothing. We went and did the special, and it actually went really, really well. And it was really interesting getting onstage to see if that it was like riding the bike and it was…it was months, but it actually went great. The voice held up. The timing was there. The audience was awesome. They were a little more forgiving, too. People sitting in tiny cocktail tables, four people to a table, most people had masks on. It was nuts, but everybody was ready to laugh. So it was great.
So you’re 60 now. Do you think that means when you’re 70 and I come back to interview you, you’ll still be touring relentlessly?
Man, I don’t know. If you’d asked me when I was 50, if I’d be still doing it when I was 60, I would think I would’ve slowed down by then. Isn’t it funny how so many comedians live to be ripe old ages? It’s really, really interesting. I wonder if that says anything. I don’t know. I know Jerry Seinfeld was working on a book or a film or something, about all those old guys that would live to 100 years old. And it’s like, why is that? And then the question is, why do they keep doing it? Why does Leno still get out there? And I guarantee you when all these burns are done (Leno just got out of the hospital after suffering burns from a car explosion in his garage), he will be onstage doing shows again. He is not going to slow down. It’s crazy.
I guess the only thing that may slow you down is if one or both of your sons starts taking it up.
I’ll be like: Please do something else! Don’t be in show business. It’s a pain in the ass.
Have you thought about soccer?
Yeah. Exactly. I’ll go to those games.
Jeff Dunham: Me The People premieres Friday, Nov. 25, 2022, on Comedy Central.
Sean L. McCarthy works the comedy beat for his own digital newspaper, The Comic’s Comic; before that, for actual newspapers. Based in NYC but will travel anywhere for the scoop: Ice cream or news. He also tweets @thecomicscomic and podcasts half-hour episodes with comedians revealing origin stories: The Comic’s Comic Presents Last Things First.