Walk of Fame Honoree Jeff Dunham Opens Up About His Constant Reinvention
It’s a hot, muggy day early in August, and Jeff Dunham – on a rare day off – is relaxing at home in L.A.
Well, sort of.
While his 2-year-old twin boys play in the media room and his wife, Audrey, is busy in the kitchen, Dunham, who’s receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Sept. 21, is on the living room sofa, working.
Joined by two of his most popular puppet alter egos — the manic Peanut and grumpy Walter — Dunham is quickly shooting another video for his hugely popular YouTube channel (with more than 1 million subscribers, his videos have reached over 1 billion views), which will be uploaded the following day.
One of the biggest entertainers in the world today, Dunham has single-handedly, so to speak, resurrected the old-fashioned art of the standup ventriloquist and dummy by giving it an edgier, more contemporary voice. He is in the middle of his latest sold-out arena tour, “Perfectly Unbalanced.”
“We keep calling it different things as there’s a constant change-over of material, as I’m usually trying to work on the next special,” he says. “And for me, that’s working on it joke-by-joke, bit-by-bit, so when I have a chunk of new material, I bring that in and throw away some of the old stuff. So it’s a constant snowball flying down the hill. Chunks fly off and new pieces attach.”
He notes that this process, “which is how I’ve always worked,” is quite different from the ways other comedians and musicians he knows work. “They release a new special or album, promote the heck out of it, tour it, and then they quit touring and go back and write the next album or special. Then they repeat the whole process.
“But I never do that, and we change the tour name after the special comes out, as I put in as much new material as I can from the time we tape and it comes on the air, so when people come out to the show, it’s not the same thing,” he says. “With music acts, people want to go and just hear the hits, but with comedians they want new material, and I’m constantly changing the act, so there’s a lot more pressure.”
Despite that, adds Dunham, “I never quit.”
He’s not kidding. Since the late ’80s, “apart from a safari trip with my dad, and then a month off for my honeymoon in 2012,” he’s never gone more than two weeks without doing a show.
|Jeff Dunham and wife Audrey appear in “Incredible Edible America with the Dunhams,” which aired on the Food Net.
COURTESY OF MARK HILL/FOOD NETWORK
That relentless work ethic has made Dunham an international superstar, as some of his stunning career statistics vividly illustrate; he’s toured the world multiple times, selling out arenas in Europe, Australia, Southeast Asia and South Africa, where he is the highest-selling international comedian — he’s sold more DVDs and tickets there than Chris Rock. Guinness World Records recently named him the world record holder for Most Tickets Sold for a Standup Comedy Tour, for his Spark of Insanity tour. He sold 1,981,720 tickets and performed in 386 venues worldwide. He’s been awarded Billboard’s Top Comedy Tour for three years running. Broadcasts of “Minding the Monsters,” “Controlled Chaos” and “A Very Special Christmas Special” have given him three of the top five most-viewed programs on Comedy Central. And combined sales of all of his comedy specials — “Arguing with Myself” (2006), “Spark of Insanity” (2007), “A Very Special Christmas Special” (2008), “Controlled Chaos” (2011), “Minding the Monsters” (2013) and “Achmed Saves America” (2014) — now exceed 7 million worldwide.
But even with his act’s universal appeal, Dunham isn’t always guaranteed a hero’s welcome — at least from some prickly governments. On his 2014 “All Over the Map Tour” (five continents and 12 countries) Malaysia banned fan favorite — but decidedly un-PC — Achmed the Dead Terrorist. “I couldn’t bring him on stage or even mention his name,” he recalls.
Dunham cleverly side-stepped the ban by introducing a new character: Achmed’s skeletal cousin Jacques, the dead French terrorist, complete with a beret and mustache.
“I try and introduce a new character every couple of years,” he says.
He added “a drunken Irish baby” to the snowball for his upcoming Netflix standup special, “Relative Disaster,” which was shot in Ireland and released Sept. 12.
“I spent a lot of time working on the accent, and the baby turned out to be one of the highlights of the show,” he says. “We chose Ireland because they’ve always been one of the best audiences anywhere and they understand our politics better than we do. And they loved the drunken baby.”
Dunham also chose Ireland for personal reasons. “My act always reflects what’s going on in my life; that’s what comedy is and what people relate to and identify with,” he says. “With our new blended family — I have my older daughters from my first marriage, and now the twins — there’s a lot to talk and joke about. And one of the things I especially like to talk about now is the fact that I was adopted when I was just 3 months old, and I recently did the DNA thing and discovered that I’m mainly Irish, so it was also a case of going to Ireland and tracing my family roots. And Netflix, who apparently had never shot a special abroad before, were very excited about the whole thing.”
The comedian has also found time to shoot a first season of “Incredible Edible America With the Dunhams,” which aired in June on the Food Network and will repeat on Travel Channel.
“It’s a great food and travel adventure through the U.S. with me and Audrey, and it’s basically her thing,” he says. “When we first met, she was a trainer and nutritionist, and she’s really helped me with diet and exercise and leading a more balanced lifestyle. And with her passion for all of that, it was a natural fit to do the show, which although it didn’t focus that much on diet and so on, it at least launched her into that world — and we had so much fun doing it. We got to go to the craziest places and eat the craziest stuff, like giant hamburgers. Now, I’d never eat something like that more than once a week, or every two weeks, but it was a blast and that was the fun of it all. And if the numbers are good on the re-broadcast, we’ll definitely do more shows.”
|Gavin Clawson and his father, Matt, wait for Jeff Dunham to perform his comedy show at the County Fair in Jackson, Mich.
J. SCOTT PARK/JACKSON CITIZEN PATRIOT/MLIVE.COM/AP
Dunham has “always loved” touring, but as a dedicated family man he’s also “never loved having to be away from the family and home,” he says. “That’s the one thing that kills me, and now I have two little boys, it’s even harder. But I do have the luxury now of not having to work every single night, and right now, during the summer, I’m doing Caesars Palace in Vegas one night a week. I jump on a private jet, do the show, and I can come right back home that night. Rod Stewart does the same thing. It’s a great way of working. When I did ‘Not Playing With a Full Deck,’ we moved to Vegas for six months, and that was fun, but it means pulling up all your roots and just embracing all of that. But all our friends are here, and the boys are almost at the age where they can come along on the tour bus, and so now I have plans to take them on the road with me.”
The comedian is quick to stress that, while his act is “all in the name of comedy,” he doesn’t feel that it gives him free license to push buttons and pursue political or social agendas. “I’m there to make people laugh, and that’s usually making fun of people’s governments, but it doesn’t give me an excuse to say things I shouldn’t say in countries like Malaysia or Singapore. And I feel that if you’re stepping on a handful of toes, and that you’re making 3 [%] or 5% of the people mad, you’re right at the sweet spot, because that’s what’s making the other 95% laugh the hardest. So as a comic, you have to know your audience and just how far you can push that line before you really start pissing people off. And I don’t try to do that. All I try to do is write jokes that make people laugh, whatever the subject matter.”
Along with his apolitical act, Dunham is not the sort of man who’s eager to use the stage as a platform for sharing his political views with the public. “There’s been so many entertainers who get up there and then they spout off and blow it,” he says. “What is it? The ego? Do people around them tell them, ‘Yes, what you say truly matters and people will listen to you.’ No! If you say that, about 75% of the people are going to think that you’re an idiot and dislike you. Because you’re not here to preach about politics and tell us how to live our lives. You’re here to entertain people who’ve paid for exactly that. So shut up!”
He goes on to note that after touring the world, “I feel that most countries and societies have far more in common than it often seems, and most people care about the same things — family, friends, health, the economy, education and a safe environment. Those are the key values everyone relates to. And everyone loves to laugh.”
It’s a philosophy of comedy and life — coupled with an innate talent — that appears to have sprung almost fully formed from the Dallas native, whose parents’ gift of a ventriloquist’s dummy when he was 8 started a career that has spawned a global brand.
“The fact that you could hold this inanimate object and then bring it to life just fired my imagination, and I knew very early on that this is exactly what I wanted to do,” he recalls. “Also, in Texas, at the state fair, they have this giant statue, Big Tex, with a moving mouth, and that also really inspired me as a kid.”
|“I was a little bit chubby, not one of the popular kids, the last one chosen for any sport event.”|
His experience as “an unremarkable kid” was also a factor, he says. “I was a little bit chubby, not one of the popular kids, always nearly the last one chosen for any sport event, and girls didn’t pay me any attention. Basically, I wasn’t really good at anything.”
But that all changed with his dummy. “The first show I ever did, everyone laughed and I was astounded that all my classmates bought the routine. They believed that the dummy was talking, and by the fourth grade, I had no doubts — this was what I was going to do for a living. I had found something that no one else could do.”
Dunham, who’s never met his biological parents, but who’s recently discovered he has two new cousins, credits his adoptive parents with providing a “very solid, good family background with strong roots. They were strict Presbyterians, middle-upper-class, and my dad had no vices. They didn’t drink, but they had the full bar. And that was a good thing, as it was never the forbidden fruit.”
Indeed, unlike so many high-profile comedians, Dunham has never been tabloid fodder for sex and drugs scandals. “I know, what’s the matter with me?” he says, laughing. “But I was always just really grounded, because of that upbringing. It was all about family, and growing up in that neighborhood was also a great thing. I’m still friends with a lot of kids from there.”
After dropping out of Baylor U. early, Dunham got his first big break in 1984 when he joined the touring version of the Broadway hit, “Sugar Babies” with Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller.
“So that was the start of 30 years on the road,” adds Dunham, who eventually returned to college. Appropriately, he studied communications, and finished his exams while continuing to do shows “for everyone from big corporate gigs for GE to churches and comedy clubs. I never stopped working.”
Despite a career trajectory that seems to have only headed up since then, Dunham, who moved to L.A. in late 1988, did face his fair share of rejection, especially in the early years. He says, “I began auditioning for ‘The Tonight Show’ way back in ’85, but they kept telling me I wasn’t ready yet.” By the time he finally made it on in April 1990, he’d auditioned nine times.
Today, he’s at the top of his game, but he admits that, as a headliner, it’s a lonely game. “Usually you just see your opening act, but now I don’t even have that. I don’t interact with other comics. It’s just me on the road, a lone wolf.”
|Jeff Dunham appears on ESPN with analyst Lee Corso and dummy Walter in 2015.
AUSTIN MCAFEE/CAL SPORT MEDIA/AP
He also admits that over the years, he’s faced “a certain amount of disrespect” from snobby club managers and even other comedians who “tend to look down on what I do.” He adds, “But I think that’s faded, probably because of sheer longevity and the fact that my 15 minutes of fame has now lasted over 30 years.
“There’s a level of respect for having done 20 years of comedy clubs and reaching a certain amount of fame and fortune. But I don’t really know. I don’t know what Jerry Seinfeld thinks about me and my act, or what Chris Rock thinks. I’ve met ’em, but I’m not going to be like, ‘Hey, do you like me?’”
“I look back at Carrot Top and his career. We were both coming up through the clubs at the same time, and people used to disparage him because he was a prop act. But I always thought, ‘He’s entertaining people, he’s selling a lot more tickets than 90% of the other comics, he’s doing great and getting a ton of laughs and doing a good, long show. What’s the problem?’”
He defines his own approach to comedy in this way: “I look at what I do as a portable sitcom, because it has everything you need in comedy: two characters, so its conflict and tension, and you can build all that in a sitcom. You can’t do that as a monologist. And that’s one of the big reasons why I love it so much. There’s real acting involved in bringing those creatures to life, so that people walk away thinking they’ve heard an actual conversation, when it’s just this one guy up on stage, prattling away to himself. There’s magic in that, and that’s the reason people keep coming back for more. Suspension of disbelief is an amazingly powerful and fun thing to play with.”
He admits to being a workaholic, but adds: “it’s also out of necessity. People always tell me, ‘You don’t have to work nonstop, why don’t you take some time off?’ But apart from the fact that I really love what I do, I have to keep going. It’s a one-man show, and if I stop, it all stops.”
When he’s not building and working on his dummies, and restoring antique ones such as the mechanized 6-foot-tall umpire dummy from the ’40s that greets visitors as they enter the home, he likes to build kit helicopters (“although I’ve had no time to finish the latest one”) and collect toys from the ’70s and cars.
“I have 83 — that’s my big extravagance,” he says. “They range from one of the original movie Batmobiles, the crown jewel in the collection, to a ’72 Superbird that was literally a barn-find, that I’m having restored. But I have a crazy collection. I love the exotic cars, like those, and the muscle cars, but I also love the crappy cars that have great stories, but that people don’t collect, so I also own a Pinto, and two Pacers, and I drive every one of them. I’m not one of those guys who just puts them in storage forever. I can’t stand that. If you own ’em, you should drive ’em.”