Four years ago, Jeff Dunham was a working standup comic, headlining the Punchline with his cast of puppets. Then he nabbed a Comedy Central special that struck a chord. He released a DVD that sold millions. His audience grew exponentially larger.
YouTube came along and video of his dead terrorist Achmed character (”Silence! I keel you!”) in 2007 has since received a whopping 101 million page views:
Soon, he was doing 2,500 seat theaters, now 12,000-seat arenas. He even has his own Comedy Central show. It’s been quite a ride for a ventroliquist who struggled for years to break it big.
Now Dunham is so busy, his most valuable commodity – his voice – is being rationed. In fact, I couldn’t do a phone interview with him. The man’s too busy even for a live online chat. So I got an email interview. And even then, I was limited to four questions.
So this is it. It’s not nearly as interesting as a real interview would have been, but it’s the best I could get:
You were doing the Punchline (capacity: 250 people) four years ago. Now you’re doing Phillips Arena (12,000-plus).
When we first started doing these huge arenas, I was concerned that the intimacy of the 300 seat clubs that I had grown to know so well would be missing. On the contrary, the audiences stayed right with what I was doing… The only thing missing is being able to pick on some poor schmoe in the front row and everyone being able to see him.
Ventriloquism and puppetry have been bastardized and mocked for so many years. How did you get into it as a kid and did you endure a lot of abuse for what you did while growing up in Dallas?
I was just a little kid in the third grade and I got a plastic Mortimer Snerd dummy one year for Christmas. In the 60’s and 70’s there were a lot of those vinyl ventriloquism dummies – just about every toy store had one. Everyone close to my age that I’ve talked to, especially guys for some reason, tell me that they had one too but they said they never could do it. So many people come up to me and say that. It was just something that I thought was cool. I started doing book reports with it – I developed the skill. I easily got A’s on all my reports. It was just something that a little kid grasped on to – so I stuck with it.
What was the inspiration for Achmed? Did you realize he’d become such a big hit via YouTube?
I think folks really want to hear what a dead terrorist would say. And then when they realize this particular terrorist is a bumbling idiot with problems in life, they realize he’s human. We had no idea YouTube would take us worldwide.
Are you surprised some folks find your puppets (or at least what they say) offensive?
I heard a great comic say once that if you’re aren’t offending a couple of people here and there, you’re not pushing the envelope enough. I know there’s a fine line, but I feel that most folks have a good sense of humor and can take a joke.
I’m always very suspicious when folks are ‘offended’, because more often than not, the ‘offended’ are offended for someone else, and aren’t any part of the group being picked on.
IF YOU GO
Jeff Dunham Spark of Insanity Tour
December 28, 7:30 p.m.