You can’t call Jeff Dunham just a ventriloquist.
He’s really a comic who uses his puppets as his muses. Through those puppets, he can make jokes he couldn’t otherwise say out of his own mouth, be it grouchy old Walter or goofy redneck Bubba J or clueless Achmed the Terrorist.
After years working small clubs like the Punchline in Sandy Springs, Dunham is now a selling out 12,000-seat arenas. His trip to Philips this Saturday will be his second. His fourth Comedy Central special “Controlled Chaos” last September drew 5.5 million viewers. His Facebook fan page has 6.5 million followers.
And his voice is now so valuable, he only does interviews by email. Here are his answers to the AJC:
Q: You have been doing ventriloquism for 40 years. Are there aspects of the craft that still challenge you?
A: I realized early on that the ventriloquism needed to be just a vehicle for the comedy. It couldn’t be the focus of the act. In other words, I focus on the material. The challenge is to continue writing jokes that keep people laughing.
Q: While critics aren’t always falling over your humor, your fans eat it up. How would you describe the essence of that humor, the basic tenets of what makes your show work?
A: I don’t aim my characters to make old people or young people or professionals or blue collar folks laugh. I just aim for whatever I think is going to be funny and it just so happens that, you know, everybody has their favorite character. I pick whatever is going on in society, whatever I think folks laugh at.
Q: How much time do you spend developing each show? And how do you put a show together?
A: There’s no real formula for doing it. It’s either living life and writing down jokes I think of in the middle of the day, then piecing those together later. Or I sit down and write the whole thing and hone it. And doing shows so many times a month, I can hone my material and make it better. That’s sometimes what the road work is.
Q: Your Achmed the Terrorist clip has now been seen online a whopping 145 million times. How does that make you feel even now?
A: It’s a great feeling. I’ve got a lot of good people working around me. We all think about things really hard and that’s the point it has gotten to. So again, you never know how long your 15 minutes of fame is going to last. I certainly don’t take anything for granted.
Saturday. $60.70, after fees. Philips Arena. 1 Philips Drive, Atlanta, 404-249-6400, www.ticketmaster.com.
By Rodney Ho, Radio & TV Talk