Highlights of Dunham’s lengthy itinerary include stops in Nashville, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Toronto, Austin, St. Louis, and Phoenix. The last show on his calendar (at least for now) is scheduled for March 31 at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles.
Dunham’s tour is in support of the DVD/Blue-Ray release of his latest Comedy Central special, “Controlled Chaos.” It was his fourth television special with the jovial cable network and it aired on Sept. 25—the discs dropped two days later.
Dunham’s Comedy Central special attracted 8.3 million viewers—5.5 million watched its premiere and then another 2.8 million tuned in for a repeat that aired later that night. His Controlled Chaos DVD/Blue-Ray has already sold more than 100,000 copies.
Dunham’s television special was the most watched cable show of the evening (Sunday). It beat out such lofty programs as “Boardwalk Empire” and “Breaking Bad.” The comedian also outdrew a NASCAR race—an event that has a similar demographic as a Dunham comedy special.
You should get your Jeff Dunham tickets as soon as you can. The funny man is one of the most popular and most successful comics working today. He’s been the world’s top grossing live comedian for the past two years.
Yet, for all his achievements Dunham is reviled by critics and comedy snobs. Obviously, ventriloquism is shunned by the comedy intelligentsia. Furthermore, Dunham has the great misfortune of “only” being funny; he’s not edgy, cerebral, or avant-garde. For bombastic critics and pretentious standup fans, producing guffaws is not enough you also have to be a comedy pioneer. Of course, those naysayers fail to realize that Dunham has done more for ventriloquism than any other artist besides Edgar Bergen.
Fans attending a Jeff Dunham show shouldn’t expect Monty Python-esque comedy or Steven Wright-style jokes. What they should expect is a side ache… from laughing so hard. Dunham and his cast of colorful dummies put on a high energy show where the laughter never stops.
We’re not the only ones who praise Dunham’s act. In writing for the Chicago Live Music Examiner, Roger Reiss said Dunham hits audiences with one joke after another. Adam Porter of KOWB 1290 wrote on the Wyoming radio station’s Web site that he’s seen Dunham perform many times over the years and has never been disappointed.
Some have accused Dunham’s comedy of only being funny because it comes from the mouths of puppets, so to speak. Critics claim that the lines Dunham throws to his dummies wouldn’t have the same impact if they came from an actual person.
That sounds astute but if all a performer needed to be funny was a ventriloquist dummy then Demetri Martin would have one. Besides, who cares who, or what, delivers a joke as long as it’s funny.
Dunham is the Creed or Two and a Half Men of standup comedy. He doesn’t blaze new trails or reinvent his art form; he just puts on one hell of a great show. You’ll laugh from the moment he walks out on the stage until the moment he says “good night.”
Jeff Dunham’s Characters
Achmed the Dead Terrorist
The bit in which Dunham introduced Achmed the Dead Terrorist is one of the most watched YouTube videos of all-time. Needless to say, Achmed is one of Dunham’s most popular characters of all-time. The inept (former) terrorist delights fans with his catch phrase “Silence! I kill you!” When Dunham remarks on Achmed’s skeleton frame, the terrorist responds by saying it’s only a flesh wound.
Achmed has a son named Achmed Junior or A.J. The apparently gay son was introduced by Dunham in 2010. A.J.’s second appearance came during the Controlled Chaos Comedy Central special.
Bubba J is Dunham’s good ol’ boy character. The white trash red neck from the Deep South likes beer and NASCAR. Bubba is one trailer short of a full trailer park and his t-shirts never cover his belly button. Mr. J met the future Mrs. J at a family union.
Dunham has used Diane a few times in his standup act but she’s better known as the dummy he wielded in the 2010 film Dinner For Schmucks.
Jose Jalapeno On A Stick
Jose Jalapeno on a Stick snuck into the United States from Mexico. He didn’t have to go to such extremes as both his parents are American—he was born while they were vacationing in Mexico. Jose wears a sombrero and sports a thick, black mustache. He’s also the first puppet Dunham ever constructed.
Melvin The Superhero Guy
Although he’s called a superhero, Melvin’s only real power is his x-ray vision. He uses it to look at women. When Jeff asked Melvin how far he can fly, Melvin replied “how far can you throw me?” Melvin likes to make fun of other superheroes. He has cast dispersions on the relationship between Batman and Robin, he called Superman a show off, and accused Aquaman of having the same powers as SpongeBob SquarePants.
Peaunt is one of Dunham’s most unique characters. For one, he looks more like a Muppet than a creation from Dunham’s warped imagination. Peanut is a “woozle” with purple skin, white fur, and a tuff of green hair on the top of his head. Second, he’s not a take on a stereotype. According to Dunham’s lore, Peanut is from an island in Micronesia and the two met one another in Florida. Peanut is bright, happy, and ebullient. He also enjoys making fun of Jeff and Jose.
Peanut recently introduced his very own ventriloquist dummy named “Little Jeff.” This dummy looks a lot like Jeff Dunham but doesn’t sound a thing like him.
Sweet Daddy Dee
Sweet Daddy Dee is a pimp or “Player in the Management Profession.” He was originally introduced as Dunham’s manager but he often refers to the comedian as a “ho” or even “dumb ho.”
In a word, Walter is a curmudgeon. He’s retired, sarcastic, and perpetually grumpy. At this point in his life, Walter doesn’t care who he offends or angers. The scowling retiree is a Vietnam veteran, a husband of nearly 50 years, and a former welder.
Although Dunham now uses the services of a professional production company, he built Walter himself.
Ventriloquism is often referred to as “throwing one’s voice” but that’s obviously a misnomer. The ventriloquist doesn’t “throw” his or her voice anywhere. Instead, they manipulate the way the voice is perceived. Instead of the speaker moving his or her lips, the ventriloquist is able to produce sounds and speech without (or by slightly) moving their lips.
However, there are some letters ventriloquists can’t say without moving their lips. Those letters are “B,” “F,” “M,” “P,” “Q,” “V,” and “W.” In order to say those seven letters, and their corresponding sounds, ventriloquists must substitute a syllable they can say without moving their lips. For example, instead of saying “Q” a ventriloquist will say “koo.” Instead of “m” a good ventriloquist will utter “nah” or “neh.” At first, the substituted sounds are awkward and highly noticeable but after years and years of practice they begin to sound quite normal and natural.
Other techniques a ventriloquist uses are forcing air through their nose, using their diaphragm, and employing their stomach muscles. While utilizing those tricks, and while keeping their lips as still as possible, a ventriloquist must also exercise a different voice when performing their craft. With two distinct accents, spectators can easily distinguish between an artist’s real speaking voice and when they’re practicing ventriloquism.
Most people’s image of a ventriloquist is a comedian sitting on a stage with a puppet on their knee, also known as a “dummy,” and technically referred to as a ventriloquial figure. The ventriloquist usually plays the straight man and sets up jokes for the dummy. The dummy receives the honor of delivering punch lines because they can usually get away with being controversial or raunchy.
While that’s what most people think of when they hear the term ventriloquism, the practice can actually be traced back millennia. Only then, it wasn’t about getting applause or laughs. Originally, ventriloquism had mystical and/or religious connotations. The skill was associated with sounds mystics made with the stomach (and we’re not talking about post-spicy food cacophonies). The word “ventriloquism” comes from the Latin word meaning “to speak from the stomach.” The “ventri” part of the word comes from “venter” meaning belly. And the “loqui” part of ventriloquism means “speak.”
The Greek called the practice gastromancy and the practitioner would use their stomach muscles to produce strange noises. These odd sounds would be attributed to spirits and the like. The ventriloquist would then interpret these mysterious sounds, using them to predict the future and communicate with the dead.
When the Middle Ages rolled around, ventriloquism was associated with witchcraft (what a shock). From then on out though, the practice slowly began to lose its religious overtones. Still, it wasn’t until the 19th century that ventriloquism became strictly a form of entertainment.
In the early days of ventriloquism-as-entertainment, the performer didn’t tell jokes but dazzled the audience with their talent. These ventriloquists were the type that performed their skill while drinking a glass of water or walking around the theatre. They also used several dummies in their act to show off their skill of quickly switching voices.
Fred Russell (1862 – 1957) is attributed with popularizing the one-figure ventriloquist as well as creating the motif of the dummy sitting on the knee of the performer. He’s widely regarded as “The Father of Modern Ventriloquism.” Russell’s dummy’s name was “Coster Joe” and he performed well into his 80’s.
Although 16 years Russell’s junior, Harry Lester (1878 – 1956) is known as “The Grandfather of Modern Ventriloquism.” Dubbed The Great Lester, this vaudeville superstar and his dummy, Frank Byron, Jr., further solidified the modern-day image of the ventriloquist with comedy bits and feats of skill. Beyond becoming vaudeville’s top ventriloquist, Lester also became a noted teacher of “the belly speech.” Some of Lester’s legendary lessons were recorded and have since been made available for purchase. One of Lester’s most famous students is the great Edgar Bergen. Bergen was an extremely successful ventriloquist who had his own national radio show for nearly 20 years.
Ventriloquist was fairly popular in the middle of the 20th century. Bergen wasn’t the only ventriloquist with a successful show, Paul Winchell had his own network television program for five years. Meanwhile, Jimmy Nelson and Senor Wences were mainstays on American television, especially The Ed Sullivan Show. The popularity of the stagecraft probably had to do with the burgeoning medium of television—ventriloquism was perfect for live TV and its many variety shows.
One of the best known ventriloquists to emerge in the 1960’s was Shari Lewis. Lewis’ main character was Lamp Chop and she mainly performed for children. Science fiction fans know her as the co-author of the 1968 Star Trek episode, “The Lights of Zetar.”
Willie Tyler hit it big in the 1970’s thanks to an appearance on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Tyler performed with his dummy, Lester—the duo was usually billed as Willie Tyler and Lester. He has appeared on several television shows throughout his career including the Late Show With David Letterman, What’s Happening Now!!, and The Jeffersons.
Ventriloquism‘s popularity waned as technology made it easier and easier to “throw one’s voice.” By the time the 21st century arrived anyone with a couple of bucks and access to a Radio Shack could make a dummy talk. Despite all that, the art form was rejuvenated by comedian Jeff Dunham. The highly skilled ventriloquist uses a straight ahead style but employs several dummies—most of which poke fun at a stereotype. Dunham has not only become the most successful ventriloquist of all-time but he’s routinely the world’s top grossing comedian.
Edgar Bergen was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1903 but grew up in Decatur, Michigan. He gave his first ventriloquist performance when he was 16 years old. The venue was a church in Chicago. Bergen’s early career was spent in vaudeville and one-reel movie shorts.
Bergen first appeared on radio in December of 1936 as a guest on The Rudy Vallee Show. Bergen was so impressive that he received his own radio program the following year. While his show changed names and sponsors, it remained on the airwaves until July 1, 1956.
It was odd, even to pundits back in Bergen’s day, that a ventriloquist had his own radio show, a medium where the audience couldn’t see the dummy or experience Bergen’s ventriloquism. However, Bergen was such an outstanding entertainer and his main character, Charlie McCarthy, was so fleshed out and actualized, that audiences adored the program.
Bergen’s dummy, Charlie McCarthy, was patterned after a newspaper boy from his neighborhood. Although Charlie was a perpetual man-child, he wore a top hat and monocle. Despite the strict broadcast standards of the day, censors allowed Charlie to get away with a lot.
Bergen made several appearances in television and film as both a ventriloquist and as an actor. His TV appearances included many specials and guest starring roles. One of his most famous television roles was playing Grandpa Walter in the first Waltons movie.
Bergen died in 1978 in his sleep in Las Vegas, Nevada. He passed away just three days into a two-week run at Caesars Palace Hotel. The stint that was supposed to be his farewell to show business—he had been entertaining fans for more than 55 years. Candice Bergen, the actress who starred in Murphy Brown and Boston Legal, was Edgar’s daughter.
Famous Ventriloquists & Their Dummies
Jim Barber – Seville
Edgar Bergen – Charlie McCarthy
Shirley Dinsdale – Judy Splinters
Jeff Dunham – Achmed the Dead Terrorist
Terry Fator – Winston the Impersonating Turtle
Wayland Flowers – Madame
Mallory Lewis – Lamb Chop
Shari Lewis - Lamb Chop
Taylor Mason – Robert the Sheep
Meghan Miller – Abner Smooch
Jimmy Nelson – Farfel the Dog
Willie Tyler – Lester
Jules Vernon – Old Main
Paul Winchell – Jerry Mahoney
Automatonophobia is the fear of a ventriloquist dummy. There have actually been several movies dedicated to the fear as well as a few great Twilight Zone episodes.