Jeff Dunham Dummies Up

Ventriloquist superstar keeps artform hip and edgy

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Once, while visiting The Late Show, David Letterman introduced Jeff Dunham as “a man who has twice won the prestigious Ventriloquist of the Year Award,” to which the crowd tittered. However, when Dunham came out with his Walter character, he killed, as usual.

Ventriloquism might not be the hippest art form in 2010, but Dunham notes “there’s actually, in the last few years, been a lot of exposure for ventriloquism. I don’t know why. Terry Fator won America’s Got Talent, (ventriloquist and former Soap star) Jay Johnson had a Broadway show that got very nice reviews.”

Dunham also reveals “(Johnson) and I went to the same high school, and we live about four miles from each other out here in L.A.” Fator now headlines at the Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, while Johnson won a Tony award for his show, Jay Johnson: The Two and Only.

Dunham’s style has changed little over the years, though he and his cast of characters always have new material. “If anyone saw the show last time I was there,” he says, “I think it’s probably 85 percent different now.”

What seems to have changed though is critical reaction to his comedy. In January 2008, Comedy Central viewers voted him “Top Comic” in the Stand Up Showdown competition. The runner-up was Cincinnati’s own Josh Sneed. On the heels of that victory, Dunham was given his own show on Comedy Central, which debuted to record viewership for the network.

The critics panned it and ratings fell.

Earlier this month, Comedy Central opted not to produce a second season. Most of the reviewers claimed the show was unfunny and that Dunham’s characters were nothing more than racist caricatures, something that rarely came up until he had his own TV show.

There is anecdotal evidence that can easily be taken out of context, like his puppet Achmed the Dead Terrorist.

“When I first did it,” he explains, “I thought ‘How is this going to go over?’ I’m obviously not going to make fun of what happened at all. There’s that formula ‘tragedy plus time equals comedy,’ (but) with an asterisk. To me there are things that still will never be funny. The shuttle, 9/11 … I think with the Titanic, almost everyone is gone who had anything to do with that, so you can do a Titanic joke once in a while.”

Some remain unconvinced, saying Achmed insults Muslims, even though Dunham has made it clear Achmed is not a Muslim. Some of his other characters have also sparked controversy.

The grumpy old man Walter character, for example, talks about the terrorist threat, particularly the restrictions on liquids like shampoo on airplanes.

“That’s pretty funny,” Walter quips. “Like those people use shampoo. What was the name of the shampoo, ‘Head and Shoulders, Neck & Back?’ ‘Gee, Your Ass Smells Terrific?’ ” For Dunham, controversy like that is just part of the job. “I’m gone about every weekend, but that’s a good thing. I’ve got kids in private school,” he says with a laugh. Yet, even when he’s home time off is hard to come by. “I’ve got five days off here and what I am I doing? (I’m) out in the garage building the next dummy.”

Speaking of travel, this will be the first of at least two visits to the Tristate for Dunham, who will return in July to attend the annual Vent Haven ConVENTion in Fort Mitchell. It’s billed as the oldest and largest gathering of ventriloquists and Dunham always gives a highly anticipated lecture. The solid turnout proves that the artform is healthy and perhaps even growing again.

“The big boom came in the ’30s,” Dunham says. “Edgar Bergen had the No. 1 show for years, which is kind of weird — a ventriloquist on radio, you think ‘What’s the point there?’ It forced people to listen to the comedy and the writers to write good comedy and create believable characters.”

Perhaps Dunham can enlighten convention-goers on how he has responded to his recent detractors. What’s odd about the backlash is that he’s been doing this for years with little criticism. Between his core characters, Walter, Peanut and Jalapeño, Dunham has always delivered comedy covering a number of topics, and he has always stretched the envelope.

“(Each) character has a different point of view,” he says. “Walter being the typical old cranky guy, he’s going to have his views. There’s just a sense there with those characters (that you can) get away with stuff that no human could get away with.”

He finds that to be especially true with political topics, where the humor can be taken much further than if he were doing it within the confines of a regular stand-up routine. He calls it an “unwritten rule … that license to be completely outrageous with a character or puppet or dummy.”

That rule might be changing, but all of the controversy over his TV show may just wind up driving more people to his live performances. Then who’s the dummy?

JEFF DUNHAM performs at the Bank of Kentucky Center at Northern Kentucky University at 5 p.m. Jan. 31. Buy tickets and get venue details here.

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