Ventriloquist Jeff Dunham Travels the World, Courts Danger With His Characters and Comedy

Jeff Dunham Ventriloquist
Michael Lewis for Variety

If you didn’t know that Jeff Dunham is one of the biggest entertainers in the world today, don’t feel bad; Dunham himself didn’t quite realize it until May. That’s when he arrived in Abu Dhabi to play another sold-out house as part of his hugely successful global “All Over the Map Tour”— encompassing five continents and 12 countries, including Iceland, Finland, Norway, Ireland, Britain, Israel, South Africa, Australia, Malaysia and Singapore.

“Here I was, performing in a Muslim country, and frankly, I was scared,” admits Dunham, who 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. “It was just me and the gang” — who included the decidedly un-PC Achmed the Dead Terrorist — “and I’d assumed the place would be full of ex-patriots and military folks wanting to see an English-speaking show. But it turned out to be mainly locals, many dressed in the full traditional Muslim outfits.”

Dunham may have been nervous walking out of stage, but the reception he and his puppets — including Achmed, the manic Peanut and beer-swilling Bubba J — received was anything but traditional. “They all howled with laughter at the jokes, and when I brought Achmed out, it was like a homecoming! They all went crazy,” he recalls. “Then it really hit me.”

Two nights later, Dunham was performing in Tel Aviv, and an equally enthusiastic reception made him feel “even more emotional, as there’s so many differences between these cultures and their histories, and there’s all the fighting over the centuries, and then this idiot from America with a doll gets up on stage, and everyone’s laughing at the same stuff. It was very moving to me.”

Of course, despite his act’s universal appeal (according to Pollstar, Dunham was the top-grossing touring comedian in the world in recent years) he isn’t guaranteed a hero’s welcome — at least from governments. “Malaysia banned Achmed,” he reports. “He wasn’t even allowed to come on stage, and I was prohibited from even mentioning his name or making any sort of religious references.”

Dunham cleverly side-stepped the issue by introducing a new character; “Who knew that Achmed had a French cousin — Jacques, the dead French terrorist?” he says. “It was Achmed with a beret and mustache, and the audience loved it, thankfully. But I was a bit frightened there, too. I thought, ‘Will they drag me off the stage and make an example of me?’ I honestly thought that was a possibility, as you never know how strict and real these laws are.”

Michael Lewis for Variety

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 any hidden political or social agenda. “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,” he says. “And I don’t try to do that. All I try to do is write jokes that make people laugh, whatever the subject matter. It’s kind of like being in a sailboat, and wherever the wind is blowing, you need to work with that wind, and use your rudder accordingly. And the rudder is the jokes, and the laughter’s the wind.”

His latest international tour further confirmed that “all these different countries and societies have much more in common than it often seems, and it just makes me feel that all the ridiculous problems in the world are caused by a handful of idiots, and that most people are good people who do care about the same things — family, friends, health, jobs, a nice home and a safe place to live. Those are key values we all relate to.”

It’s a philosophy of comedy and life — coupled with an innate talent — that appears to have sprung almost fully formed from the Texas native, whose parents’ gift of a ventriloquist’s dummy when he was 8 kick-started a career that has spawned a global brand.

“I knew very early on that this is exactly what I wanted to do, and the first show I ever did, I was astounded that all my classmates bought the routine. They really laughed and 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.”

Even when his eighth-grade counselor (“Mrs. Lutz,” he tellingly remembers) later questioned his choice “and rolled her eyes a lot at the idea, saying I needed a serious career,” Dunham stuck to his guns. “I wasn’t some jerk — I was a fairly quiet, respectful child in the presence of adults. But I vividly remember at that moment thinking, ‘This woman’s an idiot! She has no idea what she’s talking about.’ ”

And after dropping out of Baylor U. early, Dunham got his first big break. “There was a touring version of the Broadway hit ‘Sugar Babies’ with Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller, with a variety spot in it where they used a juggler or a ventriloquist. And in the fall of 1984, the spot came open and I was invited to join for two weeks.”

After delaying his college finals, he joined the show and ended up staying with it through the end of 1985. “That was the start of 30 years on the road,” adds Dunham, 52, who eventually returned to college where 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.”

But despite a career arc that seems to have only headed up, Dunham, who moved to L.A. in late 1988, faced his fair share of rejection. “Especially in the early years,” he admits. “I began auditioning for ‘The Tonight Show’ in ’85, and by the time I finally got on in April 1990, I’d auditioned nine times.

“But it’s all relative and I’ve never really been down and out. By the early 2000s I was at the top of the game on the comedy club circuit, but then I kept hitting a glass ceiling. And you always expect your business to keep growing and that your income will stay at a certain level. But then it began to drop off.”

It was a wake-up call for Dunham who was married with three girls, and who allows that he was living “high on the hog, with a huge house, private schools, nice cars — and a big overhead. And it got to the point where I suddenly realized I just couldn’t afford that lifestyle anymore, and that we’d have to sell the house.”

Michael Lewis for Variety

This time, it was Comedy Central that came to the rescue, although “slightly unwillingly, at least at the start,” reports Dunham who took a big gamble by financing and self-producing his first special, 2006’s “Arguing With Myself.”

“My management pretty much begged the network to air it, and they didn’t really want it, but they finally agreed to air it just one time,” he adds. “The next day they came back to us and said, ‘We think there’s some kind of mistake here with the ratings — they can’t be accurate.’ ”

But the explosive ratings (fans posted clips across the Web, views totaled tens of millions) for Dunham’s first one-hour primetime special were not only accurate, but harbingers of what was to come. “And it was only because of those 18 years of touring all the comedy clubs and all the grassroot support I’d built up. So Comedy Central kept airing it and asking me when I’d do another.”

In 2007, Dunham’s self-produced second Comedy Central special, “Spark of Insanity,” again premiered to record ratings and over 1 million DVD sales, and in 2008, his third television event, “A Very Special Christmas Special,” premiered with 6.6 million viewers to become the cable channel’s most-watched program ever. The straight man/ringleader with his posse of politically incorrect alter egos has also harnessed modern technology and amassed numbers that Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy could only dream of: 500-plus million views worldwide on YouTube, and over 7 million DVDs sold.

If Comedy Central was the launch pad, YouTube and the Internet were the booster rockets that sent his career into the stratosphere. Says Dunham, “What I do is such an ancient art form, that it was even looked down on back in vaudeville days, and all the new media and technology is the thing that’s gotten me this international following.”

Dunham has always maintained full control over the world of characters that he’s created, and has built an independent company that produces and finances all his projects across all distribution platforms, including live, television, film, merchandise, and home video.

He also maintains an interactive relationship with his fans via JeffDunham.com and social networking platforms, including over 8 million fans on Facebook. His content partnerships include YouTube, Amazon.com and iTunes.

“I look at what I do as a business, and I’ve always thought of Apple as a great corporate example,” he says. “You go in an Apple store knowing what to expect, and they give you a great product, but at the same time they’ll throw out a new product every so often that changes the world and your thinking, and that’s exactly what I try and do. I try and give the fans what they want and expect, but also throw in new stuff to keep them wanting more.”

That includes appearing in a variety of movies and television shows, including “30 Rock,” the Jay Roach-directed comedy “Dinner for Schmucks,” and doing voice-over for characters in the recent animated features “Nut Job” and “From up on Poppy Hill.”

Mike Karz, a partner at Gulfstream Pictures, says, “When we were casting ‘The Nut Job,’ Jeff was at the top of the list of comedians we wanted, and he brought such a distinct personality to his role of Mole. We loved his work on it, and then we feel his audience is so large and so loyal that he brought all of them to see the movie as well.”

And Dunham has even successfully tackled an old-school book project, publishing his best-selling autobiography, “All by My Selves: Walter, Peanut, Achmed and Me” in late 2010, although he happily confesses that the book was a love-hate relationship. “Most people get a ghostwriter, and I did too, but it didn’t really work out as I’m so particular about the writing and language,” he says. “So I ended up throwing it all out and starting over — and every single word in ‘All by My Selves’ was written by me. But then there were big fights with the editors, and my wife, Audrey, said it was the only time she’s seen me get really angry over anything.”

After Dunham’s divorce he married Audrey Murdick in 2012. “She’s an integral part of everything I do now, and she travels around with me,” he says. “And I honestly don’t think my career would be where it is now if I hadn’t met her, because it’s really tough being on the road. It’s the life of a gypsy, and in a way it was easier during the comedy club years, and during my first marriage, as I was at the top of the food chain, and could name my hours. And at least you’re in the same city for several days, with a lot of time off. So I never missed a birthday or a holiday, and I was a very attentive father. But the international touring is far more demanding in terms of travel and time away from home, and it’s certainly not for the faint of heart.”

Having achieved — “and surpassed” — all his early career goals, does Dunham ever consider the possibility of retiring? “If you love your job, you say, ‘No, I’ll never retire,’” he sums up. “And I love being on stage and performing.”