Number 1

The Hardest-Working Hand in Show Business

How ventriloquist Jeff Dunham became the country’s most popular stand-up comedian.

Ventriloquist Jeff Dunham performs with Peanut 

Ventriloquist Jeff Dunham’s latest concert special begins with an old-man puppet named Walter detailing the best strategy for dealing with a Kwanzaa reveler: “Throw away the Champagne and pull out the frickin’ malt liquor.” Dunham then brings out Achmed the Dead Terrorist—essentially a skeleton with jutting eyeballs—who shouts his catchphrase, “Silence, I keel you!” to great audience acclaim. A short while later comes the comedy duo of Peanut—a furry purple being of indeterminate heritage —and José Jalapeño, a sombrero-wearing pepper on a stick who punctuates most thoughts with the punch line “on a steeeek.” What does José want for Christmas? “I think he needs a bigger stick,” Peanut says. “That’s not what your mother said,” the jalapeño replies.

By every conceivable measure, Jeff Dunham is America’s favorite comedian. Dunham’s Very Special Christmas Special, which aired on Comedy Central in November, was the most-watched broadcast in the network’s history. His previous concert film, Spark of Insanity, got the best reviews of any DVD on in 2008. And according to the concert-industry watchers at Pollstar, Dunham was last year’s highest-grossing stand-up act in North America, with $19.2 million in tickets sold.

Dunham’s astounding success isn’t a sign of a widespread ventriloquism revival—on a list of the preferred art forms of the 21st century, throwing your voice might fall somewhere between yodeling and pole-sitting. Yet in these dummy-unfriendly times, the 46-year-old Dunham has built a career that even Señor Wences would envy. Dunham first broke out in 1990, when Johnny Carson honored him with a treasured invitation to the couch during his first Tonight Show appearance. (The puppet Walter’s response to the host’s largesse: “It’ll be a cold day in hell before I come back to this show!”)

In the subsequent decade and a half, Dunham consistently ranked as one of America’s top comics, selling out comedy clubs and finding steady work on the corporate circuit. The comedian’s manager, Judi Brown-Marmel, credits this early success to Dunham’s outreach efforts. In the days before e-mail, he compiled tens of thousands of addresses and mass-snail-mailed postcards about upcoming tour stops. By the mid-1990s, Dunham had also launched a successful merchandise line—when he got on stage with Peanut, audiences would wave $40 doll versions of the kid-friendly creature back at him.

But like most ventriloquists since Edgar Bergen’s day—believe it or not, Bergen and his sidekick Charlie McCarthy were so popular in the 1940s and 1950s that they starred in a hit radio show—Dunham couldn’t crack the wooden ceiling. After reaching the pinnacle of the puppet-insult-comedy world, Dunham’s logical next move was to record a comedy special. But unable to secure a decent offer—”What idiot would invest a half a million dollars in a puppet show?” Dunham says—he decided to finance a showcase on his own. 2006’s Arguing With Myself, which featured old favorites like Walter and Peanut alongside Dunham’s “new manager” Sweet Daddy D, a shiny-suited black puppet with a penchant for racial zingers (“I stay black, you stay white. As for my Mexican brothers and sisters, You learn English, motherfuckers!“), would go on to sell more than 500,000 copies on DVD. Comedy Central also bought the rights to the special, initiating a valuable long-term relationship with the comic. (Dunham plans to film his fourth special for the channel later this year.)

Arguing With Myself allowed Dunham to graduate from clubs to theaters. A suicide bomber soon pushed him to 10,000-seat arenas. Achmed the Dead Terrorist was devised a year after 9/11 and introduced to a mass audience in Dunham’s second special,2007’s Spark of Insanity; he sparked an international craze thanks to a pair of expressive eyebrows and one-liners about “premature detonation” and farts that smell worse than mustard gas. A video of hisdead-terrorist shtick has, in just a year and a half, become the sixth-most-watched YouTube clip of all time, with close to 83 million views. Thanks to YouTube, Dunham will go on a five-city European tour this April despite never having done any press on the Continent. Achmed also earned the ventriloquist a cell phone commercial in South Africa, though the ad was banned in short order by South Africa’s Advertising Standards Authority after being deemed offensive to Muslims.

For Dunham, the South African censorship case was an outlier in a mostly controversy-free career. Credit the fact that he doesn’t move his lips. Dunham told me that he “would shudder to utter” some of the things that come out of his puppets’ mouths. Indeed, the solo stand-up set that Dunham performs at the beginning of each show is almost aggressively banal—in the Christmas special, for example, he talks about his daughter’s inability to pump gas and the shockingly large capacity of women’s purses. Nevertheless, it’s very canny of Dunham to lead with this milquetoast fodder. By establishing himself as a nonthreatening stage presence, the ventriloquist sets himself up as the butt of the puppets’ jokes and, just as importantly, absolves himself from responsibility for Peanut’s cracks about a superhero named Gay Man (“When he flies, his butt whistles. … Don’t turn your back on him!”) and the mere existence of a black puppet who refers to himself as a PIMP (that’s “player in the management profession”).

Why does Dunham feel compelled to have his puppets crack these sorts of jokes? “I honestly think it’s that sneaky kid inside of me that enjoys getting away with stuff that I really shouldn’t be getting away with—I’m the little kid walking by the tiger cage putting a stick in it,” he explains. “[The puppets are] saying outlandish things, but there’s an innocence to it. You put a 45-year-old up there and have him saying mean things and he’s going to appear to be a jerk. Can you imagine seeing South Park being acted out by adults and real humans?”

According to Pollstar, Dane Cook (2007) and Larry the Cable Guy (2005 and 2006) were America’s top touring comics prior to Dunham. On the business side, Dunham’s career bears some similarities to Cook’s—both are masters at communicating with fans, and both used the Web (MySpace in Cook’s case) to expand a rabid core group of followers into a huge mainstream audience. And though it might not appear that way at first glance, Dunham is similar stylistically to Larry the Cable Guy, the man Slate’s Bryan Curtis deemed the “redneck id” of the blue-collar comedy world. Tune out Larry’s hambone accent and you’ll notice that he covers much the same territory  as Walter and Peanut: race (“Aw, those are my shadows. I thought a couple black guys were sneaking up behind me”), homosexuality (“There’ll be a new show out next week called Black Eye on the Queer Guy“), and immigration (a Christmas carol that goes “O come, all ye illegal immigrants/ Come and get them green cards/ And learn some damn English/ and then how to drive”).

For a comic, though, the presentation is just as important as the material. While Larry the Cable Guy’s redneck-y affect draws in a rather homogeneous audience, Dunham’s dummies make his humor palatable for Comedy Central-watching teenagers and their suburbanite parents, for kids and grandmas, for red staters and blue staters. (One possible exception: black people. In Arguing With Myself, Sweet Daddy D says that he feels like he’s at a Dwight Yoakam concert, asking “Is there one other brother in the house tonight?”) Dunham’s manager, Brown-Marmel, says that in her 23 years in the business, she’s never seen a comedian who appeals to so many different demographics. How does Dunham explain his broad appeal? “You really do have to teach yourself to entertain the masses rather than just your peers or a certain niche of society,” he says, noting that he launched his career by playing shows for Cub Scouts and Kiwanis clubs.

A better analogue than Larry the Cable Guy, says Brown-Marmel, is Tyler Perry. Both are relatively anonymous stars better-known for the characters they’ve created—in Dunham’s case, literally—than their own personas. And like Perry, Dunham is always working to expand his brand. The Obama presidency, he says, represents a great opportunity to bring back Sweet Daddy D, the black puppet that’s been on the shelf since his first comedy special. Dunham explains that in crafting Sweet Daddy, he had to research the nuances of the African-American face, which he calls much “more interesting and dynamic than the plain old Caucasian.” While the white man-black puppet combo might imply a lack of judgment, Dunham is right as usual. What’s the secret to his becoming a household name without, well, anyone knowing his name? The puppets are a lot more interesting and dynamic than he is.