Jeff Dunham is a man of many talents. He’s into building and flying helicopters. He’s a car guy with an impressive collection that includes a Plymouth Superbird (Google it and thank me later). He’s also a comedian and ventriloquist. But you probably already knew that last bit.
With millions of online followers, countless fans and a seemingly endless list of sold out shows, Jeff Dunham is a legend. How legendary? Forbes ranks him third on the list of highest-paid comedians in the U.S. He’s just behind Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock. Tell me that’s not an elite trio of comedic legends.
We often forget that fact – that Jeff Dunham is a comedian. Sure, he’s a ventriloquist who creates the voices, personalities and even the dummies of his characters. But it’s his comedy that elevates him to legendary status. It’s the relatability and personal connection you get from inanimate dummies that Dunham truly brings to life. All while being funny.
Faces had the opportunity to chat with Dunham before he comes to Ontario in early 2019. With stops in Toronto, Oshawa, Peterborough, Ottawa and Kitchener, you’ll have plenty of chances to see Jeff and your favourite characters (and some new ones) this year.
How did you get your start in ventriloquism and comedy?
I do separate the two because they are different. As a kid, you don’t understand the difference between comedy and performing a skill that’s supposed to be funny.
I taught myself ventriloquism in the third grade. I did my act for many, many years. It’s slightly amusing and cute when a little kid does a ventriloquist act. But that’s all I had – a cute and entertaining act.
It wasn’t until I was in college that it was no longer amazing that a kid was doing ventriloquism. I would head to a comedy club or event with a ‘real’ audience – not just a Cub Scout troupe or the Kiwanis Club (a very polite crowd) – and they wanted to be entertained or for you to get off the stage.
I would say I entered the comedy world when I was in high school. And I stopped doing ventriloquist tricks, like voice feats, when I was about college age. I could still use ventriloquism to get the comedy and messaging across. But I realized that if I was going to go toe-to-toe with other comedians I needed to be funny.
I think that the formula has worked. I consider myself a stand-up comic who creates situational comedy on stage by creating these characters. I think that’s where the success has come from. I try to create believable characters that are relatable, and that make people want to come back and see them. I also think that I keep the show different enough every time that people are seeing something completely new, but also seeing the greatest hits.
I always approach it like Apple. They give the customer what they want and what they expect but exceed expectations by throwing in some fantastic new features. And then, they throw out something that’s completely different and you didn’t know was coming. I think that delights the crowd and keeps them interested. So that’s what I try to do every time I do a show – give fans what they expect, make it better than the last time and try to do something completely new.
You create your characters from start to finish – the personality, the voice and even the dummy itself. Where do you get your inspiration?
My act is a response to how the audience reacts to any given joke, situation or character. I try and think about what’s going on in the world and society right now that a majority of my audience would respond to.
Obviously, there’s nothing funny about 9/11, but a year after it happened people were talking about Osama bin Laden and how we couldn’t find him. I thought, “I know where he is: he’s half-dead and hiding out in the trunk with my characters.” And that’s how I came up with the dead Osama, which eventually morphed into Achmed the Dead Terrorist.
For this tour you’ve brought back all of our favourite characters, but you’ll also be introducing one, possible two new characters. What can you tell us about them?
Lately, we can’t get away from American politics. I know in Canada, you guys just grab a beer, sit back in your La-Z-Boy, turn on the TV and laugh at us. But then again, when I head to Canada, the Trudeau jokes are unending. I’m dumbfounded every time one of the characters says his name, the negative response that I get. I wonder what the actual split of support and non-support is for Trudeau Jr.
My latest response to what’s going on in the world, and you can’t ignore the politics, is to continue to use comedy as a form of escapism. Just like the movies. I created a couple of characters to reflect the current political situation.
I try to play it down the middle as much as possible. Johnny Carson and Jay Leno had a really great way of making fun of both sides and keeping it even. You never really knew what their politics was. I try to do the same thing by making fun of both sides.
I tried to imagine the worst possible job in the White House, working under Donald Trump. I came up with a guy who works in the shadows and he has a stressed-out job. His name is Larry and he’s Trump’s personal advisor who helps him with everything, including his tweets.
The other one I’ve come up with is representative of the divide in America right now. I think it’s the most divided it’s been since the Civil War. So, I came up with a character that’s been the most challenging to build, operate and voice. He is a conjoined twin that’s a double-headed dummy, I’ve never seen this done before, and one is completely left-wing, and the other is completely right-wing, and they hate each other. Their names are, of course, Richard and Happy – Rich and Happy – and you can guess which side is which.
You’ve announced the second leg of your Passively Aggressive tour. Totalling the tour at 56 stops with 5 in Ontario. What is your favourite part of touring?
The part I hate the most, the part I dread, is the 3-minutes before I walk on stage. Because there’s a lot of pressure and everyone is there to see 1 guy and all this preparation is sitting on my shoulders. That pressure can be a little unnerving. I don’t get nervous before shows anymore, but it’s like prepping for a big lift. I know I can lift the weight, but this is not going to be easy. That’s my least favourite part of touring.
But then, 30-seconds after I’m out there, it’s the greatest time. So, my favourite part about the show is the actual performing. That, and walking off stage after I’ve done the 2-hour set and hopefully everyone has had a great time.
You’ll be in Ontario, including stops in Toronto, Oshawa, Peterborough, Kitchener and Ottawa. What can fans expect from the show?
Again, it’s all about that new stuff. If you’ve seen my show before you still haven’t seen this show. I’ll play the greatest hits but bring some new stuff. The audiences outside the US, especially in Canada, know American politics because there’s such a love-hate relationship with Donald Trump. The show isn’t completely political, but there are some segments now thanks to the new characters. Of course, Achmed, Peanut, Walter and Bubba J will all be there too.
After the tour winds down, what’s next for you?
Towards the end of the tour we’re taping my next special. We haven’t announced the city yet, but my next Netflix special will be taped when the material is all really solid. But right after we tape the special, it’s all about writing new material and getting ready for the next tour. It is a grind, but I do love it. I’m still surprised at how long this 15-minutes of fame has gone on for me. It’s just really fun.
What’s one thing fans would be surprised to learn about you?
I’m a licensed helicopter pilot. I build experimental helicopters, too. I don’t fly as much anymore because I have twin 3-year-old boys. Obviously, that takes up a lot of the free time. I also build the dummies too. I collect the best-of-the-best ‘70s audio systems. I have one of the best quadrophonic 8-track systems money could buy at the time.
Jan 9 – Toronto, ON – ScotiaBank Arena
Feb 27 – Oshawa, ON – Tribute Communities Centre
Mar 1 – Peterborough, ON – Peterborough Memorial Centre
Mar 3 – Ottawa, ON – Canadian Tire Centre
Mar 13 – Kitchener, ON – Kitchener Memorial Auditorium