How ventriloquist Jeff Dunham became America's most popular stand-up comedian.

How popular culture gets popular.
Feb. 18 2009 4:58 PM

The Hardest-Working Hand in Show Business

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

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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").

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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.