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.

Ventriloquist Jeff Dunham performs with Peanut. Click image to expand.
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.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor. You can email him at sportsnut@slate.com, visit his website, and follow him on Twitter.

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 Amazon.com 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.

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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.)