Jeff Dunham, the top-grossing comedian who uses his puppet “suitcase posse” to spread laughter around the world, is back with another DVD, tour and a new 90 minute special, “Jeff Dunham: Birth of a Dummy,” which aired on the BIO channel yesterday. The camera follows Dunham backstage to where the magic happens and gets up close and personal with him, his family and friends. TheCelebrityCafe.com’s Amanda Thambounaris spoke with Jeff Dunham recently about his TV special, his new character and his life as an average kid.
TheCelebrityCafe.com:: I read that you started practicing ventriloquism when you were 8 years old after you received a Mortimer Snerd dummy for Christmas. What was it about the dummy that made you want to take up this hobby and perform?
Jeff Dunham: I think a part of it was maybe lack of anything else that I was good at. I mean, I was probably one of the majority of kids that, you know, I was not one of the popular kids, I was not great at sports, girls didn’t pay attention to me — I was just pretty much an average kid, no stand-out abilities, nothing note-worthy. And, I saw this dummy and I think I saw ventriloquism on television, I can’t quite remember, but it appealed to me just sitting on the shelf of the toy store. It was just one of those things where you’re running through the store with your mom and you’re going, ‘Mom can I have this? Mom can I have that?’ ‘No, no, no.’ And it was a month and a half or a month before Christmas and my mom, you know, pretty much ‘poo-pooed’ it when I showed it to her and then low and behold, a month later there it was under the Christmas tree. So, then once I got that it just, I don’t know, something about it just fascinated me and I practiced for about a month and got up and did my first book report and got laughs and everybody thought it was great and I thought well, ‘Now I have something I can do.’ And I just kept pursuing it and there was no reason to quit.
TheCelebrityCafe.com:: That’s such a nice story, but hey the girls are probably kicking themselves now huh? [laughs]
Jeff Dunham: I guess, I don’t know [laughs]. Even at our ten year high school reunion, you know, it took me ten years to go from graduating from high school to getting on the Tonight Show with Carson. And ten years later I think people were scratching their heads, but I don’t think it was until our thirty year high school reunion, which was last year, when people my age had kids who thought I was cool. Then it was Toby Keith’s song, “How Do You Like Me Now?” I think I can honestly sing that.
TheCelebrityCafe.com:: At the time did you ever think it would become your career?
Jeff Dunham: Oh yeah, I never. I think that’s one reason that it happened, it was a completely mono-focus, I didn’t even consider anything else. Even going to college, getting my degree in Radio TV and Film, you know, as I was approaching the time when you have to decide on a major, I kept trying to figure out what would be the best major to enhance what I am doing as a performer. And, your choices in that are not much, you know, you want to have a legitimate degree, but at the same time you’re an entertainer, what do you need? So I started in a business background, but then it was like, ‘you know, I can’t do math,’ so I changed it to a liberal arts degree and got my Bachelor of Arts in Communications and it made sense, you have film and there was a good background there, but I never ever, even during that time, never considered anything else because I was like making pretty good money even in college. On weekends when everybody would go to the football games, I would be getting on a plane or driving my car across the state or across the country to go do a show somewhere and yeah so, I never thought of doing anything else. And, if it hadn’t worked out — that wasn’t even a possibility because I knew that I would somehow make a living doing that. I don’t think it would have been the point of doing only birthday parties because I was certainly beyond that in college, but I knew that somehow I was going to make a living doing it.
TheCelebrityCafe.com:: Your BIO special, “Jeff Dunham: Birth of a Dummy,” is set to premiere next week. What was it like for you to have personal interviews with your family and friends and your creation process filmed for the world to see?
Jeff Dunham: Well, it was a little disconcerting because they were going through my book, my autobiography that I wrote, and by the way I wrote every word of that book. Most people when they have autobiographies, they’re not autobiographies, they’re biographies written by a ghost writer. And not the case. We started with a ghost writer and after one or two chapters I would read it and think, ‘You know, this is not my voice, this is not how I speak, I don’t say things this way,’ even though it was an interview, so I thought ,’Alright I’ve got to do this myself.’ So, I threw away everything and just started from scratch. So, the BIO folks doing the interviewing and put the piece together they would go through my book and pick out people from my past, even childhood friends, and they would track them down across the country, send a crew out and interview them. There’s so much on there that I have no idea what’s on there, but the good part about it is, or the bad part however you look at it, is there’s not much dirt in my past, there’s not many skeletons, so I don’t think there’s going to end up being anything on the air that I don’t already talk about. I think the most horrible thing they found is that I got a divorce—‘Oh my Lord how could he live through that?’ you know. So, who hasn’t? If that’s the worst thing to have that’s great, so but otherwise the interviews, yeah they would come to my workshop or on the bus or backstage, or when I was working on A.J., Achmed’s son, and it was fun because here were people that I didn’t know very well, but all asked really great questions and completely thorough and they worked on it for months and I don’t know how many hundreds of hours of footage they got, but they talked to my parents and… There was one part, I did see a little bit of the footage of my parents, where while my mom was talking my dad falls asleep [laughs]. I really hope they use that because that made me laugh out loud. You know, there’s no drunk driving, there’s no DUI’s, there’s no possession of cocaine, none of that stuff so you know, I don’t know if that’s good or bad. Everybody loves dirty laundry.
TheCelebrityCafe.com:: How and why did you create your new character Achmed Junior?
Jeff Dunham: Well, the popularity of Achmed, the attention that it brought to the act and the timing on him was pretty much amazingly perfect, not by my own doing it just happened to happen that way. You know, 9/11 had happened and we hadn’t found Osama bin Laden and it had been many years and the Al-Qaeda was a thing to fear, but also Letterman and Leno were joking about Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and I thought, ‘You know what? I’ve got an answer to where Osama bin Laden is and I know, he’s dead and living in my suitcase with my dummies.’ So, Achmed the Dead Terrorist was originally the Dead Osama, it wasn’t until a few years later that I changed him to just Achmed the Dead Terrorist. But, he was so popular and had gotten so much attention, not just in our own country, but through countries and on YouTube all throughout the world. I thought, ‘Well, I think the next follow-up has got to be to have something to do with Achmed,’ and one of the jokes in the Christmas special is that Achmed said he is not a good father and I said, ‘Why not?’ and he said, ‘Well I took my son to take your kid to work day,’ so I took that one joke and thought, ‘Well maybe his son actually wasn’t killed, maybe he was just injured and the two were separated after the accident and now there’s going to be a reuniting on stage.’ So that’s what I do. And, in “Controlled Chaos,” in that special, it was just the introduction of the two and now what I’m working on right now is dialogue between the two — what are they talking about now? What are they going through as father and son trying to reunite? And I think that’s something a lot of people can identify with.
TheCelebrityCafe.com:: And what is the son’s name?
Jeff Dunham: Achmed Jr., A.J. I don’t think real hard about these things [laughs].
TheCelebrityCafe.com:: How have you and how do you come up with such original and chaotic characters? Are any inspired by real people or experiences in your life? I read that apparently some are homages of characters performed by other famous ventriloquists.
Jeff Dunham: Whatever pops into my head that think will make an audience laugh, that’s the first step. And some of those characters, I guess chaotic is a good word, maybe sometimes extreme, maybe sometimes stereotypical. But, I think there are pieces of every one of those descriptions that make people laugh. But, the bottom line is do I think this will make a general audience laugh. And, I don’t aim it at anybody specific, I don’t aim my characters to make old people laugh or young people or professionals or blue collar, just whatever I think is going to be funny and it just so happens that, you know, everybody has their favorite character. And, that’s the only way I pick, whatever is going on in society, whatever I think folks will laugh at that’s what I come up with. But, Bubba J, for example, was one of Edgar Bergen’s, who was a famous ventriloquist in the 30’s and 40’s — he was pretty much the Seinfeld of the radio era, his show was number one for years. And, one of his characters was Mortimer Snerd and I always wanted a goofy character that was somewhat like that, just that typical goofy, bumpkin, idiot character and Nascar was big and you know, white trash, you know, with the majority and popularity that you might be a redneck kid. And it was when Clinton had come into office and I thought, ‘You know what? This is a popular thing right now, that Arkansas, ‘bumpkiness’ that everybody accused Clinton of being from way back then,’ you know, it was like, ‘Well, this ought to be appealing to folks,’ and it certainly worked. And that was way back in ’93 when I came up with them. And that worked, and then I resurrected him again for one of my DVDs and remade him a little bit. So that was the homage to Edgar Bergen. I really didn’t emulate anyone else.
TheCelebrityCafe.com:: Your DVD,” Controlled Chaos,” was your fourth Comedy Central special. Why did you decide to do another and are there more to come?
Jeff Dunham: Well, it’s business, I love touring, I love doing the live show and it’s just like a musical artist, you just keep coming up with material and as long as you’re coming up with the material and as long as audiences like it, you just keep doing it, it’s your job. And, you know I love it. And that was just the next step, I had more characters, I had more material and it’s a good way to keep the ball rolling, to keep the career rolling. And will there be more? Yeah I think so. Like I said, if people are still buying tickets, and still buying the DVDs, and they’re still watching on YouTube and my fifteen minutes of fame isn’t finished yet, then I’ll just keep doing it. It’s my job and like I said, I am one of those lucky people that happen to like what I do for a living [laughs]. If I hated it I think I’d quit pretty quickly. You know, the other part of it is… I mean, I am no kind of philanthropist or humanitarian, but it is really nice to get those emails from all over the world of people who said you know, I had nothing to laugh at or my son was really sick or my husband is really sick and we put on your DVDs and we laughed, thanks for making the real world go away for a little while. That makes it worthwhile. If I wasn’t getting those emails, and those letters and those kinds of accolades then I wouldn’t be pushed forward that much more. You know, the kids who come backstage that have cancer or whatever, make them laugh and smile for a little while, what’s the problem with that? There isn’t any.
TheCelebrityCafe.com:: Where do you come up with the material for your performances, like in “Controlled Chaos?”
Jeff Dunham: A lot of my best stuff is just ad libs on stage and that’s one thing that I’ve gotten back to at the live show. Even you know, with audiences of 5,00 to 10,000 to 12,000 people, it’s hard to have that comedy club atmosphere where you can talk to people in the front row, but I’ve tried to go back to that in the last few months because we have a giant video screen and even with 10,000 people there with those giant screens, it’s a more intimate atmosphere then you could imagine. And a lot of that material just comes from talking to people in the front row and seeing what they do for a living and making up jokes on the spot. Other times I will actually sit down with the computer and come up with a subject and try and write some jokes out. Bubba J has a new job right now and that is he’s a security guard and all of that material I just sat down and wrote one day, and that’s kind of unusual to just write a whole bit or routine for me, but I needed to do it and I did it and it’s going over great. So, there’s no real formula for doing it, it’s either just living life and writing down a joke you think of in the middle of the day and then pieces those together later or sitting down and writing the whole thing and honing it. And also doing those shows so many times a month that’s honing the material and making it good and that’s sometimes what the roadwork is. The roadwork is just rehearsal for that DVD you’re going to film a year later [laughs].
TheCelebrityCafe.com:: I read that you handmade all the puppets yourself except for Peanut. How did you learn such a craft, and why not Peanut?
Jeff Dunham: Yeah Peanut’s the only one because he’s a more Muppet soft character and I had somebody make him for me, but all the other ones.. I made my first one in sixth grade, and then there was a bit of a lull, I don’t know what happened, I had to wait until I had a little more confidence. It wasn’t until college that tried it again and tried my hand at making dummies and I got pretty good at it and built some confidence. So now when I come up with somebody new, if I think it’s going to work and the jokes work in my head then I go and create the character myself. Usually I make them out of fiber glass and that’s a big part of the process — that in the BIO special is what we go through bit by bit, they follow me each step of the process and show how the dummy goes together. There is a lot that goes into it because first you have to sculpt the head, you have to have some sort of a skill for sculpting, then you have to make the molds, then you have to cast the fiber glass and you have to put in all the mechanical movements, and then you have paint them, then you have to build the body, so yeah there’s a whole lot that goes into it. And it’s just trial and error, if you have to have it so you do it. I think that necessity is the mother of invention so I can wait for somebody to build it, but it’s a lot of time and a lot of cost and usually when somebody gets done with something I’m so particular I wouldn’t be happy with it. So I thought, ‘Well, I guess I’ll just do it myself.’ [laughs]
TheCelebrityCafe.com:: How does it feel to be considered the highest-grossing comedian in the U.S. and the top-grossing comedian in the world for the past few years?
Jeff Dunham: My ex-wife is really happy about that [laughs]. I don’t do it for the money, it just so happens that it has gotten to a certain level and certain popularity. I’ve got a lot of good people working around me, we all think about things really hard and that’s the point it has gotten to. So again, you never know how long your fifteen minutes of fame is going to last; I certainly don’t take anything for granted. I guess that kind of money is one of the perks that come with a little popularity on the road. I always try and do everything I can to the best of my abilities and when we come up with those DVDs every single aspect has to be perfect. I don’t think I am very easy to work for because everything has to be just right or we don’t put it out. But at the same time, all the people that work for me have a “no asshole” rule, if you’re a jerk you’re fired, so it’s a great team and a lot of skillful people at the top of the game, anybody from management to the agents to the publicists to the day-to-day website stuff and it’s just a great team. So it’s a big group effort right now. You know it’s a balance. Family time was very difficult when my girls were little, but I never missed a birthday, I was there for every major event. If you have to have a lot of sleep.. I think that’s where I pretty much made it work, I learned to live on five hours of sleep [laughs].
TheCelebrityCafe.com:: So what is next for you after the special premieres? Any new characters in the works, maybe another female?
Jeff Dunham: I’ve tried the female thing. I was in a movie called Dinner for Schmucks a couple of years ago with Steve Carell and I created a female character for that movie. And after a few months of trying her out on the road it just didn’t work. I mean, I can think like a terrorist, I can think like a white trash guy, I can even try and think like an African American, but I can’t figure out how a woman thinks [laughs]. Yeah, figuring out how a terrorist thinks is easier for me than being a woman!
There’s more characters on the back-burner, there’s more projects on the back-burner, there’s probably another DVD or two in me, so it’s just whatever comes next. We’re on the road right now with this tour and that’s the important thing, just to keep the material flowing and new stuff, who knows.
TheCelebrityCafe.com:: Where are you off to next?
Jeff Dunham: The day after Thanksgiving is Nashville.