The list of people who become fabulously wealthy off careers in comedy is short. The list of people who have done so with puppets is shorter still. Here is the list: Jeff Dunham.
The list of people who become fabulously wealthy off careers in comedy is short. The list of people who have done so with puppets is shorter still.
Here is the list: Jeff Dunham.
Dunham was born in 1962 and raised in Dallas. He began learning the art of ventriloquism at age 8 and worked local parties into his teen years.
By the time he was in college, he was jetting off on weekends to work corporate events. He performed on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” in 1990 and was one of the select comedians invited to come over and talk to Johnny during his first appearance.
Dunham built his audience in the following years, and about a decade ago, he had a comfortable career playing the comedy club circuit. After a 2003 TV special on Comedy Central, he was reportedly earning about $600,000 a year. But he still nurtured a dream of superstardom.
His 2006 DVD “Arguing With Myself,” also broadcasted on Comedy Central, was Dunham’s big break. He soon graduated from clubs to theaters to arenas.
Since then, Dunham has been at or near the top of Forbes list of the top-earning comedians, sharing billing with the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock. He grossed more than $34.6 million from his tours in 2009, according to Pollstar.
‘Are you my virgins?’
Dunham appeals to a broad audience — young, old and in between. Dunham would never say a mean thing, but his more ornery puppets would be happy to say it for him.
His main characters include Walter, a crotchety old man; Achmed the Dead Terrorist, a skeleton who was a failed suicide bomber; Peanut, a purple, Muppet-like creature; and Jose Jalapeño, a pepper on a stick.
For much of Dunham’s show, he plays the straight man to his puppets, who say things that range from merely impolite to politically incorrect ... or offensive, depending on one’s perspective.
“Wait, if I’m dead, that means I get my 72 virgins. Are you my virgins?” Achmed asks the audience in the 2007 video “Spark of Insanity.”
“I hope not. There’s a bunch of ugly (expletive) guys out there,” Achmed says.
“Well did they say it would be only female virgins?” Dunham asks the puppet.
Dunham relishes the freedom to say inappropriate things through his characters.
“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,” Dunham told Slate in 2009.
“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?”
‘He’s not a comic’
Despite his massive popularity, there are people who don’t find Dunham all that funny.
“Maybe you’re one of them,” The New York Times speculated. “Maybe you don’t think Walter’s telling Dunham, ‘You’re from Planet Retard,’ is as hilarious ...”
Zing again. Some have a more analytical approach to criticizing Dunham, like Blue Collar Comedy Tour producer J.P. Williams.
“His material is pretty soft,” Williams told The New York Times. “If you take away the puppets and close your eyes, there’s not really that many jokes there. He’s not a comic. He’s a ventriloquist. He’s got a great gift, and his gift is that he makes stuff talk and he keeps his mouth pretty much closed when he does it.”
But don’t feel too bad. Dunham can drown his sorrows in his ginormous pile of cash.
He has a new Comedy Central special set to broadcast on Sept. 25, “Controlled Chaos,” which comes out on DVD two days later.
Dunham is also expected to debut two new characters in the coming months: “Achmed Junior,” which Pollstar described as a “not-as-equally skeletal son of Achmed the Dead Terrorist,” and “Little Jeff,” essentially a MiniMe version of Dunham.
Brian Mackey can be reached at 217-747-9587.