Forbes ranked him No. 9 last year among best paid comics in the world at $16.5 million, just behind Jim Gaffigan ($17.5 million) and Vegas-based singing ventriloquist Terry Fator ($18 million).
Yet he is hardly a household name who lands on the cover of People magazine or gets asked to host major awards shows. He doesn't headline big comedy films like Kevin Hart. He's never had a sitcom with his name attached to him like Jerry Seinfeld or Ray Romano.He hasn't done ubiquitous Prilosec commercials like Larry the Cable Guy. His Comedy Central sketch comedy show "The Jeff Dunham Show" lasted only one season in 2009.
It’s fair to say his puppets - all created by Dunham by hand - are easier to identify than Dunham himself.
Dunham lets his puppets say all sorts of outrageous, un-P.C. things while he plays the straight man on stage.
During his 2017 Netflix special “Relative Disaster,” the puppet Walter said puppet Jose Jalapeno on a Stick will have to be deported: “Did you know in the [puppet] trunk, I built a little wall? Keeping that bastard on his side and I’m going to get Jeff to pay for the wall!”
"I shoot down the middle," he said during a recent interview. "I make fun of both sides. I want to keep everyone entertained and maybe slightly offended. Hopefully, you can laugh at yourself. If you can't laugh at yourself, why are you at my show?" He spends plenty of time making fun of himself on stage. During the Netflix special, Walter the puppet mocks the age difference between Dunham (55 at the time) and his wife Audrey (37 at the time).
“When you were 21, she was three,” Walter said. “You should be a registered sex offender! What was your pick-up line when you met her? ‘Hey kid. Do you want some candy?’ What did you do on your first date? Did you take her shopping for school supplies?”
On this current tour, dubbed “Passively Aggressive,” Dunham introduces a new “political advisor” puppet.
But he doesn't push politics too hard. "Comedy is escapism," he said. "You want to give what they paid for and come and laugh and don't want to be smacked in the face with problems. At the same time, there was no better gift for comedy than Donald Trump."
He has to calibrate how much to mock him because “there are a bunch of people who really support him and believe in him. It’s a delicate balancing act of trying to figure out how far you can go in either direction.” So he’ll joke about Obamacare and the Clintons as well.
Dunham said he was truly humbled last fall when he received the Hollywood Walk of Fame star. “When I moved to L.A. decades ago, I just wanted to sell out comedy clubs,” he said. “Maybe I can do theaters like Jerry Seinfeld. That would be amazing. Those were my goals. When someone suggested I do arenas, I said, ‘What does that mean?’”
He is a smart marketer. His Instagram page features photos of him with his audience behind him at each concert. “It’s advertising,” he said. “I want to be part of that! Look how many people are out there! And fans can say, ‘Hey look! I’m that little yellow dot there!’”
Dunham said he sometimes jokes that if you are there with someone you’re not supposed to be, it might be time to hide while the photo is taken.
“Besides,” he said, “if you’re bringing your mistress to a puppet show, you have other problems!”
Rodney Ho writes about entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution including TV, radio, film, comedy and all things in between. A native New Yorker, he has covered education at The Virginian-Pilot, small business for The Wall Street Journal and a host of beats at the AJC over 20-plus years. He loves tennis, pop culture & seeing live events.