Jeff Dunham takes dummy act to big stage

Comedian's ventriloquist show fills Philips Arena on Monday.

Four years ago, Jeff Dunham was a mid-level standup comic, headlining clubs such as the Punchline with his cast of puppets.

But in 2006, a Comedy Central special struck a chord with the masses. He released a DVD that sold millions.

YouTube came along and, in 2007, a video of his dead terrorist Achmed puppet (“Silence! I keel you!”) built a whopping 101 million page views.

Soon, he was doing 2,500-seat theaters, then 12,000-seat arenas. He even has his own Comedy Central show.

Now Dunham is so busy his most valuable commodity — his voice — is being rationed. His publicist limited us to an e-mail interview:

Q: You were doing the Punchline (capacity: 250 people) four years ago. Now you’re doing Philips Arena (12,000-plus).

A: When we first started doing these huge arenas, I was concerned that the intimacy of the 300-seat clubs that I had grown to know so well would be missing. On the contrary, the audiences stayed right with what I was doing.

The only thing missing is being able to pick on some poor schmo in the front row and everyone being able to see him.

Q: Ventriloquism and puppetry have been mocked for so many years. How did you get into it as a kid and did you endure a lot of abuse for what you did while growing up in Dallas?

A: I was just a little kid in the third-grade and I got a plastic Mortimer Snerd dummy one year for Christmas. In the ’60s and ’70s there were a lot of those vinyl ventriloquism dummies — just about every toy store had one.

Everyone close to my age that I’ve talked to, especially guys for some reason, tell me that they had one too but they said they never could do it. So many people come up to me and say that. It was just something that I thought was cool.

I started doing book reports with it. I developed the skill. I easily got As on all my reports. It was just something that a little kid grasped onto — so I stuck with it.

Q: What was the inspiration for Achmed? Did you realize he’d become such a big hit via YouTube?

A: I think folks really want to hear what a dead terrorist would say. And then when they realize this particular terrorist is a bumbling idiot with problems in life, they realize he’s human.


Jeff Dunham Spark of Insanity Tour

7:30 p.m. Monday, Philips Arena; $50.50. , 404-249-6400

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