Puppets are notoriously uncool. Ventriloquism with dummies? Doesn’t raise the cool factor up much.
But stand-up comic Jeff Dunham has been able to instill this often disrespected art form with a humorous edge thanks to politically incorrect characters such as Achmed the Dead Terrorist and Jose Jalapeno on a Stick.
Dunham’s act brings in fans — lots of them. He has 8.2 million Facebook fans. His last Comedy Central special drew 5 million viewers. The Texas native has been able to fill arenas of more than 12,000 people the past five years.
On Jan. 9, he will be headlining Philips Arena for his third time. Not many comics dare book Philips even once.
“It’s humbling,” Dunham said in a recent, rare phone interview. (He frequently does interviews via email to save his voice.) “Atlanta has always treated me well. But what’s funny is I get some of my biggest audiences in the Northeast and Northwest. There must be rednecks all over the country!”
His voice is such a valuable commodity that he said he treats it like a Major League pitcher babying his pitching arm. It helps that his second wife, Audrey Murdick, whom he married last year, is a personal trainer and nutrition consultant.
“She’s got me eating better and exercising regularly,” he said. “If I stay healthy, that’s 90 percent of what keeps my voice in line.”
For fans who saw his last show at Philips two years ago, expect a brand-new one now. “I turn over my material every couple of years,” he said. “I bring in a couple of new characters, too.”
Yet despite his popularity, Dunham said he can mostly walk around unnoticed when he’s not carrying a dummy. “I’m the most famous unfamous person there is,” he mused. “I have this weirdly anonymous fame. People know Achmed and Walter (a grumpy old man dummy) better than they know me.”
Achmed is the dummy that has defined Dunham. (His bits with the dopey Achmed have generated tens of millions of YouTube views over the years.) “Somehow, dead terrorists translate to all walks of life,” he said. “People all over the world love him.”
Through trial and error, he has learned to keep all his dummies male. “The dummies are all inside me,” he said. “Sad that I can think like a dead terrorist but I can’t think like a woman!”
And for those who have never seen his show live, he doesn’t whip out his dummies immediately. He said in his early days, he used to have to prove he could do stand-up without props. He has continued that by opening his show by simply telling jokes and showing videos for 15 minutes. “I always look forward to that,” he said. “It’s true communication with the crowd.”
Dunham, a youthful-looking 51-year-old, has been working his craft for more than four decades. Yet he recalls only one time he’s had a nightmare about his dummies — and that was in fourth grade when he dreamed about a dummy trying to strangle him in bed.
“I think about them every day of my waking life, but I don’t dream about being onstage — or about my dummies,” he said. “Strange!”
He recently tweeted an old photo of him opening for Bob Hope from the early 1980s.
“Unfortunately, I caught him near the end of his career,” Dunham said. “He refused to wear glasses or hearing aids. He was a seemingly nice guy, but you never quite knew if he understood what you were saying.”
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