A Comedian’s Crossroads

Jeff Dunham parlayed a razor-sharp wit and hilarious characters into mega-sales and a Comedy Central Christmas special.

He may just be the hottest act in comedy these days, but Jeff Dunham recently found time to sit down with CW not long after completing the taping of his Jeff Dunham’s Very Special Christmas Special, set to air on Comedy Central Nov. 16. Here’s part of what the hilarious comedian/ventriloquist had to say. For more about Jeff, pick up the Nov. 17 issue of Country Weekly.

CW
How do I refer to you, as a comic? Comedian?
JD
I think that’s one reason that this thing is where it is right now, is that I consider myself a comedian who happens to use ventriloquism as the vehicle for comedy. So I’m focusing on what makes people want to come back to the shows over and over. They’re entertained and it’s funny, and they love the characters. Then, if I can work on not moving my lips, there’s a bonus.
CW
How does it feel as a comedian to have your “Silence! I Kill You!” catch phrase from your little buddy Achmed the Dead Terrorist be up there with Git-R-Done or Excuuuuse Me? Is that kind of a cool thing to have it permeate the culture and to maybe be walkin’ down the street and hear people say that?
JD
Here’s my favorite story about that. A woman comes to us after the show. She said, “I had no idea who you were. I didn’t know your characters. I’d never seen your act. I’m a substitute teacher in Florida. I substitute in a first grade class. I was late. I walked in the class. The kids were all sittin’ at their desks, they were talkin’. I said, ‘Class, we have to get started.’ They wouldn’t be quiet. ‘Class, you really need to settle down now.’ They wouldn’t be quiet. Finally I got angry and I yelled, ‘Silence!’ Every kid in that class, at the same time, yelled, ‘I kill you!’.”
So, there you go. So, you’re right. And it’s every age, it’s every demographic imaginable. It’s really cool. But it is one of those phrases I just kind of stumbled into. I had that character, the Osama one. It was just really funny when he looked at the audience and said, “I kill you!” They started laughing. And I thought that was really edgy. And the first time I did it you felt the audience kinda shake a little bit, and then laugh. Now, it’s like, there’s no holds barred.
CW
What is it now, 80 million views of Achmed on YouTube?
JD
It’s 50 million of one particular clip . . . that we didn’t post. It was somebody else. But if you add up all of ‘em, it’s actually close to 200 million.
CW
So, you’re obviously doin’ ok . . . 25 million gross ticket sales this year. Does Achmed demand that he get paid more? And threaten to Kill You! If you don’t ante up?
JD
He hasn’t negotiated with Sweet Daddy [Jeff’s dummy/manager] yet.
CW
What kind of kid were you? Is this a pretty natural evolution of what kind of kid you were?
JD
No, no. Third grade, I was shy, dumpy, no good at sports. Not a class clown, buck teeth. [laughs] It was sad. Then when I got my first little dummy, Christmas of third grade, I started practicin’ and a couple months later I decided to do my first show.
And what’s really sad is, as I started growing up in junior high and high school, I knew that everybody in show business needed a head shot. Well, back then, it was probably 60-80 bucks for a session to have your photograph taken. I didn’t have that kind of money. So, I thought, “Well, when we have pictures taken at school, I’ll just take the dummy with me!” And I would show up with the dummy.
So, cut to my wife and kids and I sitting around, and my kids want to see my school annuals, all the way through high school. So I pull out the junior high and high school ones, and they open them up. And not only is the photograph of the class picture there, the individual ones, but every other action photo of me doin’ talent shows and all this, I’ve got a frickin’ doll in my hand! My wife had never seen these and she looked at me and said, “Did you ever have a date? Ever? Did girls talk to you at all?”
And it startled me, because I realized how lame and sad this was when you look at this. Because back then, it just seemed fine, and nobody ever laughed at me that I knew of. And now I’ve figured out why. It’s because in junior high and elementary school and high school when I started doin’ those shows, you see a guy with a dummy, it’s just sad. Especially that age. You think, “Oh, what’s wrong with this guy.” But what I did when I got on stage was what I do now. I made fun of everything that we all wanted to make fun of and made comments behind teachers’ backs. I made fun of a certain teacher here, the principal, the food . . . whatever. So it became kind of an, “Oh boy, we get to hear Jeff make fun of all this crap.” I’m not gonna say I was a hero, but it became some kind of cool thing. So, here I was hiding behind this doll, saying things nobody would ever dare say.
CW
So, did you have any dates?
JD
Yeah, I did okay. It was all right. (laughs). They were inanimate and I had to inflate ‘em, but I had the dates!
CW
I noticed in our show, you talked about immigration and some other things that went over well in Nashville. Do you tailor that for Seattle or Boston or other areas of the country? Or is it one size fits all?
JD
Certain more liberal areas of the country, certain things don’t go over as well. In fact, one of my other managers, Robert Hartman, owns a bunch of the Improvs around the country. Irvine, California . . . very liberal. I was doing Achmed, the dead terrorist there. And Robert came to me and said, “You gotta stop doin’ that terrorist. We’re getting’ 50 complaint calls a day.” And I said, “I’m really sorry. Okay.” And I sat back in the green room that night and I thought about it and thought about it and go, “Screw that! This is funny and I know it’s funny! The rest of the country is laughin’ their butts off at this!”
CW
Noticed a lot of kids there . . . what do you think about that?
JD
I’m absolutely flabbergasted at parents bringing their kids. Because you see this stuff . . . I would say the majority of the people in the audience have the DVDs. The DVDs are far worse than what gets on Comedy Central, because the words are all there. So, my thinking is, a majority of the people know what’s on the DVD. Do they really think the live version is gonna be any different? Nobody thinks the live version is gonna be cleaner. And we get 100s of emails a week from fans saying, “Oh, my six-year-old loves Walter.” And I’m going, “What? What?”
It’s a different society now. You know my mother hates my show now. She always says to me, she has two compliments: “You are so talented and you’re such a great entertainer.” Not once has she ever said, “You’re so funny.” [laughs] She means it that way.
One story about my mother. My goal when I graduated from high school in 1980 was to be on the Tonight Show with Carson. And I gave myself 10 years. At that time, he’d been on 19, 20 years. And you figured he’s gonna be there another decade. So that was my goal when I graduated from high school. So, every step along the way, I’m trying to get better and better. And finally, my 10-year reunion was in June of 1990. I was on the Tonight Show with Carson in April of 1990. And, at that time, it was on a Friday night, which was the night back then. Friday night was the night with Carson. The other guests were Bob Hope and B.B. King. What a show. I look back at the tape now and I kinda cringe. But back then, I did the best I could have possibly done. It killed. I got on the couch. Walter got some huge laughs. I remember driving up the 405 in LA, waiting for it to air in Dallas, lookin’ at the clock. And I got on my car phone—remember the car phones that were bolted down? I got on the car phone and I called my parents. I said, “What did you think?” The first thing my mother said was . . . Walter had said, “I don’t give a damn” and “who the hell cares” . . . and the first thing my mother said was, “Well, you know we don’t approve of you using that type of language.” [huge laugh]. So, does she mean it when she says I’m so talented and I’m a great entertainer? Yeah. That’s what she means.
CW
How far beyond your wildest dreams have you gone?
JD
You know what? As grandiose as it sounds, this is where I had set my goals. To be up there, hopefully one day, as . . . the guy. What are you gonna do? When you start playin’ football, are you thinkin’, “You know, I’d like to make second string when I grow up.” No! You want to be the very best you possibly can. And you have those hopes and those dreams. And I have been so blessed being surrounded by so many great and talented people and those crossroads in life . . . which way am I gonna go . . . somehow along the line, those things have worked out. I know it could end in 10 minutes. Or it could end in 20 years. You never know. It’s also that journey. It’s just so much fun.
The people I respect most in life are the people who come along and they change our society or change the world in a good way. Spielberg, Lucas, Henry Ford. Those people who give us something that changes the way we live for the better seemingly. That’s hopefully what I’m doin’ right now. I’m makin’ people laugh and bringing them some escapism and just some fun that they share amongst themselves. And that’s why I think it’s exploded so much now. It’s like, they see this and they go, “I gotta share this with somebody. I’ve gotta show this to my best friend. I’ve gotta show this to my mom.” And that’s why this huge groundswell is happening now. It’s really nice to get some of the emails we get and some of the stories we hear. It’s just too much fun.

For more on Jeff Dunham, check out the Nov. 17 issue of Country Weekly.

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