Throw­away voice

In big venues or small, Dun­ham makes ven­tril­o­quism cool again

The Observer (Sarnia) - - CLASSIFIEDS - JANE STEVEN­SON

Hugely suc­cess­ful co­me­dian ven­tril­o­quist Jeff Dun­ham has a cast of dum­mies that fa­mously in­cludes Achmed the Dead Ter­ror­ist. His Pas­sively Ag­gres­sive tour has a string of win­ter dates in On­tario and Que­bec star­ing Jan. 9 at Toronto’s Sco­tia­bank Arena.

We spoke with Dun­ham, 56, who be­gan prac­tis­ing ven­tril­o­quism at age eight be­fore start­ing to per­form as a teenager, from his home in Cal­abasas, Calif.: Q How is play­ing a huge arena dif­fer­ent from play­ing a small club?

AIt’s rock ’n’ roll. We have two tour buses. And with that comes a 50-foot dig­i­tal video screen. When you’ve got any­where from 5,000 to 15,000 peo­ple in the venue, I try and make it as in­ti­mate as pos­si­ble and that’s by (us­ing) that gi­ant screen. The only thing that changes is the laughs are a lit­tle longer just be­cause of the num­ber of peo­ple. But if I go back and do a 500-seat room, it’s the same thing.” Q You’ve been cred­ited with re­viv­ing ven­tril­o­quism, but early on in your ca­reer you’d be booked as a com­edy duo (mean­ing you and your dummy) be­cause no­body wanted to book ven­tril­o­quists. Has ven­tril­o­quism fi­nally got the re­spect it de­serves?

A.It’s an art that can be re­spected when done well. So the art is only as good as its worst ex­am­ple. It’s easy to do ven­tril­o­quism. It’s difficult to en­ter­tain with ven­tril­o­quism well. I would rather watch a re­ally bad ven­tril­o­quist that’s re­ally funny than a re­ally good ven­tril­o­quist that’s not.

Q Are your dum­mies like chil­dren in that you can’t choose your favourite?


My favourite char­ac­ter is which­ever one is get­ting the big­gest laughs that night and the au­di­ence likes the most. Q Achmed — the skele­tal corpse of an in­com­pe­tent sui­cide bomber — be­gan as the Dead Osama as one year after 9/11 but evolved. Have you had any ad­verse re­ac­tions to Achmed?

AWhat’s in­ter­est­ing is the two places you would think would be the most sensitive loved him the most. Abu Dhabi, com­pletely Mus­lim, they LOVED the guy. And then two days later, I’m in the mid­dle of Tel Aviv, Is­rael, with all the Jewish folks and they loved him. So the place that I couldn’t do it was in Sin­ga­pore be­cause the Min­istry of Arts, or what­ever, thought that I might be of­fend­ing Mus­lims. But I’ve made it a point of ev­ery sin­gle show of say­ing he’s not Mus­lim. We don’t know what re­li­gion he is to make sure peo­ple knew the point of this was not to make fun of re­li­gion. It was to make fun of a bum­bling ter­ror­ist. Q We live in­creas­ingly po­lit­i­cally-cor­rect times. Do you still feel a comic’s job is to push the bound­aries?

AI look at it like tip­toe­ing through a mine­field. I pretty much know the lay­out of the mine­field. So you make a few jokes here and there know­ing what but­tons you can push with­out get­ting into real trou­ble. I think that a good co­me­dian who un­der­stands the au­di­ence or un­der­stands so­cial me­dia, you know how far you can go. And what you can say and what you can’t say with­out get­ting into huge, huge trou­ble. And so yeah, you need to push those bound­aries a lit­tle bit. But, at the same time, we have to be cog­nizant of what’s go­ing on in so­ci­ety be­cause you don’t want to of­fend a bunch of peo­ple. If you of­fend three or four per cent of the au­di­ence then I think that’s a pretty good per­cent­age be­cause the other 96 per cent is laugh­ing the hard­est at that. Q Did you ever see the 1978 hor­ror film Magic star­ring An­thony Hop­kins as a ven­tril­o­quist with a jeal­ous dummy named Fats? And has it ever caused you sleep­less nights?

AAm I in that Magic place where An­thony Hop­kins was where I re­ally think that the dummy is

alive and it’s a prob­lem? Not yet! Q Where do you keep your dum­mies?

AThe main guys are in their cases and in the stor­age place in my house ready to go. But the other ones, the more col­lectible ones, yeah, you walk into my of­fice, you’re go­ing to be creeped out a lit­tle bit. Q I know you and your fam­ily were briefly evac­u­ated dur­ing the Cal­i­for­nia wild­fires. Was your Bat­mo­bile (the Michael Keaton-era Bat­man Re­turns one he pur­chased in 2011) safe?

AYeah, the Bat­mo­bile’s safe. I have a ware­house in an­other part of town and it was in the mid­dle of the city. All of these places that were burn­ing are, of course, on the edge of the for­est. We’ll take it to car shows. When (TV’s Bat­man) Adam West died, down­town they lit up a build­ing with the Bat Sig­nal, so we took the Bat­mo­bile down there for that. And that’s driv­ing on the free­way. Peo­ple go crazy. Q And you’re ac­tu­ally be­hind the wheel?

AI’m driv­ing it. No­body drives my Bat­mo­bile! I have not got­ten an out­fit. If you’re driv­ing around in a Bat­mo­bile and you’re wear­ing the out­fit, that’s a special col­lec­tor.


Co­me­dian-ven­tril­o­quist Jeff Dun­ham with some of his dum­mies, in­clud­ing Achmed the Dead Ter­ror­ist (se­cond from left).

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