In big venues or small, Dunham makes ventriloquism cool again
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).