Officials at Comedy Central literally couldn’t believe their eyes when the huge ratings came in for ventriloquist Jeff Dunham’s debut special for the network.
“There’s got to be some mistake,” Dunham recalls them saying after seeing the gaudy numbers. “We’ll get back to you.”
Rodney Dangerfield swore he didn’t get any respect, but he didn’t lug around a suitcase full of ventriloquist dummies for a living.
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Dunham knows the drill. East Coast elites look down on ventriloquism, while some comedy peers lump him in with other "prop comics." Comedy Central makes hay with liberal darlings like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, not a Midwesterner who can make puppets talk without moving his lips.
Dunham licks his wounds by playing to sold-out houses around the globe.
“Jeff Dunham: Birth of a Dummy,” a 90-minute special debuting on the BIO Channel at 8 p.m. EST tonight, recalls the Texas native’s rise from a kid with a gift for throwing his voice around to the world’s top-grossing comedian. Team Dunham – the irascible Walter, Peanut and Achmed the Dead Terrorist among the ventriloquist's homemade creations – also have generated more than a half-billion views on YouTube.
The special lets Dunham’s parents share their trepidation regarding their son's curious career path, shows how Dunham creates each dummy by hand using old-school materials and software programs to guide his hand and how he knew he had made it when Johnny Carson waved him over to sit on the "Tonight Show" couch.
Dunham, whose new stand-up comedy DVD “Controlled Chaos
” came out in September, recalls the humble birth of his most celebrated dummy, a skeletal figure who cries, "I'll keeeel you!" to infidels in his audience. The ventriloquist was performing at a bevy of small comedy clubs shortly after 9/11, and he noticed that fellow comics like Jay Leno were making jokes at the expense of Osama bin Laden and his terrorist brethren.
“Who are these idiots who did this? There’s comedy there,” he says.
Achmed the Dead Terrorist was born.
“The first show I did [with Achmed] was 12 miles from Ground Zero a year later,” he says. “People were ready to laugh.” But the boney suicide bomber didn’t really take off until the advent of YouTube and Dunham’s transition from small clubs to venues like Comedy Central.
The expanding spotlight also made Dunham a target for critics who found the character offensive to Muslims. Those voices were compounded by others who pegged other Dunham creations like Jalapeno, a Mexican character, and Sweet Daddy Dee, a black pimp-like character, as more examples of the ventriloquist’s cold heart.
Multiple Facebook pages exist solely to attack Dunham’s act, and several online commentaries have excoriated his brand of humor.
“I make fun of myself and my own family more than anyone else. I spread it around,” says Dunham, whose dummies also include a beer-swilling redneck. He takes solace in the fact that the bits social critics decry are the ones longtime fans embrace the most.
“Who am I there to please?” he asks before growing more serious.
“It’s a joke, folks. It’s stand-up comedy, and it has to have a little bit of an edge to it. That’s what every good comic does.”
That doesn’t mean Dunham is immune to criticism – or to changing his act when needed. He recalls getting a message from a friend who works in education about a routine in which Peanut said the word “retarded.”
“It’s like the ‘n-word'… it’s unbelievably offensive,” she told him. Dunham immediately took the word out of his act. “That kind of thing I take to heart… [as a comedian] you know how far you can push things."
Dunham is currently on the road with his “Controlled Chaos” tour, but he knows he can’t do stand-up forever.
“There’s nothing nicer than waking up in your own bed five nights in a row,” says Dunham, who would like to do more television work or perhaps land a steady gig in Las Vegas.
He doesn’t have to be reminded how lucky he is to make a living doing what he loves.
“I’m one of those really rare lucky people who found something as a young kid that I enjoyed and stuck with it and I never want to do anything else,” he says.