When you talk about Jeff Dunham hanging around with a bunch of dummies it's not a bad thing at all. Dunham, an accomplished ventriloquist, has been entertaining audiences for years with his stage act and, after several highly rated specials on Comedy Central, the network turned around and created "The Jeff Dunham Show." Just in time for the weekly series to debut tonight, our Jim Halterman spoke with Dunham about how the show came together, his first dummy and how he feels about being compared to comic legend Don Rickles.
Jim Halterman: I can imagine the first time you said "Welcome to the Jeff Dunham Show" that must have felt pretty good.
Jeff Dunham: We thought long and hard about the name of the show. I always wondered what in the world was with all these comedians naming these shows after themselves but after thinking about it for a while I thought that this makes the most sense.
JH: And how did the weekly show on Comedy Central come about?
JD: I moved to LA in 1988 and I had a little dream to do something on television other than doing guest spots and have something of my own. For years I've been pitching different television shows to different networks and it wasn't until the Comedy Central specials hit and then, especially after the Christmas special, the ratings that it received was pretty big. So we sat back and thought, "What in the world could we do that is different and show something that's completely unique compared to what people are already seeing on television?" I realized that one of the big things that people responded to in the live show was the characters talking about our lives together and what we did offstage so we thought if there was a way to present that and show these guys out in the real world with real people. Also, I was pretty good at ad-libbing and just doing these things off the cuff plus I knew I had a lot of good writers who were friends and so we put all this together in an interesting little soup that would be something that had never been on television before.
We had a built-in audience of the people who loved the characters and we had some really great characters there were already developed so there were a lot of pieces already in place and we knew if we put it in the right order that it would probably hit. We have some really great people here with the producers and the showrunners and I just think we've come up with something that is really fun. It's taxing on me physically because in every one of those scenes I'm somewhere hidden. The worse one was Achmed wanted to have a funeral because he'd never had one so we actually went to a real mortuary. We talked to the guy and the girl that worked there but Achmed wanted to try out some of the caskets. So in the shot you see Achmed in the casket laying down and sitting up and talking and I'm in the fetal position in the real bottom half of the casket with a flashlight and a headset.
JH: You started ventriloquism at a really young age. What was it that got you started?
JD: As a kid, I was no good at sports, scholastically I was fine but I was no superstar in any part of life. I wasn't one of the popular kids and it was just as simple as seeing a dummy in a toy store and deciding that that looked like fun. I asked for it for Christmas and I had actually forgotten about it and it wasn't until the dummy showed up under the Christmas tree that things really started happening after that?
JH: Can you remember the first character you ever actually created?
JD: The first one I actually built myself was in the sixth grade and there was a book instructing how to build ventriloquist dummies and it was built out of balsam wood and whittled it down and his name was Filbert. He's in storage somewhere now but that was the first step in making my own character. I didn't really get into making the dummies myself until the middle of college and it was more out of necessity more than anything. They were just too few and far between and I figured it would just be easier to make myself.
JH: So Walter is a dummy you created by yourself, as well as the others on the show, right?
JD: Yeah, that will be one of the extras on the DVD. To make Walter's face, first you make a clay mold and to make that first clay head I sat there with a work bench, a mirror, a couple of sculpting tools and my own face so I would just scowl that scowl and copy the lines of my face into the clay. So if I sit there and make that face our faces are exactly the same so I think I'm going to end up looking like him.
JH: Your work really blew up on YouTube. Did the exposure there take your act to a whole new level?
JD: The Comedy Central specials was what got us off the launch pad and into the atmosphere but then it was YouTube that sent it into the stratosphere. YouTube took it worldwide. We did a European tour this past spring and there are a couple things that have surprised me along the way. I've been doing this for so long and trying and dreaming for so long that a lot of this isn't a big surprise. I don't take any of it for granted because you don't know how it's going to last or how it's going to go but one of the things that has surprised me is the international card. I had always hoped and dreamed that I'd do something important and special in this country but I never thought beyond the borders. The YouTube thing took it everywhere. We're getting ready to do an Australian tour in a couple of weeks.
JH: Your style has been compared to Don Rickles. Have you met him or do you know if he's seen your act?
JD: I've never met him and that's a true compliment. A generation of folks loved him and he can get away with murder up there and you know he does it all in good fun. In what I do, I try and take on anybody and everybody. All races, all different walks of life and I try to make fun of myself more than anybody but I hope most everybody has a sense of humor knows that it's all coming from a good place. None if it is meant with malice or to be mean but the bottom line for a comedian is that you get a laugh and if that's how I get laughs and we laugh at each other then so be it.
JH: And if anyone did have an issue, they might take it out on the dummy and not on you!
JD: There's a story you hear about the dummy getting cold-cocked and not the ventriloquist!
JH: You've said that you never have had a real job but if you ever did, what would it be?
JD: I've had a private helicopter's license for a long, long time so, I don't know, maybe it would be something in aviation but I have no earthly idea. I'm also a big geek when it comes to computers but who knows?
"The Jeff Dunham Show" premieres tonight on Comedy Central at 9:00/8:00c.