Jeff Dunham, the man who plays with dolls

By Anjali RaguramanEvents - 20 May 2014 12:00 AM | Updated 21 May 2014

Jeff Dunham, the man who plays with dolls

When he is not making record-breaking TV specials or selling a staggering amount of DVDs of his shows, American comedian and ventriloquist Jeff Dunham travels around the world for soldout tours. It is not wonder then, that he was named one of “the most popular comedians in the United States” by Time magazine.

The man behind the "dolls" is 52-year-old Dallas-raised Dunham, who effortlessly multi-tasks as he brings his dimunitive companions to life on stage.

With a motley crew of characters as well-loved as the controversial and deranged Achmed the Dead Terrorist and the permanently scowling old grump Walter, you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t recognise the catchphrase, “Silence! I kill you!”

Before he opens his show in Singapore for the ‘Disorderly Conduct’ tour, read on to find out how he came up with each of the characters.

What made you want to get into ventriloquism from such a young age?

It was as simple as seeing a dummy in a toy store in the third grade and asking for it for Christmas. After I got him, I also got record albums and library books which I studied, and I taught myself ventriloquism.

After my first show, I was hooked, and although it wasn't as mainstream or as “promising” as a career in sports or music, I became one of the lucky kids who found a passion very early in life.

Many people in Singapore knew about you way before Comedy Central ever had an Asian presence, thanks to YouTube. Did you ever think you would go worldwide?

It has been surprising; we have travelled to so many countries where English is the second language and the fans have been just as enthusiastic and even knew some of the jokes. When that happens, it’s sobering.

Do you tailor your material to each new country that you visit?

No, not really.

Is it easy to get lost behind the persona of the doll? Can you say things with the dolls that you would never say yourself in real life?

It's easy to get lost behind the doll. People pay attention to the dummy and forget who you are and that you're even there. There’s some sort of unwritten licence that allows an inanimate object that becomes animate to get away with stuff that a mere mortal never could. All subjects are fair game for the little guys in the trunk.

From where do you get your performance material?

My material comes from all sorts of places, but mostly just from life experiences be they good or bad. Some of the bits and jokes are based on real life, and others are things that just pop into my head which I turn into new segments for the show.

I try them out in the middle of the act; if the audience likes the new stuff, I keep the jokes that work, dump the ones that don't, and build from there.

What’s your process like when you’re coming up with a new character? Are they sometimes based on people from your own life?

The inspiration for the personalities comes from all sorts of places, and there's no formula here either. I thought up Peanut and designed him only in my head. I described him to a woman that was a master at creating soft puppets, and she then drew some illustrations. I gave her a few notes and she made him from there. Peanut, by the way, is the only one of my characters I didn't build myself. His personality and design were almost the same description: whacky and whimsical.

Walter, on the other hand, I figured he would be a good three minutes of the show, and that's all, considering how negative his personality would be. This was during my college years and I thought audiences wouldn't be able to take much more than a small bit of time of a curmudgeonly old man. How wrong I was! Everyone knows a guy like Walter. Either they’re married to him or he’s their father or uncle or neighbour, so he became an instant hit.

Jose the Jalapeno...

That’s the weirdest story. When I was in college, I had created a radio campaign on a local radio station for a local pizza restaurant. There were numerous ingredients on the pizza, each of which had his or her own voice. Tootsie Tomato, Otis Olive, Tony Tomato, and of course, Jose Jalapeno. He ended up having most of the funny lines and the strongest personality... So long story short, I ended up making the character, putting him on a stick, and giving him a spot in my act. The "on a steek" verbiage became a catchphrase for many years to come.

Achmed was originally "The Dead Osama", who I created almost exactly one year after 9/11. There was and never will be anything funny about the events of 9/11, but even a year later, jokes were aplenty about Osama, where was he, and why has no one found him? My answer was that he was dead, but not dead, and hiding out with the guys in my trunk. A few years later, I changed him into Achmed in anticipation that the real Osama would eventually be caught or killed, and I wanted this new and very strong character in my act to still be relevant and not dated. It turned out to be a good decision.

What is new with your act and what can fans in Singapore expect?

Like I always say, my show has no socially redeeming value whatsoever. You're not going to learn anything. All you're going to do is have a big goofy time and escape your problems for a while.

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