Who is Jeff Dunham?

Born in April 1962, in Dallas, Texas USA, Jeff Dunham is a ventriloquist and stand-up comedian, who specializes in observational, black and prop comedy. He was adopted by Howard and Joyce Dunham, who worked as a real estate appraiser and housewife respectively, and was raised in a Presbyterian household from three months onwards.

At the age of eight, Jeff was given a Mortimer Snerd dummy and a how-to album for Christmas, and began learning the art of ventriloquism. The very next day, he went to the library to check out a ventriloquism how-to book which he never returned. Within a year he was hooked, and decided that he wanted to pursue ventriloquism as a career.

Aided by Edgar Bergen’s routines and Jimmy Nelson’s Instant Ventriloquism record, Jeff would practice in front of a mirror for hours on end. As an only child who enjoyed his solitude, the future celebrity had plenty of time on his hands to master the skill.

In sixth grade, Jeff met Jimmy Nelson in person while attending the Kentucky-based Vent Haven ConVENTion, an annual ventriloquist meet-up with competitions and activities. Since then, the comedian has made it a point to attend every year except for 1977, when he was unable to attend due to personal reasons. Eventually, Jeff was declared a “retired champion” by ConVENTion’s organizers, as everyone was too daunted to go up against him in competitions.

As a teenager, Jeff began performing in churches and schools, while juggling his Six Flags job. By the time he was in middle school, he was performing at banquets which were attended by Roger Staubach and other local celebrities. After catching the attention of Bill O’Reilly and fellow local reporters, he made his TV debut in 1976, and was interviewed by a local news station. Still a high school student, Jeff did commercial work for Datsun dealerships.

Jeff and ventriloquism were practically one and the same by now, as he co-wrote a school paper column with his dummies, and posed with them for yearbook snaps to get professional photos for cheap. He matriculated from high school in 1980, having been voted Most Likely to Succeed, and set himself the ambitious goal of appearing in “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” within a decade.

In the same year, Jeff began studying a communications degree at Baylor University, and performed around campus. His weekends were spent flying around the states, as he did around a hundred private shows a year for corporate customers and other important figures. Still a junior college student, he was earning up to tens of thousands of dollars a year, and began opening for George Burns and Bob Hope, despite not having much stand-up comedy knowledge.

Big Break

Jeff’s big break came in 1985, after being asked to join “Sugar Babies”, a famous Broadway show with Ann Miller and Mickey Rooney. Given his devout upbringing, Broadway came as a definite culture shock but helped him perfect his craft, and reach a wider audience. While performing at Long Island’s Westbury Music Fair, Jeff learned how to modify his act, depending on where he was and who his audience were.

After graduating in 1986, Jeff introduced José Jalapeño, Peanut, and other new characters. Sadly, fellow comedians didn’t consider him a true comedian, because he used dummies and props for his routines. In an unpleasantly memorable incident, Jeff performed at New York City’s Catch a Rising Star club and was disrespected by the emcee of the club who, upon learning that Jeff was a ventriloquist, postponed his stage time over and over until the comedian left.

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Jeff’s ambitious move to Los Angeles in 1988 came when he felt he’d outgrown Texas. His parents were concerned by his decision, thinking he’d keep performing at church groups and other local venues. Surprisingly, Jeff was at first unsuccessful in L.A., as he hadn’t fully fleshed out his stand-up routine. It didn’t help that his manager at the time, Judi Brown-Marmel, booked him as a comedy duo instead of a ventriloquist.

Upon befriending Mick Lacey, who owned Hermosa beach’s Comedy & Magic Club, Jeff was given a regular slot, and used Jerry Seinfeld and other comedians as case studies to perfect his act. He was also advised by Bill Engvall to start implementing more adult elements in his work, instead of only using his typical G-rated material.

1988 Onwards

In 1988, a talent booker for Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show informed Jeff that he’d landed a spot on the program. Jeff was ecstatic at achieving his 10-year goal two years early, but the talent booker, James McCawley, cancelled his appearance after seeing one of the ventriloquist’s public performances. James informed Jeff that he felt the latter wasn’t prepared for “The Tonight Show”.

Instead of giving up, Jeff performed for James several times, and also perfected his act in L.A clubs. Finally, James told Jeff in April 1990 that he was ready to appear on “The Tonight Show” with Peanut, one of his dummies. After performing alongside B.B King and Bob Hope a few days later, Jeff was invited to sit on Johnny’s couch, which was considered a stamp of approval.

Jeff’s parents disapproved of his “The Tonight Show” appearance, which frustrated the ventriloquist. For the next decade and some, he remained relatively unknown, performing at small and medium-sized venues, as well as accepting the odd TV role and commercial job. The exposure from appearing on “The Tonight Show” three more times, and having a segment with Reba McEntire on “Hot Country Nights” helped him out enormously, but his TV appearances slowed down around the mid-1990s and his stage audiences dwindled considerably.

Rather than discouraged, Jeff began performing at clubs again. He used question cards for his performances as a way of connecting with his fanbase, and was soon voted Funniest Male Stand-up at the 1998 American Comedy Awards. On the downside, Jeff’s marriage and family life suffered due to the constant travelling, and he also had trouble paying the bills.

#TBT for the start of football season. The time I was on The Best Damn Sports Show Period. Walter called John Kruk a cracker.

Posted by Jeff Dunham on Thursday, September 4, 2014

2002 came along, and Jeff was actively searching for TV work as a way of raising his profile and slowing down on the club performances. After appearing in “The Best Damn Sports Show Period”, Jeff’s career was on the rise again, and he began landing more lucrative gigs. In July 2003, he made his first solo appearance in “Comedy Central Presents” with his dummies José Jalapeño, Peanut, and Walter.

Despite a successful performance, Comedy Central felt that Jeff wasn’t the right fit, and declined to give him more airtime. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and two years later Jeff financed his own comedy DVD, “Jeff Dunham: Arguing with Myself”. With help from his manager Judi, Comedy Central aired the DVD, which was viewed by two million people, and sold the same number of copies.

In 2007, Jeff taped his second special, “Jeff Dunham: Spark of Insanity”, in Washington, D.C’s Warner Theater. Here he introduced Achmed the Dead Terrorist, his most controversial character, but who would become an online sensation. A clip of the puppet was viewed over 140 million times on the platform, and became YouTube’s most-watched clip as of October 2009. By now, Jeff was performing in Denmark, South Africa, Norway, Australia, and even the Middle East, as his loveable characters were recognized by millions across the globe, and crossed language barriers.

2009 Onwards

A multi-platform deal was signed between Jeff and Comedy Central in March 2009, despite the network’s initial reluctance. Included in the deal were a fourth stand-up special, a multi-city tour, a TV series named “The Jeff Dunham Show”, and a consumer products partnership. Surprisingly, the show only lasted one season due to its high production costs, low ratings, and poor reviews, despite having boasted the most-watched premiere in the network’s history.

“Jeff Dunham: Controlled Chaos” was the ventriloquist’s fourth special, and premiered on Comedy Channel in September 2011. His fifth, “Minding the Monsters”, premiered in October 2012 and was filmed in Savannah, followed by “All Over the Map”, which filmed in various big cities, and premiered in November 2014.

“Achmed Saves America”, starring Achmed the Dead Terrorist, premiered on Country Music Television in March 2014, whereas Jeff’s seventh special, “Unhinged in Hollywood”, premiered on NBC in September 2015.

Controversy

With a decades-long career and thousands of performances, Jeff has attracted praise and criticism in equal measure. He made history after winning the Ventriloquist of the Year award twice, and was also nominated by the TNN Music City News Country Awards in the Comedian of the Year category. Despite being praised by many for his technique and timing, others claim that Jeff’s characters are sexist, homophobic, and racist caricatures.

The South African Advertising Standards Authority banned a TV commercial featuring Achmed the Dead Terrorist in 2008, after a citizen complained that the commercial was offensive to Muslims and characterized them as terrorists. Jeff’s eloquent reply was: “I’ve skewered whites, blacks, Hispanics, Christians, Jews, Muslims, gays, straights, rednecks, addicts, the elderly, and my wife… I believe that comedy is the last true form of free speech.” With that said, Jeff admitted to being more sensitive with conservative audiences.

In July 2009, the comedian was criticized and heckled during a promotion for “The Jeff Dunham Tour” after mocking TV critics, which is part of the reason the show received poor critical reviews a mere month later. Other industry figures such as J.P Williams, who produces the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, are of the opinion that Jeff’s act in itself isn’t funny, and that he gets more reactions thanks to his puppet characters.

Prior to a 2014 show that took place in Malaysia, the country’s government asked the comedian not to name or use Achmed during his performance. During that particular performance, Jeff renamed Achmed “Jacques Merde, the Dead French Terrorist”, to avoid disappointing fans. Apart from these isolated incidents, Jeff has enjoyed a long and scandal-free career.

Car Collection

Jeff boasts an impressive multi-million-dollar car collection with something to suit every taste. First on the list is his striking black and yellow Ford GTX1, of which only 100 were ever produced. The mid-engine two-seater sports car isn’t exactly practical, but the comedian drives it every now and then.

Next up is the 1934 Ford Achmedmobile, which started off as a 1934 Ford street rod, and boasts several customizations. The vehicle rarely leaves Jeff’s garage, and has only been photographed a few times.

Another of Jeff’s vintage vehicles is his 1965 George Barris Calico Surfer that comes with an interesting origin story. Apparently, the ventriloquist snagged the rare car at an auction, after one of the bidders had a heart attack while bidding, but there’s no way to confirm if this is true.

The lesser-known Bradley GT also takes a coveted spot in Jeff’s collection. The sports car uses a Volkswagen Beetle powertrain and underpinnings, and weighs 1,600 pounds, making it nimble and easy to ride. Jeff is rarely seen out and about with the Bradley, perhaps due to its lack of roof and doors.

Fans of vintage cars love Jeff’s 1970 Plymouth Superbird, which comes with manual transmission and a 426 Hemi engine, instead of the typical automatic transmission and 440 cubic-inch engine. Jeff’s orange Superbird can be worth up to $300,000.

Jeff is obviously a Batman fan, as he owns 1966 and 1992 Batmobiles. George Barris designed the former– which is praised for being one of the best replicas ever made – and the comedian can often be seen driving it. However, the 1992 Batmobile, which comes with voice activated controls, a LS7 Corvette crane engine, and rear cameras, isn’t a replica: it came straight from the set of “Batman Returns”.

There are also a couple of lesser-loved AMC Gremlins in Jeff’s garage. The 1970s car, which is compact and utilitarian, comes with Levi upholstery and an AMC 5.0-liter V8 engine. Similarly, Jeff’s 1971 Mercury Marquis Brougham is another fairly unattractive vehicle – but one with enormous sentimental value, as it’s the exact same model as the ventriloquist’s first car. The Mercury is so important to Jeff that it’s featured in several of his YouTube videos.

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