Ventriloquists creep people out. We’re not sure why, but they rank just below clowns on our informal office pool of things that make people’s skin crawl (also on that list, strangely: The chubby guy on Outsourced. Go figure). It doesn’t seem fair—there’s nothing creepy about Geppetto, for instance (except for the weird talking cricket in his workshop). Comedian Jeff Dunham doesn’t think he’s creepy. Far from it, in fact, and if Comedy Central and his highly adoring, enormous fan base has anything to say about it, he’s right. In the midst of a whirlwind tour across the country, Jeff takes a few minutes out to answer three questions for us about the stigma attached to his art form, facing fatwahs and creating his unusual characters.
French Davis: You’re officially one of the top grossing comics in history, but it seems like you had to drag Comedy Central and the rest of the production world kicking and screaming to the same conclusion your public already reached years ago: Americans love a good ventriloquist. Why does it seem like it’s harder for your niche?
Jeff Dunham: A certain stigma has followed the art. There have always been a few folks who are good performers as ventriloquists and they have caused a resurgence in the acceptance of ventriloquism as a legitimate form of entertainment, and there are a couple of generations right now who up until the past couple of years, had never seen a good ventriloquist. One of my goals when performing is to make the audience forget about the fact that they’re watching a ventriloquist act, thus suspending disbelief, and enjoy the characters for who they are. I realized early on that the ventriloquism needed to be just a vehicle for the comedy. It couldn’t be the focus of the act. In other words, I focus on the material and the jokes to keep people laughing. The one thing I pride myself on is I’m trying to put a fresh patina on and old, tired and sad art and make it hip and fun again.
FD: What would you be doing if you weren’t a comedian?
JD: I started out as a ventriloquist and never considered doing anything else career-wise.
FD: Achmed the Terrorist stirred up a bit of controversy as a character. Any Fatwas issued for you? Threats? Why does this particular stereotype seem to resonate louder than other ethnic groups you’ve poked fun at over the years?
JD: I have created these characters that are themselves. They answer for themselves and not what I think. They say outlandish things. People that come to the show that are fans, they laugh at what these characters say. I laugh at what these characters say. And I’m embarrassed by what they say. It’s like a play. It’s all acting. It’s pretend. I think the audience understands that.