A conversation with Jeff Dunham about his disembodied voices

The comedian performs this Friday at the Times Forum.

click to enlarge GAME CHANGER: Changing people's perception of ventriloquism is perhaps Dunham's ultimate coup d’état. - PUBLICITY PHOTO
GAME CHANGER: Changing people's perception of ventriloquism is perhaps Dunham's ultimate coup d’état.

Ventriloquism is truly a bizarre art form. Watching Jeff Dunham on Comedy Central — in the highest rated specials of all time on the station — on The Late Show With David Letterman or live (such as at his upcoming show in Tampa), part of the reason the act is funny is because it's … just … so … weird.

Watching a grown man talk on behalf of "dummies" or "mannequins" — a glorified word for puppets or dolls — catches us off guard. Like a religious sacrament, if it weren't within the bounds of traditional social practice, we would think Mr. Dunham to be nuts.

As it turns out, ventriloquism is not far removed from religion. In fact, historically the practice was used by necromancers, diviners who spoke on behalf of the dead. This traces back as far as 1,500 B.C., when the diviner would squat down and speak in a low, seemingly inhuman voice. The commentary made by the diviner was believed to be that of a soothsaying spirit called Obh. In other words, if the ancient Israelites saw what Jeff Dunham is doing today, or for that matter if Augustus Caesar saw him centuries later, they would first have a hearty chuckle, then sentence him to death.

Today, however, many folks have a diametrically opposite response to his performances. He is one of the most successful comedians in the United States. According to a 2010 article in Forbes, Dunham surpassed Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock to achieve the highest income among American comedians — $22.5 million (give or take a few bucks). The same publication currently lists him as the 90th most powerful celebrity in the world, narrowly defeating Larry the Cable Guy, who, deprived of puppets, is at a disadvantage.

Changing people's perception of ventriloquism is perhaps Dunham's ultimate coup d’état. There are other ventriloquists out there in the trenches, of course. Dunham had to aggressively blend comic timing and sensibility with his act in order not to be seen as a quaint party trick.

“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 needed to focus on the material and the jokes and keep people laughing.”

Despite his success, Dunham has always had difficulty getting respect. Although respect has obviously been easier to come by in the last few years as he has ascended to mega-stardom, ventriloquism still has a dorky vibe to it. It isn't surprising when an octogenarian gets on stage at the Tampa Improv open mic and starts using his mannequin, dressed as a caricature of a Native American, to tell racist stories about cowboys and Indians (yes, I saw this happen, and it was hilarious — in the wrong way). What is surprising is how Dunham has emerged from the heckling to make the artform strangely cool again.

“I fought that battle from day one. There’s a disdain for ventriloquists — you’re lumped in with plate spinners, accordion players and mimes. It’s considered quite sad and dated. I’ve been at it forever, I’ve been on the road for more than 20 years, and comedians respect that. The one thing I pride myself on, is I’ve put a fresh patina on an old, tired and sad art and made it hip and fun again.”

Dunham's collection of characters — Walter, Peanut, Achmed the Dead Terrorist, José Jalapeno on a Stick —are not always well behaved. Some of them even feel predesigned to allow a disembodied voice to sound off in an un-politically correct manner. It seems that Dunham has found a way to say whatever he wants, no matter how offensive, while not having to take the blame.

“Each character is me, just exaggerated beyond the socially acceptable point for anyone living outside a suitcase. It's like a part of my consciousness has left me and taken over this mannequin; I'm no longer responsible for what they say. I have fun right along with the audience.”

Dunham has, in a sense, revived ventriloquism from its vaudevillian roots. Perhaps he is not speaking on behalf of the dead (and kudos to him if the terrorist character is a sly reference to ventriloquism's agent heritage), but he is certainly creating magic … And that is divine for his legions of fans.

Jeff Dunham performs at the Tampa Bay Times Forum at 8 p.m. on Fri., Feb. 22. Tickets are $43.50. The Forum is on 401 Channelside Drive in Tampa. 800-745-3000. tampabaytimesforum.com.

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