Powerhouse ventriloquist comedian raising all his voices at State Farm Center

Powerhouse ventriloquist comedian raising all his voices at State Farm Center

CHAMPAIGN — Given that the name of his tour is "Passively Aggressive," does Jeff Dunham think of himself as one or the other?

"Not this show. For stand-up comedy, it's pretty tame," he said. "Escapism is what entertainment is all about."

So, "I stay away from politics," he said. "I don't think the country has been this divided since the Civil War."

Don't expect to hear about anything that rhymes with "lump" from Dunham when he comes to State Farm Center this weekend.

Maybe that lack of controversy explains why his show starts at 5 p.m. Saturday.

Kids, he knows. In 1970, when he was 8, his parents gave him a dummy version of Mortimer Snerd (created in 1938, but still around for the Muppets) for Christmas.

Dunham jokes that he learned from a how-to book on ventriloquism the library had, and he still has it — "a thief in the third grade."

A proud Texan, he graduated from Baylor University, moved to Los Angeles and soon became a regular on the national comedy-club circuit.

Popular for his ventriloquism on stage with a large cast of his characters, Dunham is known for his creations like Walter, Achmed the Dead Terrorist, Peanut and other personalities he has constructed by hand all of his life.

Even when he writes an autobiography, it's a group effort.

"All By My Selves: Walter, Peanut, Achmed and Me," put the ventriloquist on best-seller lists.

Described as "a dressed-down, more digestible version of Don Rickles with multiple personality disorder," Dunham was named Billboard's Top Comedy Tour ticket sales for three years.

Dunham has been around a long time, but still looks young.

His specials on Comedy Central, "Arguing with Myself" in 2006, "Spark of Insanity" in 2007 and 2012's "Minding the Monsters," solidified his career, with "Monsters" hitting 7.5 million views, making it a most-watched show on the network.

After years on Comedy Central, Dunham is now finding himself on Netflix, streaming away.

"I've enjoyed doing HBO. But I have to say, Netflix pays crazy money," Dunham said. "They've changed the landscape, the cream of the crop, after Johnny Carson, HBO and Comedy Central kept moving comedy forward."

In his long career, he's still in awe of Carson.

"It was a long-term achievement. I gave myself a goal to get on 'The Tonight Show,' and I got there literally within a month of the deadline," Dunham said. "I think I auditioned for 'Tonight' nine times. I wanted so bad to be on Friday night. Friday night was Johnny's favorite; Bob Hope and B.B. King ruled that night."

Now he's looking to the future. New times require new personalities.

"I'm starting to (try out) my new voices for a few other people," Dunham said. "I've done only a couple."

He has had to defend Jose, a jalapeño pepper on a stick who talks with a thick accent, and makes a point of telling audiences that Achmed is not a Muslim.

As for other shows? He's not overly impressed with the likes of "Aquaman," now at the top of the box office; the DC hero has the same powers as SpongeBob SquarePants, Dunham jokes.

If you go

What: Comedian Jeff Dunham.

Where: State Farm Center, Champaign.

When: 5 p.m. Saturday.

Tickets: $45.50.

Box office: 217-333-2923.