Comic and ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, famous for cracking jokes with a range of sidekicks, is coming to the University of Illinois Assembly Hall on March 4.
Dunham has certainly become a newsmaker and influential trendsetter in recent years. Recently named to Forbes magazine's Celebrity 100 list, he has been rated as "America's favorite comedian" by Slate and the top-grossing live comedy act in North America by Pollstar.
The News-Gazette asked Dunham recently about his comedy, characters and whether he'd be able to perform without them.
The News-Gazette: You're famous for ventriloquism. What about it works for you?
Jeff Dunham: I was a shy little kid. I was terrible at sports, not one of the popular crowd, but to get up on stage in front of the class and be able to pick on my classmates or pick on the school or pick on the teachers or the principal and get some laughs out of it, it became some cool thing. I was up there challenging things and saying things that no other kids could say and not get in trouble. So that's the way it began. ... My formula pretty much hasn't changed at all: Get up onstage and say things that make people laugh and see what I can get away with. ... It's grown from there.
N-G: Do you think your characters can get away with saying or asking things humans can't?
JD: There's some sort of unwritten license that allows an inanimate object that becomes animate to get away with stuff that a mere mortal never could. Look at Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.
N-G: Have you ever considered doing stand-up that doesn't involve ventriloquism?
JD: 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. I do my own stand-up and that's fun, but if somebody said you need to do straight stand-up comedy and you can't use the dummy anymore, I would give up and go into real estate.
N-G: Where do your ideas for puppets come from?
JD: Of every character I've had in my act, none of them have a similar creation story. I actually thought up Peanut and designed him in my head. I described him to a woman that was making soft puppets and she drew up some sketches. And the character came to be just because he popped into my head. Walter, on the other hand ... I figured he would be a good three minutes of the show. I created him thinking that nobody would enjoy a grumpy old character like that. Little did I know, he is an "every man." Everybody has that guy in him. Either they're married to him or he's their father, but people for some reason love him. So that character just stuck. Jose the Jalapeno, that's the weirdest story. When I was in college, I was doing a radio campaign on the radio station and I was doing all the voices of this pizza. Every ingredient on the pizza spoke. And one of them was Jose Jalapeno. He ended up having all the funny lines. So I thought about making a dummy in the act. So I thought, why not a jalapeno on a stick? Achmed was originally a Halloween decoration.