Ventriloquism supposedly went out with the Nehru jacket and pay phones. But apparently that’s not so. Jeff Dunham is the most popular stand-up comic in North America, according to Pollstar.com.
“I’m thrilled that people continue to come out and see me,” Dunham said. “I don’t take it for granted. I work hard to make sure they come back.”
According to Forbes.com, Dunham is the third-highest-paid comedian in the country, behind Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock. However, the New York comedy icons make their fortune primarily courtesy of television syndication.
Much of the money in Dunham’s bank accounts has been made courtesy of touring.
Dunham, 51, has single-handedly revived ventriloquism, which appeared to be a dying art a decade ago.
“America’s Got Talent” alum Terry Fator, who signed a $100 million deal with the Mirage in Las Vegas, tips his cap to Dunham. It’s difficult to imagine Fator, a singing ventriloquist, scoring such an outlandish contract if it weren’t for Dunham.
“I have to give Jeff Dunham a lot of credit,” Fator said. “He really helped pave the way and bring ventriloquism back. It’s an art form. His success is amazing compared to what other comics accomplish.”
What other humorist sells out arenas? Dunham, a Dallas native, packs the airplane hangars thanks to his collection of colorful dummies and a politically incorrect sense of humor.
“I can get away with things that other comics can’t because of the puppets,” Dunham said. “It’s kind of like working with cartoon characters. With the puppets, I can push it. That’s where the fun comes in for me. Some people might think I cross a line, but that’s apparently a small percentage of people. Most of the people who come out love it.”
That’s evident. Dunham clearly knows what he’s doing. He’s not afraid to offend. His fearlessness led to the invention of Achmed the Dead Terrorist, a skeleton puppet with a bad attitude.
The latter has been a crowd favorite since he was introduced in 2007. “I thought this character might be pushing the envelope, but I knew it would be big,” Dunham said.
The interplay between Dunham and Achmed is rapid-fire and often scores the biggest response during shows.
“Achmed, where did you come from?” Dunham asks.
“From your freakin’ suitcase,” Achmed responds.
“So if you’ve been in my suitcase all this time, how have you been getting past security?” Dunham says.
“Oh, that’s easy,” Achmed says. “They just open the case and I go, ‘Helloooo, I’m Lindsay Lohan.’ ”
When Dunham, who will perform Saturday at Intrust Bank Arena, asks Achmed if he’s Muslim, the puppet claims that he is not an adherent of the religion of Islam and is eager to reveal his true background. “Look at my butt,” Achmed says. “Made in China.”
Achmed is so popular that when Dunham’s “Very Special Christmas Special” featured him in 2008, it recorded the highest rating ever on Comedy Central.
“People love the character,” Dunham said. “He’s outrageous. If you can combine outrageous and funny, you’re in business.”
Achmed isn’t Dunham’s only character. There’s also cranky Walter, the wisecracking Peanut the Woozle, and Jose Jalapeno, a talking pepper on a stick, who punctuates every line with “on a steeeek!”
“I’ve been fortunate,” Dunham said. “It’s not just one puppet or one joke that’s worked for me. It’s an array of characters that have connected with the audience.”
When you glance around at the crowd gathered for Dunham, you’ll typically see a cross-section of folks, composed of Comedy Central-viewing teenagers, khaki-sporting parents and even some grandparents.
The crowd might not be the hippest, but that’s fine with Dunham. “It’s not about being cutting edge,” Dunham said. “It’s about being funny. There’s nothing that makes me happier than hearing the audience laugh like they do.”