Jeff Dunham is a ventriloquist but he's no dummy. Dunham never cared that the art of ventriloquism is about as hip as a polka or as antiquated as the television variety show.
"None of that ever bothered me," Dunham said. "It's just something I wanted to do. I never envisioned that it would work out this way."
It's worked our very well for Dunham, a ventriloquist who headlines arenas while his peers are fortunate to get club work.
Dunham, 47, will perform tonight at Intrust Bank Arena. He's struck a chord with the masses due to constant touring, connecting with fans via the Internet and, of course, sharing the stage with an array of colorful and often irreverent puppets.
It's difficult to imagine where Dunham, a ventriloquist since the mid-1980s, would be without cranky Walter, the wisecracking Peanut the Woozle, or Jose Jalapeno, a talking pepper on a stick who punctuates every line with "on a steeeek!" And then there is Achmed the Dead Terrorist, a skeleton puppet with a bad attitude.
The latter has been a crowd favorite since he was introduced post 9/11. "I thought this character might be pushing the envelope but I knew he would be big," Dunham said in a phone interview from his Los Angeles home.
The interplay between Dunham and Achmed is rapid-fire and often scores the biggest response during shows.
When Dunham 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. It says, 'Made in China.' "
Dunham isn't just huge in the world of ventriloquism, he is big-time compared to any comic. According to Pollstar, he was the highest-grossing stand-up comic in North America in 2009 with $19.2 million garnered through ticket sales. His "Very Special Christmas Special," which aired on Comedy Central in 2008, was the most-watched broadcast in the network's history. "The Jeff Dunham Show" debuted on the humor network in October (but was canceled in December).
So Dunham is this year's Dane Cook, but without the leading roles in savagely reviewed films.
Much like Dane, Dunham is wise enough to try to connect with fans. Both have used the Internet to build a strong core of fans.
However, what separates Dunham from Cook is that the latter's audience is primarily composed of young adults.
When you look at Dunham's audiences, you'll see everything from teenagers to their khaki-wearing parents and even seniors.
"You can't worry about impressing peers," Dunham said. "You have to teach yourself how to entertain the masses."
He seems to have a finger on the pulse of the average comedy fan. In an age when throwing your voice is out, Dunham has fans shelling out big bucks to see him, even during a recession.
"All I can say is that I worked hard to get where I am," he said.
If you go
What: Comic ventriloquist
Where: Intrust Bank Arena, 500 E. Waterman
When: 8 p.m. today
How much: Tickets are $45.50 at Select-a-Seat outlets, www.selectaseat.com or 316-755-SEAT.