Ventriloquism is an art form that has long suffered a less-than-stellar reputation thanks to hackery plaguing the genre. But, sometimes, a truly talented ventriloquist comes along and lifts the whole pack up a bit. Jeff Dunham, it seems, is of that ilk. (Search for Jeff Dunham tickets here.)
Critics have cited Dunham as doing more than anyone since Edgar Bergen to elevate and promote ventriloquism to the masses. Indeed, Slate.com once anointed Dunham as “America’s favorite comedian” and Pollstar magazine ranks him as the top-grossing stand-up comedy act touring in North America. Having sold over four million DVDs on top of that, Dunham has more than proven his worth as well as the viability of ventriloquism as a comedic style.
A History of Ventriloquism
The Ancient Greek priestess Pythia of Apollo’s temple in Delphi is one of the earliest known ventriloquists qua prophets. The tradition of using ventriloquism as part of rituals continues in certain indigenous cultures including Eskimo, Zulu, and Māori peoples.
In olden times, ventriloquism was viewed and practice as a part of religious rites. The word ‘ventriloquism’ is drawn from two Latin roots – venter (stomach) and loqui (to speak) – which, when combined mean to speak from the stomach. People believed that the various noises emitted by the stomach were actually voices from beyond and that a ventriloquist come interpret the meaning and messages.
Later, in the Middle Ages, ventriloquism was lumped in with witchcraft; even later still, around the 19th century, the performance aspect of the form found its way onto the stage and the art of ventriloquism took on a whole new sheen with the rise of vaudeville.
Because comedy still hadn’t been incorporated into ventriloquism, the practitioners focused on the craft of switching voices in order to astound their audiences. Some artists chose to utilize numerous different characters in their acts. Jules Vernon was a master at the multiple figure routine.
Others, though, stuck with one. Fred Russell blazed this trail with Coster Joe that was made all the brighter by The Great Lester with his Frank Byron, Jr. figure. The Great Lester passed on his talent and legacy to his greatest student, Edgar Bergen, who took the practice into the 20th century and adding comedic elements.
Bergen is likely one of the world’s most famous ventriloquists thanks to his work with sidekicks like Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. Bergen and McCarthy even hosted a number one radio program together for the nearly 20 years between 1937 and 1956.
Ventriloquists who followed behind Bergen included Shari Lewis, Paul Winchell, Jimmy Nelson, Willie Tyler, and, of course, Señor Wences.
Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, Jeff Dunham grew up during the 1960s and 1970s when Bergen was still a reigning force. When he was only 8, Dunham got a Mortimer Snerd doll for Christmas and began learning the craft of ventriloquism. He studied routines by Bergen and Nelson along with how-to books and records while practicing in front of a mirror.
Dunham starting going to the Vent Haven ConVENTion held each year in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, when he was in sixth grade. At one of the events, he even met Nelson. As his talent progressed, Dunham’s regularity at the ConVENTion forced organizers to dubbed him a “retired champion” and keep him from competing against the more amateur artists. To honor his contributions, though, the Vent Haven Museum included Dunham in their collection along with Señor Wences and Bergen.
As a teenager, Dunham began performing locally at events and in television commercials. His ventriloquist persona became so ubiquitous that Dunham and one of his figures penned a column together for his school newspaper. He even brought his dummies along for school pictures – he claims as a way to get headshots made for free.
During his years at Baylor University, Dunham stepped things up, spending his weekends performing around the country. Then, after graduation, he made the move to Los Angeles, California, to pursue his craft full-time.
In 1990, Dunham got his first shot on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and did so well Carson called him over to the couch after his routine. Despite receiving Carson’s endorsement, Dunham failed to break through for another dozen years.
Dunham’s television appearances
1991 – Hot Country Nights
1996 – Ellen
2002 – Any Day Now
2002 – She Spies
2003 – One on One
2005 – Blue Collar TV
2009 – 30 Rock
2009 – Sonny with a Chance
Dunham’s television specials
2003 – Comedy Central Presents
2006 – Jeff Dunham: Arguing with Myself
2007 – Jeff Dunham: Spark of Insanity
2008 – Jeff Dunham’s Very Special Christmas Special
2009 – The Jeff Dunham Show
2011 – Jeff Dunham: Controlled Chaos
Throughout his career, Dunham has earned mixed reviews from critics who, as a group, have been on of his comedic targets along with, according to Dunham, “whites, blacks, Hispanics, Christians, Jews, Muslims, gays, straights, rednecks, addicts, the elderly, and my wife. As a standup comic, it is my job to make the majority of people laugh, and I believe that comedy is the last true form of free speech.”
Still, the fans continue to turn out in support of the comedian who has twice been deemed Ventriloquist of the Year and, on the strength of fan votes, won Comedy Central’s Stand-Up Showdown in 2008. His fourth special for Comedy Central, Jeff Dunham: Controlled Chaos, premiered in late September.
Walter – The cross-armed curmudgeon offers his sarcastic and cynical perspective on the world. Having served in Vietnam and worked as a welder, Walter just “doesn’t give a damn” anymore, not about his wife and not about people in the audience. He has appeared in all three of Dunham’s Comedy Central shows.
Peanut – Hailing from a small Micronesian island, Peanut is purple “woozle” who has white fur on his body and a tuft of green hair on his head. Peanut enjoys taking jabs at Dunham and the other characters, particularly José.
José Jalapeño on a Stick – As his name suggests, José is jalapeño pepper on a stick … who talks … and sports a sombrero. Speaking with a thick Hispanic accent, José often works in tandem with Peanut. José was the first of his puppets that Dunham actually made himself.
Bubba J – Every comic needs a redneck to round out his stereotypes and Bubba J fills the bill for Dunham. The beer-swigging, NASCAR-loving, “white trash trailer park” Bubba tells the story of meeting his wife at a family reunion.
Sweet Daddy Dee – Although Dunham has introduced Sweet Daddy Dee as his “new manager,” Sweet Daddy prefers a different title: pimp or “Player in the Management Profession.”
Melvin the Superhero Guy – Although his superpowers are pretty limited, Melvin nevertheless boasts a blue superhero suit and brags of his x-ray vision. (He loves “looking at boobies.”) That’s about it, though, because when Dunham asks how far Melvin can fly, the dummy retorts, “How far can you throw me?” Despite his own lack of extra-special forces, Melvin enjoys belittling other superheroes.
Achmed the Dead Terrorist – Having failed as a suicide bomber, Achmed still takes himself and his mission very seriously, shouting “Silence! I kill you!” when annoyed with Dunham or audience members. Despite his skeletal appearance, Achmed assures Dunham, “It’s a flesh wound.”