Ventriloquist comedian Jeff Dunham way back in 1991, performed for the first time at Montreal Just For Laughs Festival. The Texas-born ventriloquist/comedian appeared with his character Peanut, a cheerful, hyperactive, purple-skinned woozle who is covered mostly in white fur, and Jose Jalapeno on a Stick, a talking Mexican jalapeno pepper that happens to be on a stick. During his set, Dunham proved that he could combine comedy and ventriloquism, especially when he did a three-way ventriloquist act with Peanut using a puppet that resembled Dunham, and put a new spin on the classic ventriloquist drinking-the-glass-of-water trick.
Five years later, Dunham returned to the festival, where he introduced to the audience at the St. Denis Theatre another character from his puppet repertoire, which was Walter, an acerbic, curmudgeonly old man with an eternal sour look on his face and his arms constantly crossed in discontent.
What has happened with Dunham since he and Walter appeared at Just For Laughs 22 years ago? He has expanded his repertoire of characters (including Achmed the Dead Terrorist and Melvin the Superhero Guy); his performance video clips have garnered over a billion views on YouTube; his comedy specials on Comedy Central, NBC and Netflix has achieved record-breaking ratings; his DVDs has sold a total of well over four million copies; Billboard magazine named him as the Top Comedy Tour for three years; he was recognized by Forbes magazine in 2009 as the third highest-paid comedian in the U.S. (behind Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock); he has appeared on numerous TV shows and movies, such as 30 Rock, Angie Tribeca and Dinner for Schmucks; he got himself into the Guinness Book of World Records for the distinction of having the most tickets sold for a stand-up comedy tour; and recently, he was awarded with his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
And now, 27 years since his festival debut – and 22 years since his last appearance here – Jeff Dunham returns to Just For Laughs as the host of two back-to-back multi-comic galas on July 27 at Salle Wilfrid Pelletier of Place des Arts. Although Dunham feels quite excited about the prospect of his pending Just For Laughs homecoming, he feels a slight sense of trepidation about it.
I feel like the unloved, red-headed stepchild of the comedy world. Here I am, a grown man in his 50s, sitting onstage with dolls. And that’s normal? Is that a joke?, said Dunham during a recent phone interview. But in reality, I am having a blast. I really feel like the kid who got beat up in school and then gets chosen to play first base on the baseball team. It’s a huge honour for me to return to Just For Laughs as a gala host, and I can’t wait to go back on the festival stage.
Dunham started his interest in ventriloquism at the age of eight in his hometown of Dallas, when he got a ventriloquist dummy for a Christmas present.
I then began to teach myself how to be a ventriloquist. And as a result, it helped to make me popular in school because I used it as a secret weapon to get me laughs. I could make fun of the principal and get away with it. And then I started doing performances with the dummy and got paid for it. I found out that I had no reason to quit, he said.
He believes that ventriloquism really came into the show business forefront in the 1930s and 40s, when his idol Edgar Bergen and puppet Charlie McCarthy became major stars thanks to their highly rated Chase & Sanborn Hour radio program.
Before Bergen, ventriloquists were part of vaudeville line-ups. They were the acts who went onstage as the curtain went down, so that they can appear in front of the curtain as the stage was being set up for the next act, he said. Edgar Bergen was the Seinfeld of the radio era. His characters like Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd were seen as real people, and they soon became headlining superstars.
Dunham realizes that in order for anyone to take up ventriloquism, like taking up a certain sport, it requires a great deal of talent and skill. The earlier you start, the better chance you have of succeeding as a ventriloquist. It’s not like some 28-year-old who goes up to me and tells me they want to be a ventriloquist. My response usually is “Have you eliminated every possibility you have in life? Wouldn’t you rather do this for a hobby?”, he said.
I was a ventriloquist long before I was funny. You have to put in the time to become both entertaining and funny, not to mention sticking with the art of stand-up comedy. Somehow, stand-up and ventriloquism go hand-in-hand; they are like ingredients of comedy. When I am onstage with my puppets, there is plenty of tension, conflict, dialogue and acting going on; it’s like a sitcom on stage, he added.
Although he admits that his popular characters like Peanut, Walter and Bubba J are evergreen and can adapt to any type of material, the thought and creative process that Dunham commits toward developing new characters depends upon the audience. Over the past 15 years, I have created new characters as a response to what has been going on in society. As well, a new character not only has to respond with the audience, but to resonate with them as well, he said. I always like to joke about politics. It’s like a china shop that moves its shelves a little bit closer to each other; how far can you go before the bull comes in? And when it comes to political material, I like to entertain as many people as possible on both sides.
With that in mind, Dunham will introduce a new character at his galas that responds to the current volatile political situation. His name is “Larry”, and he works as a personal advisor to Trump in the White House, he said. Larry is a rather conflicted character with a lot of problems. And so far, he has been going over pretty well with audiences in North America and especially Europe.
With the tremendous success he has experienced as a ventriloquist and comedian for almost two decades, Dunham believes that there has been renewed interest in ventriloquism as a whole. That interest has been refreshed thanks to the new blood who perform on reality competition TV shows like America’s Got Talent, he said. But somehow, it reminds me of the scenario of the father and son who are playing a video game together, and the son dares to suggest about the idea of becoming a ventriloquist and turning it into an arena act. There are times that I still think of that scenario, only this time, the son suggests about the next great dog act than can fill a 10,000-seat arena!