Ahead of his next South African tour, ventriloquist Jeff Dunham spoke to Helen Herimbi about dummies, getting past divorce and dead terrorists.
When Jeff Dunham was little, he didn’t have any imaginary friends. He had real ones. Real puppet ones. Having received a dummy to practise his ventriloquism when he was just a tween, Dunham began taking his dummy to Picture Day every year.
They surely made for some side eye-worthy visuals but at least the man who topped the Forbes Top Earning Comedians In America List twice in a row can explain those. He said he did this in order to get the most professional-looking photos for his ventriloquism portfolio.
Where words fail him are when he looks at a picture of him and his dummy standing in front of a car with a gigantic stuffed elephant in the driver’s seat.
Following the announcement of a South African tour between June 5 and 16, I got a chance to speak to the man who has cashed in on talking to himself. First up on the list of priorities: that dodgy picture with the stuffed animal.
“I absolutely don’t remember why I have a picture that looks that way,” he tells me on the phone from America. “I wasn’t drunk or anything, I remember that. I have no explanation except for maybe it was my mother who took the picture. My mother, to this day, in her mid-80s, takes pictures of any and everything.”
Family is important to this Comedy Central-affiliated comedian and the last time he was in Mzansi he had gone through a divorce. In his fourth live DVD, Controlled Chaos, one of Dunham’s dummies, an irritable old man named Walter, takes great pleasure in attempting to live vicariously through a man who managed to escape the chokehold of a wedding band. But, I ask Dunham, won’t Walter be disappointed to find that Dunham is getting hitched yet again in the near future?
“Was there ever a death penalty in South Africa?” he asks, but doesn’t wait for an answer.
“Did you ever have the electric chair? Well, that’s basically Walter’s answer. He goes ‘you got engaged and you’re going to get married again. Look, when you get a call from the governor to get a reprieve, you don’t turn around and strap yourself back into the chair’.”
Some of the characters, including Walter, will be dressed up for Halloween in order to tape a special show when Dunham performs in SA.
The characters include Peanut, who is a purple woozle, Bubba J, a stereotypical beer-guzzling white man from the South, and Achmed the Dead Terrorist whose signature saying, “Silence! I keeel you,” became a world-famous phrase, among others.
But with all his immensely popular characters – including Debbie, who appeared as Dunham’s character’s “wife” in Dinner For Shmucks starring Steve Carrel – Dunham hasn’t presented a black one as a permanent cast member in his shows.
“I had Sweet Daddy D,” he laughs heartily. “He’s a black character. Maybe I should bring him back to South Africa.”
For now though, when Dunham doesn’t have his hand up a dummy, he’s got his other hand full with all his characters. Especially with Achmed The Dead Terrorist – who actually makes fun of Osama bin Laden in Dunham’s shows – does it sometimes feel like Dunham created a monster?
“Yeah, I created a monster with no skin,” he says. “I think he’s like a lot of guys. We think we’re tough. We think we can beat up the bad guy when he comes. Achmed is the same way. It’s just that he was trained to be a terrorist, he came to the Western world and fell in love with cars, rock ’n’ roll, movies, television and all the trappings of the Western world. The appeal of him is he actually has a heart.”
For comedians like Dave Chappelle, their characters haven’t overshadowed who they are. For Dunham things are a little different.