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Thursday, April 16, 2009


Jeff Dunham: More than a prop comedian
By Mark de la Viña
for the Mercury News
Posted: 04/16/2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Updated: 04/16/2009 05:53:40 AM PDT
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It's easy, even tempting, to dismiss Jeff Dunham, the ventriloquist whose coterie of compact companions have helped him rise to the top of comedic ranks.
With the assistance of Achmed the Dead Terrorist or the perennially cranky retiree Walter, Dunham, 46, has become perhaps the most popular funnyman in America — all of which leads critics to suggest he's little more than a gimmick, a prop comic who relies on a suitcase full of cutesy puppets to do his comedic bidding.
Try telling that to the fans who are packing arenas — including the HP Pavilion where Dunham performs Saturday — instead of the comedy clubs that many of his dismissive performance peers frequent. Or his devoted followers who
have viewed his "Achmed the Dead Terrorist" video on YouTube ( more than 86 million times, making it the site's seventh most watched clip of all time.
"Even though people looked down on me — other comics looked down on me — and I was kind of chastised for being a 'prop' comic, I looked at it as an advantage because I could carry on dialogue, rather than monologue," Dunham says via e-mail. "It was a secret weapon."
His own personal neutron bomb has vaulted Dunham to the ranks of Chris Rock, Dane Cook and Larry the Cable Guy — comedians who have become too popular for the confines of comedy clubs the size of the San Jose Improv or the Punch Line in San Francisco.
Dunham's ascent is a recent one, but like many comedians, it's the result of plugging away for some two decades in comedy trenches. This is a guy who performed on "The Tonight Show" in 1990 back when Johnny Carson was still hosting, a diligent trouper who year after year steadfastly played the comedy-club circuit. He headlined at the Improv as recently as December 2007.
All that began to change in 2006 when Comedy Central aired "Arguing With Myself," his first hourlong Comedy Central special that spawned the hit DVD of the same name.
His next two concert DVDs scored big in 2007 and 2008, building up his fan base and moving him from performing in theater-size venues to arenas.
His 2008 Comedy Central special "Jeff Dunham's Very Special Christmas Special" drew 6.6 million viewers. By the end of the year, he had supplanted Cook as the highest-grossing comedian in the United States by earning $19.2 million on the road, according to the concert-industry trackers Pollstar.
"It is great fun right now," Dunham says. "It's been over 20 years on the road, and the last two have been the payoff."
While his persistence in the field and exposure on the cable network lifted him to his current level, his puppets have given Dunham an advantage over comics who stand onstage with but a microphone stand. (Dunham opens his shows with a monologue filled with more standard stand-up fare.)
Achmed, a bug-eyed skeleton who delivers the catchphrase "Silence! I kill you!" in a Middle Eastern accent, or Walter, the senior with the personality of a canker sore, play the jokesters to Dunham's straight man.
"People listen more closely, and there could be conflict, just like in a sitcom," Dunham says.
"The one thing I pride myself on is I'm trying to put a fresh patina on an old, tired and sad art and make it hip and fun again."
But his puppets, such as his "manager" Sweet Daddy D, nudge the boundaries. "I'm what you call a player in the management profession — P.I.M.P.!" Sweet Daddy says. "That makes you the ho."
As a result, the puppets are not without controversy.
Achmed helped land Dunham a cell phone ring tone commercial in South Africa. But that country's Advertising Standards Authority pulled the ad after deeming it offensive to Muslims. Dunham at the time said he targets "whites, blacks, Hispanics, Christians, Jews, Muslims, gays, straights, rednecks, addicts, the elderly and my wife" and that his "job is to make the majority of people laugh. I believe that comedy is the last true form of free speech."
"I try and make fun of myself more than anyone," he says, "and I believe that we should all be able to laugh at ourselves."
Though the puppets might allow Dunham at times to go down the un-P.C. rabbit hole, Dunham doesn't lose sight of who is watching each other's back.
"It's easy to get lost behind the doll," he says. "People pay attention to the dummy and forget who you are and that you're even there. I do my own stand-up and that's fun, but if somebody said you need to do straight stand-up comedy and you can't use the dummy anymore, I would give up and go into real estate."
Jeff Dunham
When: 8 p.m. SaturdayWhere: HP Pavilion, 525 W. Santa Clara St., San Jose

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