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Jeff Dunham

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Jeff Dunham (born April 18, 1962) is an American ventriloquist and stand-up comedian who has also appeared on numerous television shows, including Late Show with David Letterman, Comedy Central Presents, The Tonight Show and Sonny With a Chance. He has four specials that run on Comedy Central: Jeff Dunham: Arguing with Myself, Jeff Dunham: Spark of Insanity, Jeff Dunham's Very Special Christmas Special, and Jeff Dunham: Controlled Chaos. Dunham also starred in The Jeff Dunham Show, a series on the network in 2009. His style has been described as "a dressed-down, more digestible version of Don Rickles with multiple personality disorder".[1]Describing his characters, Time observes, "All of them are politically incorrect, gratuitously insulting and ill tempered." Dunham has been credited with reviving ventriloquism, and doing more to promote the art form than anyone since Edgar Bergen.

Dunham has been called "America's favorite comedian" by Slate.com, and according to the concert industry publication Pollstar, he is the top-grossing standup act in North America, and is among the most successful acts in Europe as well. As of November 2009, he has sold over four million DVDs, an additional $7 million in merchandise sales, and received more than 350 million hits on YouTube as of October 2009 (his introduction of Achmed the Dead Terrorist in Spark of Insanity was ranked as the ninth most watched YouTube video at the time). A Very Special Christmas Special was the most-watched telecast in Comedy Central history, with its DVD going quadruple platinum (selling over 400,000) in its first two weeks. Forbes.com ranked Dunham as the third highest-paid comedian in the United States behind Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock, and reported that he was one of the highest-earning comics from June 2008 to June 2009, earning approximately $30 million during that period.

Early lifeEdit

Dunham was born in Dallas, Texas on April 18, 1962. When he was three months old he was adopted by real estate appraiser Howard Dunham, and his homemaker wife Joyce, who raised him in a devoutly Presbyterian household in an affluent Dallas neighborhood as an only child. He began ventriloquism in 1970 at age eight, when his parents gave him a Mortimer Snerd dummy for Christmas, and an accompanying how-to album. The next day he checked out a how-to book on ventriloquism from the library, and explained in 2011 that he still had it, remarking that he was "a thief in the third grade". By the fourth grade, Dunham decided he not only wanted to be a professional ventriloquist, but the best one ever. Dunham began practicing for hours in front of a mirror, studying the routines of Edgar Bergen, and the how-to record Jimmy Nelson's Instant Ventriloquism, finding ventriloquism to be a learned skill, similar to juggling, that anyone with a normal speaking voice can acquire. Dunham explains that as an only child, he enjoyed being alone, likening his solitude to a "warm blanket" with which he could explore his own thoughts and ideas, which prepared him for the solitude of living alone when he later moved to Los Angeles as a struggling comedian.

When Dunham was in the sixth grade, he began attending the Vent Haven ConVENTion in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, an annual international meeting of ventriloquists that includes competitions, where he met Jimmy Nelson in person. Dunham has missed only one ConVENTion since then, in 1977. The organizers of the ConVENTion eventually declared Dunham a "retired champion", ineligible from entering any more competitions, as other attendees were too intimidated to compete against him. The Vent Haven Museum devotes a section to Dunham, alongside Señor Wences and his idol, Edgar Bergen.

CareerEdit

Career beginnings and move to Los AngelesEdit

Dunham began performing for audiences as a teenager,[9] in various venues such as school, church, and during his job at Six Flags. By his middle school years, he began to perform for banquets attended by local celebrities such as Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, having developed his style of lampooning those he performed for, using the puppets to say things too risque for him to say without them.[1] Dunham's television debut came in 1976 when the still prepubescent performer caught the attention of Dallas reporters like Bill O'Reilly, who interviewed Dunham for a local news story.[10] Dunham later did commercials for Datsun dealerships in Dallas and Tyler while in high school.[1][10] While emceeing a high school talent show, he dealt with a heckler, and won over the rest of the audience.[10] During this period he became so associated with his craft that he and one of his dummies "cowrote" a column in the school paper, and he would pose with his dummies for yearbooks[1] as an inexpensive way to acquire professional photos of his act for promotional purposes.[13] He was voted Most Likely to Succeed, and in 1980, after he graduated from high school, Dunham gave himself a career goal of obtaining, within ten years, an appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, which was seen as the "holy grail" for comedians.[10]

That year Dunham began attending Baylor University, hoping to graduate with a degree in communications, while performing around campus.[10] He would also fly around the country on weekends,[1] doing up to 100 private shows a year,[10] entertaining corporate customers such as General Electric, whose CEO, Jack Welch, he mocked during his routine.[1] By his junior year in college (1983–1984), Dunham was making $70,000 a year, and as word spread of his act, he landed featured spots opening for Bob Hope and George Burns, though he still perceived his act as raw, as he did not have any knowledge of standup comedy beyond his Bill Cosby albums.[10] He caught a break in 1985 when he was asked to join the Broadway show Sugar Babies with Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller, replacing the outgoing variety act. For the naive and devoutly-raised Dunham, Broadway was a new world filled with beautiful showgirls and crusty stagehands, and his first taste of entertainment industry egos came when Rooney called Dunham into his dressing room, and told him he was there for one reason alone: so that Rooney could change his costumes.[10] Dunham also performed at the Westbury Music Fair on Long Island. These early experiences, in which he used characters like José Jalapeño on a Stick, taught him the value of modifying his act regionally, as the jalapeño jokes that worked well in Texas were not as well received by audiences in Long Island.[2]

After graduating from Baylor University in 1986,[12] he continued honing his act in comedy clubs in the Southwest with new characters such as Peanut and Jose Jalapeño, but struggled against the perception he relates from fellow comedians that he was not a true a comedian because he relied on props. His experience at Catch a Rising Star in New York City served as a bitter confirmation of where ventriloquists stood in the comedic food chain, as the emcee at that club gave Dunham little respect. According to Dunham, after he arrived at the club in the evening and informed the emcee that he was a ventriloquist, the emcee reacted with derision, telling Dunham that he would be given a late time slot, and after that time slot came and passed, kept postponing Dunham's stage time until Dunham left the club.[10] By the end of 1988, Dunham felt his career went as far as it could go in Texas, and he moved to Los Angeles, California,[9][10] never having, as he has commented, "a real job",[2][14] much to the concern of his parents, who assumed he would relegate his act to local venues such as church groups. When he first arrived in Los Angeles, the comedy in his act bombed. Dunham attributes to his underdeveloped comedy, explaining that while the characters' personalities were developed at that point, his jokes were not. In addition to this, the comedy world was not welcoming to ventriloquists, and his manager, Judi Brown-Marmel, did not use the word "ventriloquist" when finding bookings for him, choosing to present him as a comedy duo. After Dunham became friends with Mike Lacey, the owner of The Comedy & Magic Club in Hermosa Beach, Lacey gave Dunham a steady slot at the club, where Dunham sharpened his act by observing the techniques of comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, and taking the advice of colleague Bill Engvall, moving away from his G-Rated material toward edgier, more adult themes.[10]

The Tonight Show and beyondEdit

At the end of 1988, Dunham was told by James McCawley, a talent booker for The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, that Dunham would be given a spot on the coveted program. Though the 26-year-old Dunham was elated that his 10-year goal was arriving two years early, McCawley later cancelled Dunham's appearance after attending, with Roseanne Barr, a public performance of Dunham's the day before Dunham's scheduled Tonight Show taping. McCawley informed Dunham on the day of the scheduled taping that he had been wrong in his initial assessment of Dunham, whom he now said was not ready for The Tonight Show. His dreams dashed, the humiliated Dunham continued to tighten his act in Los Angeles clubs, performing same six minute segment with Peanut a total of nine times for McCawley over the next few months. Finally at the Ice-House in Pasadena in April 1990, after Dunham did the same segment, McCawley informed Dunham that he would finally get his Tonight Show appearance. Dunham and Peanut appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson on April 6, 1990, alongside guests Bob Hope and B.B. King.[10] Following his bit, he was invited to sit on Johnny Carson’s couch, a mark of approval that only three comedians had ever garnered during their first Carson appearance.[2][10] Upon sitting down next to Carson's desk, Dunham pulled out Walter, who told Carson sidekick Ed McMahon, "Stop sending me all your damn mail." At the time, Dunham saw his Tonight Show appearance as his big break, but was frustrated at his parents' initial disapproval over Walter's use of the words "hell" and "damn",[10] and he would toil in obscurity for another twelve years, continuing his stand up at venues such as The Improv chain, and appearing in small roles on TV.[5] One of these was such as a 1996 episode of Ellen, in which he appeared with Walter.[1] Dunham also appeared with Walter in a TV commercial for Hertz.[15] Dunham would appear on The Tonight Show a total of four times, as well as similar TV venues such as Hot Country Nights, appearing in one segment on that show with singer Reba McEntire. This exposure helped make Dunham a large theater headliner, a rare accomplishment for a ventriloquist, but by the mid 1990s, his television appearances had dwindled, and with them, so did his stage audiences.[10]

Dunham moved back to clubs, more than 200 appearances a year. To maintain a connection with his fan base, he would use question cards that he had audiences fill out for his performances to build a database, which was tailor-made for the burgeoning World Wide Web. Though he was voted Funniest Male Standup at the American Comedy Awards in 1998, his club work kept him away from his wife and daughters between two and three weeks each month, which put a strain on his marriage, and made paying bills for his expanded family difficult. By 2002, Dunham was hoping to obtain more TV work to raise his profile and ease his standup schedule. Such exposure was elusive until a successful appearance on The Best Damn Sports Show Period, where Dunham and Walter made jokes at the expense of co-hosts Tom Arnold, Michael Irvin, John Salley and John Kruk, generating laughter from them, and giving Dunham much-needed exposure. In 2003, Dunham was the frontrunner to replace Jimmy Kimmel on Fox NFL Sunday, but hosts Howie Long and Terry Bradshaw were not amenable to the idea of being upstaged by a puppet, and, as Dunham tells it, did not provide a welcoming atmosphere to Dunham, nor allow him to get a word in edgewise during his appearance.[10]

Finding stardom: Dunham's first Comedy Central specialsEdit

On July 18, 2003, Dunham appeared on Comedy Central Presents, his first solo appearance on Comedy Central. During his half hour piece, he showcased José Jalapeño on a Stick, Walter, an early version of Melvin the Superhero Guy and Peanut, whom Dunham had begun to merchandise into a line of dolls. The appearance was successful, but Comedy Central resisted giving Dunham more airtime, feeling that he was not a good fit for them.[1] By 2005 Dunham decided to gamble on financing his own comedy DVD, Jeff Dunham: Arguing with Myself, which was taped in Santa Ana, California.[10] Dunham’s manager, Judi Brown-Marmel, lobbied the network to air it, pointing to Dunham's drawing power and merchandising profits, and arguing that the network needed more diverse content. Surprised by the high ratings of the first Blue Collar Comics concert movie that same year, the network began to reconsider its brand. In late 2006, Comedy Central aired Arguing with Myself, drawing two million viewers when it aired,[1] and selling two million DVDs.[10]

In 2007, Dunham appeared as The Amazing Ken with José Jalapeño on a Stick in the Larry the Cable Guy feature film Delta Farce.

His second special, Jeff Dunham: Spark of Insanity, was taped at the Warner Theater in Washington, D.C. that same year. It served not only to cement Dunham's stardom, but to introduce his most controversial character, Achmed the Dead Terrorist, which became a viral Internet sensation. A clip of Achmed from Insanity attracted over 140 million hits on YouTube,[10] making it the ninth most watched clip on that website as of October 2009.[1] By 2008, Dunham's characters had crossed language barriers, with his specials dubbed for audiences in various countries such as France, and Dunham attracting requests for performances in South Africa, Australia, Norway, Denmark, China and the Middle East.[10] Jeff Dunham's Very Special Christmas Special was taped at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that same year, and premiered on Comedy Central on November 16, 2008, watched by 6.6 million people.[1] It became available on DVD and Blu-ray on November 18, 2008.[16] The special's premiere was the highest rated telecast in Comedy Central's history.[3][17]

In September 2008, Dunham's career reached new heights as he began performing in arenas filled with tens of thousands of people. Dunham was somewhat wary of such large venues, but adapted by adjusting the timing of his often rapid exchanges with the puppets so that audience members farthest from the stage could have time to react.[10]

In addition to his comedy specials, Dunham also released his first music album, Don't Come Home for Christmas, on November 4, 2008.[18] It contains original Christmas songs as well as a parody of "Jingle Bells" by Achmed entitled "Jingle Bombs". All the songs, with the exception of "Jingle Bombs", were written and accompanied by Brian Haner, who joined Dunham's act as "Guitar Guy". His first onscreen appearance was in Jeff Dunham's Very Special Christmas Special.

2009 – presentEdit

In March 2009, Dunham signed a multi-platform deal with Comedy Central. It included a fourth stand-up special to air in 2010, DVDs, a consumer products partnership, a 60-city tour beginning in September 2010, and an order for a television series called The Jeff Dunham Show that premiered on October 22, 2009.[6][19] Despite having the most-watched premiere in Comedy Central history, and higher average ratings than other shows on that network initially, the show was canceled after only one season, amid poor reviews, dwindling ratings and higher production costs than other Comedy Central shows.[20] [21]

Dunham appeared in a guest role with Bubba J on NBC's sictom 30 Rock, playing a ventriloquist named Rick Wayne and his dummy Pumpkin from Stone Mountain, Georgia.[22] In November 2009 Dunham also appeared with Walter in "Hart to Hart", an episode of the Disney Channel series Sonny With a Chance, as two security guards.

Dunham appeared in the 2010 Steve Carell/Paul Rudd comedy, Dinner for Schmucks, as Lewis, with a new puppet named Diane.[23]

His fourth special, Jeff Dunham: Controlled Chaos, premiered on September 25, 2011 on Comedy Central. His fifth special, Jeff Dunham: Minding the Monsters premiered on October 7, 2012. His sixth special which is also an animated film, Jeff Dunham's Achmed Saves America will premiere on CMT on March 28, 2014.

Critical praise and controversyEdit

In January 2008, Dunham was voted by fans the Top Comic in Comedy Central's “Stand-Up Showdown.” He is the only person ever to win the "Ventriloquist of the Year" Award twice, was nominated "Comedian of the Year" by the TNN Music City News Country Awards,[14] and has drawn praise from the Dallas Morning News for his technique and timing.[14]

Some have accused Dunham's characters of being racist caricatures, sexist, and homophobic.[5][24] In 2008, a TV commercial for a ringtone featuring Dunham's character Achmed the Dead Terrorist (see Characters below) was banned by the South African Advertising Standards Authority after a complaint was filed by a citizen stating that the ad was offensive to Muslims, and portrayed all Muslims as terrorists. Dunham responded that "Achmed makes it clear in my act that he is not Muslim." However, the Advertising Standards Authority noted that the name Achmed was of Arab origin and was one of the names of Muhammad. Dunham responded, "I've skewered 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." He further commented, "I'm considering renaming Achmed, 'Bill.'"[25][26] Dunham has conceded that he does exhibit particular sensitivity to the "conservative country crowd," or those characterized by "basic Christian values," as they are one of his largest constituencies, and part of his upbringing.[1]

Dunham was heckled and criticized for mocking TV critics during a July 2009 press tour to promote his then-upcoming Comedy Central TV series, The Jeff Dunham Show, as well as Comedy Central programming chief Lauren Correo.[1][27] In October 2009 The Jeff Dunham Show enjoyed good initial ratings, but was not well liked by critics,[28] who did not find it funny, and either questioned the wisdom of translating his act into a series, or conceded a prejudice against Dunham, his previous specials, or ventriloquism itself.[29][30][31][32]

J.P. Williams, the producer of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, has opined that Dunham's act is not funny on its own merits, and that his material gets a greater reaction because of the puppet characters that it would otherwise not garner by itself.[1] Blue Collar veteran Bill Engvall, a friend of Dunham's insists otherwise, saying that Dunham is inherently funny with or without the puppets.[10]

As revealed in "Jeff Dunham: All Over the Map", Jeff was requested by religious officials not to include or even mention Achmed during his show in Malaysia. He respected the request, but knew that many fans paid to see Achmed, so he included a mustache and a beret to Achmed and passed him off as "Jaq, the French Terrorist". At one point in the show, while reading questions from fans, Dunham accidently referred to "Jaq" as Achmed, drawing a strong audible reaction from the audience. Dunham played it off and referred to Achmed/Jaq as "Terrorist" for the rest of that portion of the show.

BooksEdit

In 2003, BRASMA Publications released Dear Walter, a collection of questions asked of Dunham's fictional curmudgeon at live performances, authored by Dunham, and Walter Cummings.[33]

Dunham's autobiography, All By My Selves: Walter, Peanut, Achmed and Me, was published by Dutton in November 2010.[13]

Personal lifeEdit

Dunham met his first wife, Paige Brown, at the Comedy Corner in West Palm Beach, Florida. They began dating in December 1992. In May 1994, Dunham married Brown and adopted her one and a half year-old daughter, Bree. Their daughters Ashlyn and Kenna were born in 1995 and 1997, respectively. Dunham's time away while performing proved a strain on the marriage,[10] and in November 2008 he filed for divorce.[1][3][10][13] By mid-2009, Dunham was in a relationship with fellow Texan Audrey Murdick, a certified nutritionist, personal trainer and competition bodybuilder,[10][13] and on December 25, 2011 they became engaged.[41] On October 17, 2012, they married.

In addition to building the dummies he uses in his act, Dunham also restores antique ones as a hobby, such as The Umpire, a 6-foot-tall (1.8 m) mechanized dummy built in 1941 to work the plate at a girl's softball game, but which went unused and packed away for 50 years, before Dunham acquired it in early 2008.[1]

Dunham has harbored a love of helicopters since childhood and is fond of building and flying his own kit helicopters from Rotorway helicopter kits. At the time he finished writing his autobiography in June 2010, he was beginning to build his fourth kit.[10][11][13] He is also an aficionado of muscle cars and Apple Computer products.[13]

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