Jeff Dunham: interview

Jeff Dunham Jeff Dunham
Posted: Mon Apr 19 2010

Jeff Dunham has taken the internet by storm and made suicide bombing look silly. Time Out finds out the secret to getting more than 100 million hits on YouTube.

Some say irreverent; others say big ol' bigot. However you feel about Texan comic Jeff Dunham, it's undeniable that he's struck a major chord. His YouTube clips, featuring Jeff with his hand inside grumpy misogynist Walter, and recent ringtone sensation Achmed the Dead Terrorist ('Silence! I kill you!') have been watched by literally hundreds of millions of people. But whose voice are they really hearing?

When did you start as a ventriloquist?
'When I was eight years old, I got a dummy for Christmas and started teaching myself. I got books and records and sat in front of the bathroom mirror, practising. I did my first show in the third grade and just kept going; there was no reason to quit. I did church and Cub Scout banquets, and birthday parties, and started getting paid at a very early age.'

Did you have any idea when you started that your life's work would be with your hand inside a puppet?
'I was a shy little kid and getting up in front of people and making them laugh and being able to carry on a dialogue rather than a monologue was something that was pretty interesting to me because you could set yourself up - you could ask a question and then answer it.'

What was your first character?
'Up until college age I was using the typical little-boy dummy that sits on the knee and makes woodpecker jokes. My first original character didn't happen until later, and that was José the Jalapeño on a Stick. Then after that came Peanut [a hyperactive, purple-skinned “woozle”] and Walter, and then eventually years later Bubba J [a beer-swilling redneck] and Achmed.'

Do you work with a puppet maker?
'I'll come up with an idea for a character and I'll write some jokes, and make sure that that character is going to have some legs to it - that it's really going to work. If I can come up with jokes and material that I think will work, then I make a cheap version of the doll. Achmed started out just being this little plastic toy from the store. It was just a little plastic skeleton that I put a moving mouth on and I put the thing on its head.'

At what point did your career really take off?
'In 1980, when I graduated from high school, my goal was to be on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson at least once before our ten-year class reunion. Our class reunion was in June of 1990, and I was on “The Tonight Show” in April 1990, so I made it by a few months. That was one big giant mark, but the really big thing that took it into the stratosphere was YouTube. That's why there's popularity on the other side of the Atlantic for me. To be going to South Africa to do shows, and then Australia and Great Britain and the Netherlands - it's like, how in the world did this happen?'

A clip of Achmed the Dead Terrorist is one of the most-watched videos in YouTube history. Why do you think that character particularly resonated?
'There's an unspoken rule that those characters can go further than the average human can. Maybe it's because people know it's not real. But I think with him in particular, I'm dealing with a subject matter that was kind of taboo… frightening. As humans we like to laugh at our fears, we like to whistle in the dark. I'm not trying to make fun of anybody who's religious and I do make it a point in every show that Achmed is not Muslim, he's nondescript. It's just kind of, he's from over there somewhere. But I have heard that even Iraqi businessmen sit around and say “I kill you” to each other and they laugh. And that's some sort of strange compliment to me, I guess, that these guys find it funny as well. Let's all hold hands and sing, “We Are the World”!'

Did you find it weird that it caused controversy? Did you expect that?
'We make it very plain that Achmed is just this goofy character who doesn't have his heart in blowing things up. He's blown himself up however many times. So that's the whole point, it's just that he's not good at what he does and he doesn't have his heart in it, and he's starting to like Western civilisation and the things that we have. So I can understand somebody watching this ten-second clip out of context and becoming offended by it. But watch the whole show before you make a complete judgement.'

In an interview you once said, 'I've skewered whites, blacks, Hispanics, Christians, Jews, Muslims, gays, straights, rednecks, addicts, the elderly and my wife.' What did you mean?
'I make sure it's not mean spirited, at least in my opinion it's not. But the comedian does have to skirt that line. Jerry Seinfeld - I don't know if it was Seinfeld, one of those big names - told me one time that as a comedian, if you're not offending a couple of people here and there, you're probably not pushing things far enough. You know, come to think of it, that couldn't have been Seinfeld because he's not like that. But it was some big name in comedy that I respected very much.'

Do you enjoy playing these big arena gigs?
'It was intimidating at first, but now it's fun. It's interesting to think back when I'm sitting in my garage, making these little guys, that this little chunk of clay is going to be an international star one day, and that's just crazy.'

Jeff Dunham plays the O2, Sat Apr 24.

His DVD, 'Jeff Dunham's Spark of Insanity', is out now.