For most people, being caught in an enclosed space with either a terrorist or a ventriloquist would qualify as a hostage situation. But Jeff Dunham, a ventriloquist, is perhaps the most popular stand-up comedian in the U.S. And he broke through by playing straight man to a terrorist a fiberglass one.
Ventriloquism? Yes, it's a profession, and Dunham, 47, has been paid for doing it since he was 12, having been given an instruction manual and LP when he was 8. He started performing in Kiwanis clubs and church socials in his hometown, Dallas, and worked his way up to four nights a week, 40 weeks a year, at comedy clubs. "I was making between $600,000 and a million a year," he says. Not bad for a guy and a dummy, but Dunham had bigger plans. "I knew if we could let the masses see it and not just the comedy-club fans, then it would explode," he says.
The explosion came, appropriately enough, with Achmed the Dead Terrorist, a character Dunham debuted in late 2007 on his DVD Spark of Insanity. Achmed, a bigheaded Halloween skeleton, is a failed suicide bomber. (He had a "premature detonation.") He has not yet come to terms with his demise he just got a flu shot and snaps "Silence! I kill you!" at audience members when they laugh, which is pretty much constantly. The Achmed sketch is the fourth most watched online video ever, according to the Web-tracking service Visible Measures; it's been viewed nearly 200 million times, more even than footage of style-deprived singer Susan Boyle. The top three stand-up-comedy DVDs on Amazon's best-seller list are Dunham's. And his Very Special Christmas Special last November, featuring Achmed, was the highest-rated show Comedy Central has ever aired. In March the network signed him to a massive series/special/DVD/book/tour deal. "I look at it like a very large aircraft taking off," says Dunham. "It takes a long runway to get anything significant up in the air." (See pictures of Susan Boyle's road to fame.)
Dunham is aloft now in star territory. He has a tour bus with a built-in workshop (for the puppets), a new house with a 200-lb. (90 kg) model F-14 Tomcat in the atrium, a couple of homebuilt helicopters, a writing team and even tabloidesque buzz about his marriage. (He and his wife Paige are divorcing, he confirms.)
As for his onstage companion, Achmed insists he's not a Muslim: "Look at my butt. It says MADE IN CHINA." But through him, Dunham taps into a repertoire of Muslim stereotypes. Achmed spells his name "A ... C ... phlegm ..." and he's dismayed when he looks into the audience for the 72 virgins he was promised as a martyr, and they are either ugly or men. Nor is Achmed the only one of Dunham's workmates exploring the outer edges of taste. In the regular rotation are Hispanic José Jalapeño, grumpy old Walter, black "manager" Sweet Daddy Dee, redneck Bubba J, and Peanut, the bad kid. All of them are politically incorrect, gratuitously insulting and ill tempered.
That's the trick of ventriloquism: it puts the taboos in someone else's mouth. The humans in the room are innocent, including the one with a hand up the doll's shirt. "Peanut and Walter get away with stuff we'd all like to say but we can't because we have sort of a valve," says Dunham. "Sometimes I shut that valve off."
He's done it so successfully that he may have inspired a minor ventriloquism renaissance. Terry Fator, a singing ventriloquist who won America's Got Talent in 2007, now has a 10-year contract at the Mirage in Vegas. "Jeff was a huge inspiration to me," he says. "But I'm competitive now. I've got a DVD coming out too." And at least one dummy manufacturer says business is up.
Can a dead terrorist and his handler become TV stars? In Dunham's show, debuting in October, Achmed visits an elementary school. A suicide bomber and kindergartners: if that's funny, Dunham's not the only one who has come a long way.