HOLLYWOOD — In the past few years, Jeff Dunham has become something akin to a rock star. The 47-year-old entertainer routinely sells out concert halls and arenas at home and abroad, travels in a decked-out touring bus and just launched a new weekly cable television show.
He can thank a bunch of dummies with names including Bubba J, Walter and Achmed the Dead Terrorist for his success. For the first time since the heyday of Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy and “The Ed Sullivan Show,” nearly a half century ago, ventriloquism has moved back into the entertainment mainstream, and Dunham is leading the way.
With his tousled-hair guy-next-door look and a comedy routine that mixes raucous banter with his dummies’ riffs on life, Dunham’s rise has gone mostly unnoticed by the national media. When the critics bother with him, the notices are often hostile.
But according to the Forbes Celebrity 100 list of top entertainers, he earned an estimated $30 million last year, just behind Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld in comedy. And the October premiere of Comedy Central’s “The Jeff Dunham Show,” which takes his characters off the stage and “into the real world,” scored the highest ratings in the cable network’s history, pulling in more than 5 million viewers.
With a studied modesty, Dunham says he’s living out a fantasy that began when he was 8 and got his first ventriloquist’s dummy. Since then, he’s matured during more than a decade on the road playing small clubs and hoping for a breakthrough.
“I saw what Edgar Bergen did and I thought, ‘I want to do that,’” Dunham said. “I’ve always had this dream of pushing things as far as I could take them, so I’m not totally surprised by what’s happening. But I never expected the international thing. We sold out this 8,000 to 9,000-seat arena in Copenhagen, where English is a second language, and people were shouting out lines for Bubba J.”
He has sold more than 4 million DVDs, his “Very Special Christmas Special” set a record for ratings on Comedy Central and his clips have more than 360 million hits on YouTube.
“Jeff has brought some respectability back to an art form and craft that has been sorely lacking,” said Tom Ladshaw, a ventriloquism historian and board member of the Vent Haven Museum in Fort Mitchell, Ky., which bills itself as the world’s only museum devoted to the art of ventriloquism. “Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy captured the public’s imagination, but with (Bergen’s) passing, it fell back into obscurity.”
Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, a wooden dummy with a top hat, monocle and razor-sharp wit, were a beloved act for close to three decades starting in the late 1930s, delighting audiences on radio, then movies and television. The team’s popularity rivaled that of high-rolling entertainers such as Frank Sinatra and sparked numerous imitators.
Before Bergen took it to new heights, ventriloquism was a staple of vaudeville shows. Its practitioners were relied upon to amuse crowds and to keep them in their seats.
“Every bill had a ventriloquist who could come out and entertain while sets were being changed behind the curtain,” said Kelly Asbury, a co-director of “Shrek 2” who wrote a book about ventriloquists titled “Dummy Days.” “They were as important to vaudeville as clowns are to circuses.”
But with Bergen’s retirement and the decline of the television variety show in the late 1960s, ventriloquists gradually lost their mass appeal and were left to work largely in the world of children’s theater and county fairs. During this fallow period, only a few like Paul Winchell, Shari Lewis and Senor Wences (known for working with faces drawn on his hand), were able to carry on the performance tradition with any fanfare.
But Dunham, growing up in Dallas, realized that speaking through a dummy gave him license to be more outspoken than he would have been on his own.
“I loved the feeling of getting away with stuff that I, Jeff, could never get away with saying,” he said recently in a sitting room at home in Los Angeles, which he shares with his three daughters. He separated recently from his wife of 14 years.
Today, he talks through a crew of misfits including “white trash” beer lover Bubba J and frowning old man Walter with crossed arms and an even crosser attitude. Dunham describes his act as having “absolutely no redeeming social value whatsoever.”
Most of his dozen or so characters have their own catchphrases, which audiences usually sing out like song lyrics. At the moment, the most prominent is Achmed the Dead Terrorist, a skeletal figure with egg-sized eyes, bushy eyebrows and a beard, who berates viewers: “Silence! I keel you!” (One YouTube performance clip featuring Achmed has more than 96 million views.)
Dunham’s act combines his “family man next door” persona with a lineup of character dummies that edge into political incorrectness and direct their jabs at Dunham and the audience. Achmed makes crass jokes about Catholic priests and says he gets his terrorist recruits “from the suicide hot line.” Angry old man Walter says he wants to be a greeter at Walmart, telling customers: “Welcome to Walmart. Get your (expletive) and get out. Have a nice day.”
After years on the road, Dunham thought he had caught his big break in the early 1990s when he appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” But the renown quickly faded and he went back on tour.
“It just went away for 12 years,” said Dunham, who guest-starred recently on NBC’s “30 Rock.” “I was still doing clubs, but I couldn’t break through.”
Constant touring, clips on YouTube and more exposure on Comedy Central finally made the difference.
Dunham is in the forefront of a handful of other ventriloquist success stories. Jay Johnson won a Tony Award in 2007 for best special theatrical event for his show, “Jay Johnson: The Two and Only.” Terry Fator won the second season of “America’s Got Talent” and signed a five-year, $100 million deal with the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas.
Dunham insists he isn’t taking his rise for granted.
“The only thing faster than something going up,” he said, “is something going down.”
Knock on wood.