Breathing life into an elderly curmudgeon, a purple
creature known as a "Woozle" and a self-effacing
jalapeno, among other lovable characters, Jeff Dunham
is straight man to some of the funniest partners
in show business. His comedic skill and impeccable
technique serve as sleight of hand, however, drawing
attention away from the fact that Dunham is a ventriloquist
extraordinaire. "What makes this performer
the best at what he does is the believability factor,"
one reviewer wrote. "Dunham's characters have
more personality than a lot of people I know. "
The handsome, thirtysomething veteran of performing
has certainly honed his craft: performing 40 weeks
and 250 dates a year in concert venues and the occasional
comedy club, Dunham is one of the hardest working
entertainers around. While never holding a job in
the "real world," he has compiled an impressive
resume. The only person ever to win the prestigious
"Ventriloquist of the Year" Award twice,
he was recently nominated "Comedian of the
Year" by the INN Music City News Country Awards.
Among numerous television appearances, he has appeared
on "The Tonight Show" more than any other
Dunham the most significant stamp of approval will
always be Johnny Carson inviting him to the couch
on his very first "Tonight Show" appearance,
an honor Jeff shares with only four other comedians
during Carson's 30-year tenure. A special comedy
moment erupted when Dunham's permanently disgruntled
partner, Walter, had the audacity to tell Carson
that "It'll be a cold day in Hell before I
come back to this show!"
The Dallas native has come a long way since breaking
into show business at age seven. As an only child,
he invented "a menagerie of characters"
that helped ease his natural shyness. Dunham began
teaching himself ventriloquism with a plastic Mortimer
Snerd puppet. His first show was in the third grade.
It was for an oral book report on Hansel and Gretel,
" he recalls. "I spent about three minutes
on the book and twenty minutes berating my classmates.
It was not until 1975 that Dunham would meet a
live ventriloquist, and soon thereafter he would
take weekly inspiration from actor/ventriloquist
Jay Johnson on "Soap" (1977-81). Having
never even seen Edgar Bergen as a child, he learned
his craft from books and records. Performances for
the local Boy Scouts led to corporate engagements
by age twelve. "I'd be in front of the Kiwanis
Club making cracks about high-level executives,
" says Dunham who, to his surprise, was audited
by the IRS at age thirteen.
Dunham continued to pursue his career while picking
up a degree in Communications from Baylor University
in Waco, Texas. "While most people were going
out on weekends and partying, I was flying off somewhere
to do my show, " says Dunham, admitting that,
in Waco, he quickly became "somewhat of a big
fish in a small pond."
In 1988 he moved to Los Angeles and discovered
a much larger pond, one filled with performers whose
proficiency in comedy overshadowed his technical
skill as a voice thrower. After sharpening his act
at the Improv, the Comedy & Magic Club and other
comedy venues, Dunham earned his first "Tonight
Show" spot in April of 1990, putting the audience
on the floor and himself on the couch next to Johnny.
Dunham has since appeared regularly on "The
Tonight Show," in numerous stand-up comedy
series and in such specials as "Hot Country
Nights," taking his act from the club circuit
to sold-out concert venues as a headliner in his
own right. No stranger to the theatrical stage,
he also toured with the Broadway musical "Sugar
Babies." A master entertainer, Dunham has been
featured as the opening act for dozens of major
stars including Gloria Estefan, Julio Iglesias,
Reba McEntire, Glen Campbell, Tanya Tucker, the
Oakridge Boys and Bob Hope, with whom Dunham shared
two unique moments: sitting on a couch with Hope
and critiquing "Saturday Night Live" and
flying aboard Hope's private Lear jet.
But enough about Dunham. The real stars of the
show are his partners in comedy: chiefly, Jose Jalapeno
on a Stick, Peanut and Walter. With a personality
reflecting one of Dunham's favorite cartoon characters,
Speedy Gonzales' cousin Slowpoke, the oversized
and mustachioed Jose Jalapeno eschews ethnic humor
in favor of stiffer material stick jokes. Peanut,
a purple potbellied "woozle," approaches
the world with a mix of childlike wonder and streetwise
naughtiness. And the irascible Walter, whose bald
head and permanent frown is usually accompanied
by crossed arms, draws laughs with his non-stop
In addition to a white-trash, buck-toothed hayseed
named Bubba, Dunham's lesser-known characters include
a gorilla, a cockroach, and a worm at the bottom
of a tequila bottle.
It is the believability of Dunham's characters
that endear them to audiences everywhere.
"When Walter says he's been married for 47
years and the audience applauds, I know I've hit
the right buttons," says Dunham. And with material
that hovers around PG-13, his audience ranges the
gamut: from bikers to surgeons, singles to families.
His characters are so vivid, Dunham usually opens
with ten minutes of solo stand-up simply to establish
himself as the hub of the wheel. "If they walk
away thinking, Gee, those were some funny guys,
rather than Boy, wasn't he a good ventriloquist,
then I've done my job," says Dunham.