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Applause and The Sound of Applause

Dee Perry Talks with Comedian and Ventriloquist, Jeff Dunham

Tuesday, February 1, 2000

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Comedy can take many forms, shapes and sizes. There's the raunchy humor of Richard Pryor, the self-deprecating comedy of Woody Allen, and the slapstick silliness of Jim Carey. But one of the styles that we don't see as much these days is "dummy" humor, better known as ventriloquism. In the old days, Edgar Bergen had them rollin' in the aisles with his sidekicks - Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. Today however, ventriloquism seems to have become a lost art. But there is one man who's become a success talking to puppets - 1997's Comedian of the Year, Jeff Dunham. Dunham and his pals, "Walter the Old Curmudgeon," "Peanut the Woozle," and "Jose the Jalapeno" entertained Clevelanders at the Improv in the Powerhouse in January. Dee had a chance to talk with Jeff and his old buddy Walter by phone. Here's a selection from their interview.

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Dee Perry– How did you get started as a ventriloquist?

Jeff Dunham– Well, as a kid with no brothers or sisters, I saw a plastic Mortimer Snerd dummy in the toy store and asked for it for Christmas. It showed up under the Christmas Tree one year, and after that I pretty much taught myself with books, records and started doing birthday parties, cub scout banquets and a few shows at church here and there. I guess I was one of those people that just happened to find something at an early age and enjoyed it and kept doing it. I still haven't had a real job yet.

DP– That's a good thing. (laughs) Now, I understand that your first show was a third grade book report. How did you use ventriloquism for that?

JD– From what I remember, I did about two minutes on the book and about ten minutes making fun of my classmates and teachers. That's still pretty much how I do it now. I have about a minute of material and an hour's worth of picking on the crowd and fooling around onstage and having fun with it. There's still some kind of unwritten license that an inanimate object saying outlandish things equals humor. Where as if some of these same things that the puppets say came out of a human being, there would be trouble and people would be offended. But somehow these little guys saying outlandish things to varied people, somehow creates humor. I don't understand it, but it's certainly therapy for me.

DP– Did your parents support your love for talking to dummies?

JD– Yeah they did and they always have. But I think the most difficult time for them was in my college years. I went to Baylor University, down in Texas, and it's a fairly prestigious university. I think my parents had trouble in social situations when they'd be talking to their friends ... "Oh John, he's going to wherever university and he's going to be an orthopedic surgeon" and "Susie's going to be a trial lawyer." "What's Jeff doing?" "Well, he still has his puppet show." I think that was probably the tough times for them.

DP– I understand you never saw the legendary Edgar Bergen. So who were some of the comedians who inspired you?

JD– No I actually did see Bergen. I saw him do a show about two years before he died. I think he died in '78, and I saw him perform in Dallas in '76, and met him for 10 seconds. He was and still is the guy I look to, to see how to succeed in what I do. He did what no one else really had done up to that time. He was a successful ventriloquist, not from the technical standpoint, but from the humor standpoint. He had a really, really funny act and the characters of Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd were very believable. People responded to his show for that reason and because he was on radio. Even before radio he was successful. A ventriloquist on the radio, that doesn't make any sense at all, but what was great about it was that the jokes were funny and the routines were funny. And that's what I came to concentrate on in my show. I mean technically I hope I'm pretty good at what I do, but humor-wise and character-wise, that's why I think people come back to the shows over and over again. They like Peanut, they like Walter, they like Jose Jalapeno on a stick. I think Walter the old Curmudgeon... I think people react well to him, because they can identify with him. They're either married to him, or they are him, or they work for him. And somehow Cleveland likes Walter, I don't know why. (laughs)

DP– You mentioned something that I was curious about, because I did see Edgar Bergen, fairly often on television, and I noticed that his lips moved. It didn't seem to be something that concerned him much. Are you careful about that technique or does that worry you at all?

JD– Oh sure. I mean I don't think people want to pay good money to see a bad ventriloquist who's funny. I think they want to pay good money to see a good ventriloquist who's funny. So yeah, I concentrate on that. I'm sure there's times they move every once and a while, but what the heck. Marino throws a few interceptions so...

DP– You moved to LA in the late 80's. How difficult was it to break into the comedy scene as ventriloquist at that time.

JD– That was a tough go of it. Because most stand-ups tend to look down on quote "variety acts." That's the class I used to get thrown into. To go up at the Melrose Improv on a Wednesday night at midnight with a doll in your hand, that was a pretty tough assignment. But I learned to get some pretty thick skin, and learned to work the crowd and learned to understand what the audiences really wanted and what they responded to. I remember when I was a middle act, going around the country I would ask the woman who would book most of the Improvs... I would say, "What's it take to become a headliner." And she'd say, "As soon as the headliner can't follow you, then you can be a headliner." So that was my goal, to blow the headliner away before he even got onstage. Doing 25 minutes at what I did was not a difficult thing. So now the show's turned into an hour plus, and we always have good fun with it.

DP– In 1990 you got a big break on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Would you talk about that experience?

JD– Yeah, people ask, "What was your big break?" In comedy today there are so many avenues that you can travel to succeed that it's really tough to say if there's one time. You know back in the 70's there were three networks and if you were on the Tonight Show one time with Johnny Carson and you did well, your career was made. Well, when the late 80's and 90's came along there was so much cable and so many places to be seen that was no longer true. But, the first time I was on with Carson was in April of '90 and most standups would go onstage, do their six minutes, they'd wave to Johnny, and if they did well he'd give them the okay sign and you'd walk offstage. Well this particular time, all the stars happened to line up and everything worked out. The other two guests were BB King and Bob Hope, and it was a Friday night. I came out and did my thing and as I was getting ready to walk back stage and they waved over to the couch because Johnny wanted to talk to me. Luckily, I'd put Walter behind the coach. Walter comes out and I said "Walter, you know where we are?" and he said, "Yeah, and I don't give a damn either." He looks over at Johnny and I ask, "Do you know Johnny?" And he says, "Oh yeah, that's my wife's first husband, he paid off my mortgage." And he looked over at Ed and said, "Yeah I know you, stop sending me all your damn mail. Don't you have any envelopes to lick?" You know it was those kind of jokes that succeeded. Luckily, it was coming from those little guys. If that came out of a human being, even Don Rickles, people would be aghast. But somehow it got laughs and they asked me back.

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Special Thanks

Special thanks to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music at Oberlin College for the use of their Steinway Piano.

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Applause is an Emmy award-winning locally produced TV show that celebrates artists and cultural groups around Cleveland and Northeast Ohio.

The Sound of Applause, ideastream’s weekday radio magazine, celebrates the visual and performing arts, explores cultural trends, and examines current events through an artistic lens.

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Dee Perry image courtesy Chris Stephens, The Plain Dealer