Ventriloquist Jeff Dunham has the unusual job of building things out of plastic and paint that will harass him onstage for the amusement of an audience. It’s exactly the job Dunham was built for as an artistically and mechanically inclined kid, and a skilled entrepreneur.
“I started getting paid in the fourth grade, doing Cub Scout banquets and birthday parties,” says Dunham, speaking by phone in advance of his shows at the South Shore Music Circus on Friday and the Cape Cod Melody Tent on Saturday. “But I was making good money at it by high school and on to college. It was the only real job I had. It paid better than anything else I could think of. So there was really no reason to quit.”
Over the past 20 years, Dunham has built a comedy empire, some of it literally by hand. He has a series of popular Comedy Central specials to his credit, and he tours with a separate truck for his merchandise. He’ll add to his offerings in the coming months with an animated television feature and a video game for the iPad and iPhone. The heart of his operation is his “Suitcase Posse,” a collection of characters that includes a fuzzy humanoid named Peanut, a grumpy old man named Walter, a failed terrorist named Achmed, and his earliest creation, Jose Jalapeno, who is just a jalapeno on a stick.
With the exception of Peanut, who is a soft puppet similar to a Muppet, Dunham designed and built each character himself. That’s something that sets him apart from his peers in the rarefied business of professional ventriloquism. “There are very few guys out there who are regular performers and also build their own characters,” he says. “Most people are good at one thing and not so good at the other. You’re either really good at building figures and not so good onstage or you’re good onstage and you don’t bother building the figures.”
Every character starts with jokes. Before there was a puppet to work with, Dunham knew Peanut would have just one shoe; that way Dunham could tell him he had lost a shoe. “No, I found one,” Peanut would reply, laughing. Achmed started out as Osama bin Laden, hiding from the world in Dunham’s suitcase, before morphing into a more general bumbling character, a terrorist who falls in love with America.
“It always has to be something I think the audience can identify with because that makes for better comedy,” says Dunham. “It’s got to be something that I can somewhat relate to as well, because I have to write the jokes and become whatever that person is or whatever that character is. So, can I ad lib for it? Can I think like it? Can I think up funny things to say as whatever that character is?”
A lot of work goes into a Walter or an Achmed before they ever see a stage. When Dunham first started building his own full-bodied dummies in the late 1980s, he built Walter out of plaster of Paris, some scrap wood, and children’s clothes. Now, he still sculpts the heads of his characters, but he runs them through a 3-D scanner. Dunham then manipulates a three-dimensional file before “printing” the plastic head, a process that can take more than a week.
“It is a difficult thing to build a ventriloquist dummy because there’s so many different steps along the way, so many different skills involved,” says Dunham. “You’re talking about sculpting, mechanical ability, painting. Then when you get into the body, you’re going to be sewing a little bit.”
The work has given Dunham a career few in the history of ventriloquism have matched. Achmed in particular has been a boon, with T-shirts and magnets spouting his catch phrase, the not-so-menacing “I keel you!” he regularly delivers when he’s angry. Achmed is featured in a one-hour animated special Dunham is shopping to television networks, and also the iPad and iPhone game currently being readied for rollout.
Dunham was inspired by his heroes, Walt Disney and popular 1930s and ’40s ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, for what they accomplished both artistically and commercially. “Bergen had so much merchandise,” says Dunham. “It was amazing. Him and Walt Disney were pretty much the first ones to merchandise their characters.”
He had his first merchandising hit in the mid-’90s when he started selling a stuffed version of Peanut, and he’s never looked back. “We just kept growing from there,” he says. “Now that business has turned into a really big merchandise business where we have a merchandise truck that follows us from show to show. It’s a big business all to itself. There’s a handful of people that I have on staff that do nothing but merchandise.”
The philosophy behind Dunham’s survival has been to keep building the act and his cast of characters. “When people come to see my show, they want to see or hear a few of the greatest hits, but at the same time, there needs to be some new stuff that they’ve never seen or heard,” he says. “The goal is to make people laugh, and then a secondary goal is to make them want to come back because they were laughing, and bring friends and family. And I think that’s why my 15 minutes of fame has lasted longer than the average guy, because I try and give everyone their money’s worth.”
More information on second show:
At: Cape Cod Melody Tent, Aug. 10 at 3:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tickets: $73-$93, 508-775-5630, www.melodytent.org
Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at email@example.com.