Jeff Dunham Interview – ‘Unhinged in Hollywood’, Creating New Characters, and Achmed’s Origin

Jeff Dunham Interview - Unhinged in Hollywood
Achmed and Jeff Dunham (Photo by: Todd Rosenberg / NBC)

Comedian and ventriloquist Jeff Dunham headlines a new special on NBC airing on September 17, 2015 at 8pm ET/PT. Jeff Dunham: Unhinged in Hollywood was shot at the Dolby Theater (home of the Oscars) and features Dunham’s cast of colorful characters including fan favorites Walter and Achmed the Dead Terrorist. Dunham, who describes himself as “an average guy who happens to have these little partners that live in suitcases,” promises this new special will poke fun at Hollywood while delivering the sort of comedy his fans expect and love. Participating in a conference call in support of the upcoming special, Dunham chatted about the inspiration for his characters and his style of comedy.

What inspires to create a new character and will you be introducing one on the special?

Jeff Dunham: “Unfortunately for comedians, I think the funnier the guy is usually the more garbage he or she has gone through in their lives. And I think that the best inspiration for any comic is just to live life and live it to its fullest. And whether you succeed to fail or make mistakes or you know do great things, we all do that throughout life. But, you know the more steps that I take in life, the more there is to draw from. I used to hear that back when I was in college that I had people telling me that a comedian really doesn’t reach his stride or at least a stride enough to keep succeeding until probably late in college or after college because he hasn’t lived life enough. You don’t know really what’s it’s all about until you get out in the real world and get a couple of knocks.

I think what inspires me is just seeing my kids, raising my children. Now my girls are 18, 20 and 24. I’m now remarried. And the greatest thing about…well, one of the greatest things about being remarried now is that there’s a whole new well to draw from for material. The most important one right now besides the marriage is that I’m now 53 years old. And in two months Audrey and I have twin boys due. So where do I draw inspiration? Well, I guess the fact that my boys will be entering college when I’m 71 years old. How can you not draw material from that? And so then with characters like Walter who is this curmudgeonly old guy, he’s basically been making fun of me since he entered the act and he entered the act when I was in college. So many years – a couple of decades now I’ve had Walter in the act.

It’s very interesting to me because it started out young man/old man. Here I was single and dating and Walter making fun of me and giving me advice for all that. Now life is progressed. I’ve gone through marriage. I’ve had kids. I’ve gone through a divorce. And all along the way, the material has changed because Walter can give me advice or make fun of me every step along the way. I think that all those steps so many people can identify with, and I know that’s what makes people laugh is things they can identify with and they’ve been through or they’ve heard about. Or, you know, at least [they’ve been] on the periphery of seeing other people go through them. So again, what inspires me is just living life like that.

And as for the new characters, I pretty much respond to what’s going on and been going on in the world at that time. The best example – well, start with Walter. He came into the act in what 1987 I think and basically he was just this old guy that I knew people would identify with because everybody knows some curmudgeonly old man. You’re either married to him or you are him or you work for him. He’s your uncle. So, that worked and it’s been working for decades now. Now you take 9/11. Nothing funny about 9/11. A year after 9/11, we’re still looking for Osama Bin Laden and I turned to David Letterman. I turned to Jay Leno. What were they joking about? They were joking about him and those guys that did all that. That’s where the comedy was coming from. Never anything funny about 9/11. So everybody was saying, ‘Where’s Osama Bin Laden?’

Well, I thought, ‘I know where he is. He’s dead. But he’s not dead. And, he’s a skeleton and he’s been hiding out in the suitcase with all my other characters.’ So I came out with the first iteration of Achmed which was the dead Osama. I wrote material as if there were relatives of victims sitting in the room. What would they laugh at? What would they be okay hearing about? And what would they respond to? And then I thought, ‘I’m not going to chicken out and go do this somewhere far away from New York.’ My first show with the dead Osama was about eight miles from Ground Zero just outside New York City in a comedy club. I said, “Ladies and gentlemen, there’s one sentence we’ve all be waiting to hear. And that is Osama Bin Laden is dead.” Everybody applauds. And said, “Well” – and this was 45 minutes into my show. So I’d already won the audience over. They trusted me. I said, ‘Well, I know where he is. He’s here with us this evening. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Osama Bin Laden.’

And, of course, the room was completely silent right there. Everybody thought, ‘Oh my gosh. This guy has lost it. What horrible thing are we going to hear now?’ And there’s this bumbling stupid skeleton comes out of the suitcase and just I went through the material. It was the perfect material. I just made him look like an idiot and everybody laughed. And then I used him for a couple of years. Time went on. We’re going to come out with my second DVD which is Spark of Insanity. I thought, ‘I can’t do Osama Bin Laden. It’ll be dated. It won’t be evergreen. Whenever we find the guy or whenever he’s killed, then it’ll be dated. I know, instead of insulting one guy, I’ll insult an entire group of dangerous people and just come out with a terrorist, just a general terrorist. We don’t know exactly where he is.’ The one thing I did do is make sure that everyone knew that he says he’s not Muslim. You can tell because look on his ass, it says ‘Made in China.’

And again, that big, long example was me just responding to what’s going on in the world at the time. What I think people will laugh at. What they can relate too. And that character comes along. As for a new character, in this particular special I had one bit that I used to do with my character, Peanut, where Peanut would say, ‘I’m a ventriloquist now too and I have my own dummy and he’s Little Jeff.’ He comes out with a little version of me and he makes fun of me because he’s ugly and all that. So, we came out with Little Jeff ventriloquist dummies that weren’t selling. They weren’t selling well after the shows and I thought, ‘I’m just going to demonstrate this Little Jeff dummy on stage.’

That little 30 second commercial now turned into a 15 minute bit two years later where I introduce Little Jeff and show how a ventriloquist dummy work, and then it just goes horribly downhill from there. So that’s the new character in the special. It’s one of my favorite parts because it’s just me pretty much making fun of what I do for a living and the dummy just picking on me. So, that’s the new guy. As for the tour that’s coming up this fall, yes, there’s a couple of more characters on the back burner. I’ll be at the work bench before we hit the road on the tour bus in December.”

Do you have a favorite character that you do?

Jeff Dunham: “Well, I’m pretty much a chameleon or a whore – however you want to look at it. It’s whatever the audience wants is where I’ll go with it. So if I have a particular crowd that really likes Walter, that’s my favorite for the evening. You know, back in the days when I started doing Carson, I used Peanut and Jose Jalapeno on a Stick and Walter on my first Carson appearance, and Johnny loved Walter. I think it was again for that very simple reason that people could identify with him. So my go-too guy on television for many years was Walter and that was because, again, folks could identify with him. So if you’re going to ask me who’s my favorite one for television use, it’s got to be Walter.

For the live show, Peanut is this wacky purple guy that we don’t know what he is or where he’s from. And in the live show, he’s the one that steals it. Especially in this special, he goes pretty high energy and nuts. I think people will really respond to that. Achmed the Dead Terrorist is what got me on the international scene because our YouTube video came out and then Spark of Insanity. It went like wildfire throughout YouTube and the military sending clips to each other all across the globe and their families, and the military literally painting Achmed on the sides of tanks and on the sides of helicopters and putting little Achmed dolls in the windows of the vehicles. So Achmed is what got me to be able to tour to all these unbelievable counties that we’ve been too.

The fact that a year ago I was doing shows in Abu Dhabi for a Muslin audience with all Arabs and then two nights later I’m in the middle Tel Aviv, Israel doing the exact same show for 4,000 Jewish people and they both loved Achmed equally. That to me said something special. It just showed me that I think that a vast majority of people on this planet are good people and are concerned about the same things and it’s a handful of idiots that cause all the problems.

So, I went the long way around to answer your question but my favorite guy… If I had to leave all dummies aside and pick just one that would really be tough. That would really be tough. I think it would have to be Walter maybe because I’m most like Walter more than any other character.”

How things are changing in the comedy world where some people aren’t accepting some of the jabs that some comedians are doing. How do you balance that?

Jeff Dunham: “I love that question […]because when we’re coming up with this special, you know for each character I want to make sure that I don’t obviously repeat anything that I’ve done before. I want to make sure that I progress with the characters and it’s really interesting to look back even at my own material and think, ‘Wow, the world has really changed because I would not do that joke today. I would not do that bit today.’ And you say, ‘Is it out of trying to be politically correct and fearful that you’re going to offend people or that you don’t want to be criticized and persecuted for your own comedy?’ You know, there’s a certain line that you [can’t] pass. The way I judge it is there are people in my audience that pay good money to see the show and they expect comedy on a certain level. At the same time, I’m not going to dumb it down and do things that I don’t think are right. But, I play to the audience that there’s to see me and have paid the money.

I think growing up in Texas where I did in a middle income family and just general doing shows for Kiwanis Club and Cub Scouts banquets and shows at church, I kind of learned what a good section of society will laugh at no matter what age, what demographic. And so I do the same thing when I’m picking material and when I decide what jokes to do. But I do think that the climate is so much more different now than I guess it’s ever been. Then again, I wasn’t cognizant of what was going on politically in the ’60s because I was a little kid. But people are so sensitive now and there’s so many sensitive issues. The world is such a small place with social media and everybody knows instantly that happens and everything everybody says. You have to approach things much differently now as a comedian than you did even eight years ago. I feel sorry for the guys that are just coming up and just getting started in comedy because they’re going to have to come up with a whole new gauge, a whole new barometer of what’s okay and what’s not okay.

It is amazing how you can tell one wrong joke or say one wrong thing and you’re going to paying for it for an awfully long time. I’m very cognizant of that. And, you know, I just want people to laugh. I want them to have a good time and enjoy the show, but I don’t want it to be at the expense of other people.”

Jeff Dunham and Walter
Walter and Jeff Dunham (Photo by: Todd Rosenberg / NBC)

Have you ever found yourself surprised by which of your characters fans tend to gravitate towards? Did you ever think something was going to go well and it didn’t or vice versa?

Jeff Dunham: “Yes. I’ll go back to Walter. I was in college and we have a ventriloquist convention every summer which is kind of frightening in itself. It started out at 100 people and now 30 years later there’s 4-5-600 people that show up every summer at this convention in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky just outside of Cincinnati, Ohio. It’s sponsored by the Vent Haven Museum which is the largest collection of ventriloquial memorabilia on the planet. There’s over however many dummies? 600 dummies? 700 dummies? I can’t remember what it is now. Anyway, so with Walter there was a guy years and years ago back in the early ’80s that had made a grumpy-looking dummy with his arms crossed and all that and had copied Edgar Bergen’s version of Charlie McCarthy that they used in a movie where Charlie was grumpy and frowning. So, this guy made the dummy. I was in college [and] I didn’t have a lot of money. I said, ‘Could I buy that from you?’ And he said, ‘Sure.’ I go, ‘Could you help me out on the price? I promise you I’ll do well with him.’ And he goes, ‘No. No. I’ll stick with the price.’ And so I didn’t have the two grand or whatever it was that he was charging at the time for the dummy.

I went home and I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve got to try my hand at making dummies. I’ve made a few before.’ I sat down and made this frowning dummy, and I had a mirror and clay and one knife. I sat up late one night looking in the mirror and matching my frown lines to Walter’s. So if I shaved my head and frowned like him, I look exactly like Walter. But here I had this grumpy, negative dummy and every dummy from the beginning of whenever guys started using dummies, ventriloquist men or women started using dummies, it was always usually 90% of the time, it’s cheeky little boy typical scary ventriloquist dummy. Basically knockoffs of Charlie McCarthy or Jerry Mahoney, the early famous ventriloquist from early TV.

I thought, ‘What in the world could I do with this frowning dummy with the crossed arms? And I thought, ‘You know what? This will do great for two or three minutes on stage.’ Nobody can handle that negative comedy, that negative character for longer than that. How wrong I was. Again, I brought Walter on stage and people identified with him. They got it, and that surprised me early on of how that character caught on. Again, it was early in my thinking but then I realized it was because people identified with him. So, he surprised me.

And then Achmed, the Dead Terrorist. Boy oh boy, you know the first iteration of the dead Osama I thought, ‘I’m going to take a big chance here.’ And, again, I was so cognizant of the material but I’m going to take a chance because I think people will laugh at this. They’re laughing at Letterman. They’re laughing at Leno when they’re telling jokes about Osama Bin Laden. I’m going to try the same thing and do it live on stage with a dummy, and I did that.

I was doing comedy clubs. I did comedy clubs for 20 years almost and every time I’d go in there, they were responding more to Achmed than any other character. Now grant it, I came back to LA and in a much different kind of thinking. More politically correct. Down to Irvine, California [where] I used Achmed and guy who managed the club he was my manager at the time [and] he says, ‘You know what? We’re getting more complaints on Achmed than any other dummy. Could you please stop using him?’ And I said, ‘Okay,’ and then I went back to the dressing room and I thought about it for a second and I said, ‘No. I have been doing this all over the country. People have been responding to this. They think it’s great. I’m not doing anything horrible here. There’s been relatives of victims in the audience that think it’s great. No. This is fine. This is good. My audience loves this.’ And, I kept doing it. And then pardon the pun, but it exploded after that and on the international scale, we’ve got the YouTube videos out there.

People just went nuts for it, every country, every society. Again, in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, in there and then over in Israel. And then all over Europe I used him and people love him. He’s the biggest character there. My favorite joke I think was in Belfast, Ireland. I pulled Achmed out and he goes, ‘Am I here for a job interview?’ Get it. Paris. And the place went, I mean the roof came off the place at that joke. And you know where else? Singapore. Iceland. Australia. South Africa. All these places and Achmed is the big hit everywhere. So, there’s your surprise.”