From Tuesday’s Life section of The Oklahoman.
Puppet master a man of characters
Ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, who recently released his memoir “All By My Selves,” will perform in the Oklahoma City Arena on Thursday with his “suitcase posse.”
“I was never one of the cool kids. On the other hand, I don’t think I was one of the particularly weird ones either. I was just more interested in doing things that the others weren’t,” Jeff Dunham writes in the opening lines of his new memoir, “All By My Selves: Walter, Peanut, Achmed, and Me.”
The Texas native has turned his unusual childhood hobby — ventriloquism — into a veritable comedic empire. Forbes recently named him the top-earning comedian of 2010, a title he earned over the likes of Dane Cook and Chelsea Handler. The DVDs of his Comedy Central specials have sold 6 million copies; his YouTube clips have been viewed half a billion times; and he has played sold-out venues across North America, Europe, South Africa and Australia.
He may be a one-man comedy force, but Dunham isn’t exactly doing it alone. When he brings his new “Identity Crisis” show to Oklahoma City Arena Thursday night, this puppet master will be joined by a suitcase full of alter egos: A grumpy old man named Walter, a hyperactive purple critter dubbed Peanut, a skeletal, sardonic dead terrorist called Achmed and a new character, Diane.
They may be dummies, but the ventriloquist’s popular puppet pals give him a distinct comedic edge.
“There’s some sort of unwritten license that allows an inanimate object that becomes animate to get away with stuff that a mere mortal never could,” Dunham said in an e-mail from the road, where he was saving his voice for his shows.
It seems his colorful characters — beer-swilling redneck Bubba J and hilariously somber Jose Jalapeno on a Stick round out the cast — never fail to have their say. The title of his autobiography proves true: Along with his own thoughts on his life and career, the book includes running commentary from his “suitcase posse.”
“It’s a team effort. They have always been able to tell their side of the story. They do it at every show,” he said.
Dunham, 48, was born and raised in Dallas, but his mom grew up in Ponca City. (As a young man, he lived in Broken Arrow one summer because of “a chick.”) He first became interested in ventriloquism at age 8, when he spotted a dummy at a toy store. The book, released last week, chronicles Dunham’s humble start as a youngster playing birthday parties for $5 a pop through his many years on the comedy club circuit to his current status as a blockbuster comedic draw.
“For years I’ve been asked how I became interested in ventriloquism and how I got started in the business,” he said. “The interest is greater than it’s ever been, and the time seems right.”
The father of three also made his movie debut this summer in the Steve Carell-Paul Rudd comedy “Dinner for Schmucks,” playing, naturally, a ventriloquist. For the film, he designed his first woman character, Diane, to be the onscreen wife for his creepy “schmuck.” Dunham also has integrated Diane into his new live show.
“She is completely different from any other character I’ve ever had,” Dunham said. “She’s a beautiful lady — thanks to all her plastic surgeons and implants — who loves being married, which is why she did it five times.
“She’s a divorced woman with an insatiable appetite for men, booze and men. Women love her because she just blurts out the many hilarious truths about relationships from the female point of view. And yet, despite all her complaints about the men in her life, she continues to hold out hope that one day she will find her soul-mate — a dying rich guy.”
Although his recent projects have included the movie, book and a short-lived Comedy Central TV series, the ventriloquist said touring will remain an integral part of his career.
“The touring is the lifeblood of everything that I do. I mean, the touring is what has created the characters, it’s what’s created the material, it’s what’s created the audience and then the grassroots following that we have. Obviously, things wouldn’t be where they are now without Comedy Central and without YouTube, but I wouldn’t be on YouTube and Comedy Central had it not been for the touring,” he said in a 2009 phone interview with The Oklahoman.
“I’ve said this over and over again for years about my live show … one of the things I’m most proud of is that it has no socially redeeming value whatsoever, and I think there’s something refreshing about that,” he added with a laugh.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday.
Where: Oklahoma City Arena (formerly Ford Center), 100 W Reno.
Information: (800) 745-3000 or www.theokcarena.com.