How Did Jeff Dunham Become A Record-Breaking Comedian?
In the latest installment of our “comedians who used to be incredibly popular but now maybe aren’t quite as famous outside their own fanbase” series, we’ve decided to move on from the world’s biggest prop comic to the world’s biggest ventriloquist comic.
This week, Jeff Dunham takes the spotlight alongside his menagerie of colorful, crass, and chaotic dummies who, somehow, helped him etch his name in the Guinness Book of World Records for “most tickets sold for a stand up tour.”
Jeff Dunham is likely the only puppeteer the average person could name, at least the average person living in America. The Bible Belt certainly buzzes at the sound of Bubba J burping up a NASCAR joke, and it’s in those southern states where Jeff Dunham’s popularity started, peaked, and remains long after many in the national audience grew out of watching the cringey skeleton of a Middle-Eastern terrorist sing Christmas songs about suicide bombs.
Jeff’s penchant for puppets started in 1970 when he was eight years old living in a well-to-do Dallas neighborhood. That Christmas, Dunham’s parents gave him a Mortimer Snerd dummy, a popular mass-produced puppet originally created by the famed vaudevillian ventriloquist Edgar Bergen.
The next day, Jeff Dunham went to the Dallas Public Library to check out a how-to book on ventriloquism, a book which he never returned and still owns to this day. Jeff practiced the art of puppetry for hours on end, studying the technique of Bergen and other masters of the craft.
As he reached adolescence, Dunham’s interest in puppetry only grew as he performed at church functions, amusement parks, and at his high school, where he had a weekly column in the school newspaper co-written by one of his dummies.
He even took yearbook photos with his dummies, a move that – amazingly – didn’t result in merciless bullying. Said Dunham, “You’d think that in high school, people would have made fun of me for doing this… But I guess it became — I’m not going to say ‘cool’ — but it became O.K. Because I was saying things that they could never get away with.”
That became the throughline of Dunham’s act as he slowly grew into a professional. Even though we know it’s the guy with his hand up the dummy’s butt cracking these vulgar, juvenile, offensive jokes, we somehow subconsciously give that clean-cut Christian showman plausible deniability as long as we don’t notice his mouth moving.
Jeff graduated high school in 1980, voted “Most Likely to Succeed,” and set the goal for himself that, within ten years, he would appear on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, the holy grail for aspiring comedians in the ‘80s. He worked tirelessly at that goal, taking as many as 100 gigs a year while he was still in college and pulled in as much as $70k in his junior year.
He spent the ‘80s pounding the pavement with his puppet performance around Texas and built a steady following before taking his talents west to Los Angeles in 1988. In 1990, he would finally achieve his dream right before the buzzer on his ten-year timetable when he performed on The Tonight Show. In his first of four such appearances, he was invited to sit on the couch after his set (the official Carson stamp of approval for readers born after 1990).
Jeff spent the 90’s building his cast of dummy characters and taking bit parts on television while religiously practicing his act on the club circuit, averaging more than 200 club shows per year. His relentless work ethic stayed constant throughout his career, and it’s no small part of the reason why, years later, Forbes would list him as the third highest paid comedian in the world behind only Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock.
Jeff Dunham’s popularity started to grow exponentially around 2003 after a spot on Comedy Central Presents, his first solo appearance on the network. In 2005, he financed his own 76 minute comedy DVD, Jeff Dunham: Arguing With Myself, which he convinced Comedy Central to air in 2006 to massive ratings.
Around this same time, The Blue Collar Comedy Tour was wrapping up its six-year run of sold out shows touring through Bush-era middle America. While its stars certainly weren’t going anywhere, there existed a sort of vacuum for conservative-focused nationally televised stand-up which Jeff Dunham filled with spectacular success.
In 2007, Jeff Dunham released his second special that solidified his superstardom and defined him as the paramount politically incorrect puppet master of the late aughts – Jeff Dunham: Spark of Insanity introduced the entire world not only to Jeff Dunham, but to his star sidekick Achmed the Dead Terrorist.
If you were vaguely aware of the internet in 2007, you’ve probably seen a video or two of Achmed. One clip of Achmed amassed over 140 million views (which was a lot back then), making it one of the top ten most watched internet videos of all time. With the nation frustrated by the lack of traction in the War on Terror, a skeletal Arab terrorist who made jokes about failed suicide bombings and yelled “I kill you!” at a laughing audience brought catharsis to millions of Americans.
The “Spark of Insanity” tour lasted almost three full years from 2007 to 2010 and sold 1,981,720 tickets, a number the Guinness Book of World Records has officially declared as the most tickets ever sold for a comedy tour. The tour hit 386 venues across the world and sold out stadiums across the American heartland where his brand of deliberately insensitive humor hit the hardest.
But not everyone was quite as enamored with Jeff Dunham and Achmed as his fans in the Bible Belt were. Although Jeff/Achmed very explicitly state in his act that Achmed is not Muslim, the reaction of the Islamic world to a Arab-coded corpse joking about suicide bombs and complaining about “infidels” was less than warm. Countries like South Africa and Malaysia have censored the character entirely, leading Dunham to rebrand the character as "Jacques Merde, the Dead French Terrorist" for shows in the Islamic world.
The racial elements of Jeff Dunham’s show have always been controversial, but in recent years it’s been getting harder and harder to give Dunham the artistic leeway to play with stereotypes when it’s so clear that the mockery does not get doled out equally.
While he’s always had stereotypical portrayals of rednecks and crotchety conservative white men in his cast of characters – Walter and Bubba J are arguably his two most popular puppets – those portrayals are far more humanizing than those of Achmed the Dead Terrorist or Jose Jalapeno on a Stick. For one thing, the white characters are portrayed as humans, not as an inanimate object or a corpse.
Jeff Dunham knows his audience -- his content in the last ten years has almost exclusively been consumed by southern white Christians, the same groups who supported him in his early days and celebrated him at his peak. He’s careful not to offend them beyond some light ribbing about NASCAR or trailer parks; “I don’t pick on basic Christian-values stuff. Well, I also don’t like to, because that’s the way I was brought up. I try to make the majority of my audience laugh. That’s my audience. They’ll laugh at the dead terrorist.”
His peak may be behind him, but Jeff Dunham has been far from lazy since his record-breaking tour. He’s released three new specials in the last five years, and his tours still play to sold out stadiums throughout middle America. Most nights out of the year, you can find Jeff on some stage or another practicing the craft he’s been at for over 40 years while railing on about cancel culture to a sea of supporters.
It's no small feat to become a household name as a puppeteer. Whatever your opinion is on the content of Jeff Dunham’s shows, the insane level of dedication he’s put into what he does for the last 40 years is remarkable. He combined his specific talents with a brand of humor that resonated with a huge demographic, and he had the work ethic to capitalize on his time in the sun.
That being said, Achmed, Jose Jalapeño, and, um Sweet Daddy Dee haven't aged well. Coddling the majority while skewering the minority is as antiquated as Mortimer Snerd himself.
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