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THEY'RE NO DUMMIES : Jeff Dunham and Company Use Variety, Spice to Keep Ventriloquism Alive

August 29, 1991|DENNIS McLELLAN | Dennis McLellan is a Times staff writer who covers comedy regularly for O.C. Live!

As a comedian, Jeff Dunham holds a unique distinction: He's the only comic who, at the conclusion of his debut on "The Tonight Show" last year, has had the audacity to tell Johnny Carson: "It'll be a cold day in hell before I come back to this show!"

Of course, while the words came out of Dunham's mouth, they actually were uttered by the disgruntled Walter, Dunham's permanently scowling curmudgeon of a dummy whose catch phrases are "Who the hell cares" and "I don't give a damn."

Old Walter is one of a handful of dummies the Dallas-born Dunham has brought along with him to the Brea Improv, where he's headlining through Sunday.

Considered one of the nation's top comic ventriloquists, Dunham is a favorite on the comedy club, college and corporate circuits. His offbeat, character-oriented comedy also has been showcased on everything from Fox's "Comic Strip Live" to "A&E's An Evening at the Improv."

And lest you think Walter's parting shot scuttled Dunham's chances for ever returning to "The Tonight Show," Carson not only praised the young comic-ventriloquist for his "great technique and control" but has invited him back twice since.

The most recent visit was two weeks ago, this time with the irascible Walter holding forth for Dunham's entire six-minute set.

Apparently, Walter still has mixed feelings about Johnny.

In the middle of the set, Walter looked over at Carson, then turned to Dunham and said, "Hey, I think I know that guy."

"You do?" said Dunham.

"Yeah, that's my wife's first husband. . . . He paid off my mortgage."

As the audience roared, Walter looked over at a chuckling Ed McMahon.

"Shut up, Ed, you're next," said Walter.

"You know Ed?" asked Dunham.

"Oh yeah, he's been dating my granddaughter."

There was, recalled Dunham in an interview last week, "a beat of silence and then a huge laugh."

Walter, it seems, can get away with anything.

"Everybody knows somebody like this in your own family or where you work," said Dunham, who added Walter to his act three years ago. "I went to college at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and there were two of them. One was a welder and one was a plumber. They were both named Walter and they were both exactly like that."

If that explains Walter's origins, there's no firsthand experience to explain Dunham's dummy Peanut, the vivacious, violet, potbellied creature with the yellow top notch and one red sneaker. ("Peanut, do you know you lost a shoe?" "No, man, I found one.")

Dunham says Peanut is a "woozle": "He's not an alien. He's just a character from somewhere else."

Before he added Peanut to his act nearly four years ago, Dunham said, he was the typical ventriloquist "with the the cute little boy dummy like Charlie McCarthy."

Dunham's cast of characters also includes Jose, the sad-eyed Jalapeno-on-a-Stick. (At one point in his act, Dunham carries on a six-way conversation that includes Peanut, Jose, a dummy that resembles Dunham, a bottle-dwelling worm, and a couple of cockroaches in the "basement" of the bottle.)

In adding more exotic dummies to his act, Dunham said, "I just wanted to breathe a breath of fresh air into an old art. I pride myself on the fact that nobody else is doing exactly what we're doing."

Notice the use of "we"; Dunham isn't the only ventriloquist who prefers to think of his dummies as if they were alive.

Edgar Bergen--one of Dunham's idols--"was the same way and so was Jim Henson," he said. "You talk about (the dummies) as if they were people because it helps you believe it and then the audience believes it." With a laugh, he added: "Believing that in a healthy way just helps the illusion."

Who: Jeff Dunham and friends.

When: Thursday, Aug. 29, and Sunday, Sept. 1, at 8:30 p.m.; Friday, Aug, 30, at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m.; Saturday, Aug. 31, at 8 and 10:30 p.m.

Where: The Improv, 945 E. Birch St., Brea.

Whereabouts: Take the Lambert Road exit off the Orange (57) Freeway and go west. Turn left on State College Boulevard and right on Birch Street. The Improv is in the Brea Marketplace across from the Brea mall.

Wherewithal: $7 to $10.

Where to call: (714) 529-7878.

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