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DON'T READ HIS LIPS : Jeff Dunham's Puppets Get Some of the Best Lines

August 19, 1993|RICK VANDERKNYFF | Rick VanderKnyff is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition.

Jeff Dunham is hoping his newest character, Bubba, doesn't end up in the attic.

That's where the ventriloquist/comedian exiles the puppets who don't work out for one reason or another. Fans of Dunham know Peanut and Walter, the two most successful characters in his stable of performers, but for every puppet that works, there are at least two that don't, he says.

"An example of something bad was Tony the Talking Meatball," Dunham said by phone from New York, where he was taping a performance for "Caroline's Comedy Hour." Tony resided on top of a plate of spaghetti, and by Dunham's admission he had but one good joke.

When Dunham would ask Tony if he spoke Italian, Tony answered, "Of course not! I have no hands!" Said Dunham, "Other than that, it was 10 minutes of agony." So, off to the attic.

"I hope Bubba doesn't end up in that pile," said Dunham, who plays the Brea Improv through Sunday. Bubba, Dunham's first addition to the show in several years, was born less than a month ago, when Dunham's puppet-maker decided to design a character to fit a voice that Dunham does. After a few adjustments, Bubba made his debut at a show in a Nashville, Tenn., theater.

"His name pretty much says it all. He's pretty much white trash and doesn't know it," Dunham said.

The Nashville show went over really well, he added. "They didn't think I was making fun of them. They think I'm making fun of the guy in the trailer next door."

Bubba's Brea debut will be a modest one, with the the purple Peanut (whom Dunham describes as a "Muppet on heroin") and the curmudgeonly Walter carrying the bulk of the show.

"I don't have a huge amount of material" for Bubba, Dunham said. "If he's on for five or 10 minutes, I'll be happy."

Dunham, Peanut, Walter and now Bubba are almost constantly on the road, about 40 weeks a year. But in those rare moments when Dunham isn't working, he takes to the skies to pursue his hobby: flying a helicopter he built from a kit. Dunham used to fly radio-controlled model helicopters before graduating to the real thing in 1986.

"It's my golf. Most guys, when they get off work, go play a few rounds of golf. I get in my helicopter," Dunham said.

He recently moved to San Diego to be closer to his flying machine (it's in a hangar in El Cajon) but still doesn't find much time to pilot it, as his career keeps him flying on commercial jets to gigs all over the country.

"It's slowly but surely moving to that back burner," Dunham said of his helicopter hobby.

But long before flying, there were the puppets. Dunham, 31, first dabbled in ventriloquism when he was 7. He is a fan of Edgar Bergen and some of the other luminaries of the golden age of ventriloquism, but his first big inspiration was ventriloquist Jay Johnstone, whom Dunham watched every week on the '70s TV series "Soap."

The downturn in the comedy business over the past several years has actually been a boon to Dunham, as club owners have looked to performers who have a skill beyond stand-up. Dunham is regarded as the top ventriloquist working today.

Dunham is proof that everything old will someday be new again. For young fans who grew up after the Bergen era and the heyday of variety shows, Dunham represents a fresh alternative to the entertainment status quo.

"There's a whole generation of people who haven't seen this stuff," Dunham said. "They think a ventriloquist is something completely new."

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