As someone who flies constantly and is on the road about 40 weeks a year doing 250 to 300 dates, comedian-ventriloquist Jeff Dunham shouldn't be surprised by much. Or so you'd think. But one incident in Alabama a while back left him muttering.
He was putting his bags through the X-ray machine at a little airport in the middle of nowhere, and as he always does, he was packing his main men (Peanut and Walter) on board with him. Each dummy has a head with a stick running down through the body, which, according to Dunham, gave pause to the security "goober."
"He stops it, looks at it and asks me, 'You got a banjo in there?' No, it's a head, I told him. 'Well, have a nice day,' " Dunham recalled in a recent interview from a Boston hotel. "I guess heads are OK," Dunham concluded, "but stringed instruments are a threat in Alabama."
Such episodes, the Dallas native concedes, come with the territory. Besides, he's quick to add, it's better than being at home 40 weeks.
For now, Dunham, who performs at the Brea Improv tonight through Sunday, is content with life on the road. It gives him a chance to flesh out his act, with an eye to the future.
"We've always got (ideas) in the microwave for TV shows and whatever," said Dunham, who often slips into using the ventriloquists' \o7 we\f7 . "We're building a nice little following across the country. We're doing the trench work now. Who knows what it's going to build to. We're just working hard and keeping the intensity up, trying to keep people entertained longer and longer with new stuff."
Developing material as opposed to adding new dummies represents a change for Dunham, who had focused on adding characters to expand his act, instead of concentrating on giving depth to the current cast. The delay in shifting emphasis, however, is understandable. Dunham is considered by fans, peers and club owners one of the top ventriloquists working today, and he's among a handful who can do a six-way conversation, which he admits is what initially got him on the "Tonight Show." But he saw it was time to put some meat on the bones.
"I don't think people come to see my show (any more) because I'm a good ventriloquist," he explained, adding that he only does the six-voices thing once in a while now. "I think they come for the comedy. They just enjoy laughing. I don't think anyone comes to be amazed any more.
"The act has taken on a sitcom sort of feel. The characters have gotten deeper, their histories more detailed. I feel that's where I'm at now. I've known these characters for a long time."
In 1988, to propel his career, Dunham--who earned a bachelor's degree in radio, TV and film from Baylor University in Waco, Tex.--moved to Los Angeles. In 1990 he did the first of five "Tonight" shows with Johnny Carson, where the curmudgeonly Walter, who refused to be interviewed for this article, took over the show, insulting both Carson and sidekick Ed McMahon.
These days, Walter shares the stage with Peanut (a woozle, kind of a Muppet on heroin, as Dunham says) and Bubba (a redneck, recent addition). Walter, however, isn't too upset with his slightly diminished role. Dunham has given him a new star vehicle, the "Dear Walter Segment," in which the old sourpuss fields questions from the crowd. It's Dunham's favorite part.
"That always makes for a whole new show, creating brand new jokes," he said. "He's getting better; the personality builds."
Dunham estimates that in the eight months since he last played Brea, he has added 35% to 40% new material.
"It constantly rolls over, but there are bits and pieces I like to keep in there. There's a bunch of new things at the beginning, end and middle. Usually it's ad libs that turn into bits, but some stuff I actually sit down and write."
That means he'll be doodling on his Quadra, "a big bad machine," at his recently purchased Encino home. Dunham, 32, has entered the Computer Age with a vengeance. It has taken a huge byte out of him.
"I'm a Macintosh nut. I got my power book, so if I'm not writing jokes, I'm working on that."
His slide into computers began early in his career when he was flying to shows. To kill time in the air, he bought a "little bitty cheapie word processor."
"I taught myself computer. Then Macintosh came along, and it became a really bad addiction. If I wasn't in show business, I'd have pocket protectors growing out of my chest. I do everything on it. It's kinda sick."
Even using the creative side of his brain, Dunham can't come up with an explanation for his fascination with the machines, given that he's mathematically challenged.
"Math? Forget about it. If I add four plus eight plus six, I have to count on my fingers. I guess I'm hooked up differently."
Looking to his past turns up no clues, either.
He spent his Texas youth doing shows for Cub Scouts, civic groups and any other paying jobs.
"I never considered doing anything else, never had another job, never turned my back on it."