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Jeff Dunham throws his voice into stardom

The ventriloquist and his dummies are reviving a comedy form long thought consigned to children's parties with successful tours, specials and 'The Jeff Dunham Show' on Comedy Central.

November 04, 2009|Greg Braxton

In the last few years, Jeff Dunham has become something akin to a rock star. The 47-year-old entertainer routinely sells out concert halls and arenas at home and abroad, travels in a decked-out touring bus and just launched a new weekly cable television show.

He can thank a bunch of dummies with names including Bubba J, Walter and Achmed the Dead Terrorist for his astonishing success. For the first time since the heyday of Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy and "The Ed Sullivan Show," nearly a half century ago, ventriloquism has moved back into the entertainment mainstream, and Dunham is leading the way.

With his tousled-hair guy-next-door look and a comedy routine that mixes raucous banter with his dummies' riffs on life, the Encino resident's rise has gone mostly unnoticed by the national media. When the critics bother with him, the notices are often hostile.

But according to the Forbes Celebrity 100 list of top entertainers, he earned an estimated $30 million last year, just behind Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld in comedy. And the October premiere of Comedy Central's "The Jeff Dunham Show," which takes his characters off the stage and "into the real world," scored the highest ratings in the cable network's history, pulling in more than 5 million viewers.

With a studied modesty, Dunham says he's living out a fantasy that began when he was 8 and got his first ventriloquist's dummy. Since then, he's matured during more than a decade on the road playing small clubs and hoping for a breakthrough.

"I saw what Edgar Bergen did and I thought, 'I want to do that,' " said Dunham. "I've always had this dream of pushing things as far as I could take them, so I'm not totally surprised by what's happening. But I never expected the international thing. We sold out this 8,000 to 9,000-seat arena in Copenhagen, where English is a second language, and people were shouting out lines for Bubba J."

He has sold more than 4 million DVDs, his "Very Special Christmas Special" set a record for ratings on Comedy Central, and his clips have more than 360 million hits on YouTube.

"Jeff has brought some respectability back to an art form and craft that has been sorely lacking," said Tom Ladshaw, a ventriloquism historian and board member of the Vent Haven Museum in Fort Mitchell, Ky., which bills itself as the world's only museum devoted to the art of ventriloquism. "Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy captured the public's imagination, but with [Bergen's] passing, it fell back into obscurity."

Though about 450 ventriloquists attend the official yearly gathering at the Vent Haven International Ventriloquist Convention at Fort Mitchell, leaders of the convention say only about 150 make a living at it. Dunham puts the number lower: "There's about eight of us making a full-time living and about 392 weekend warriors."

It's been more than four decades since ventriloquism -- the art of throwing one's voice to another object or person -- could claim a spot in pop culture. The acts thrived then mostly on television variety programs and alongside the jugglers, plate spinners and puppeteers.

Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, a wooden dummy with a top hat, monocle and razor-sharp wit, were a beloved act for close to three decades starting in the late 1930s, delighting audiences on radio, then movies and television. The team's popularity rivaled that of high-rolling entertainers such as Frank Sinatra and sparked numerous imitators.

Before Bergen took it to new heights, ventriloquism was a staple of vaudeville shows. Its practitioners were relied upon to amuse crowds and to keep them in their seats. "Every bill had a ventriloquist who could come out and entertain while sets were being changed behind the curtain," said Kelly Asbury, a co-director of "Shrek 2" who wrote a book about ventriloquists titled "Dummy Days." "They were as important to vaudeville as clowns are to circuses."

But with Bergen's retirement and the decline of the television variety show in the late 1960s, ventriloquists gradually lost their mass appeal and were left to work largely in the world of children's theater and county fairs. During this fallow period, only a few like Paul Winchell, Shari Lewis and Senor Wences (known for working with faces drawn on his hand), were able to carry on the performance tradition with any fanfare.

But Dunham, growing up in Dallas, realized that speaking through a dummy gave him license to be more outspoken than he would have been on his own.

"I loved the feeling of getting away with stuff that I, Jeff, could never get away with saying," he said recently in a sitting room at home in Encino, which he shares with his three daughters. He separated recently from his wife of 14 years.

Today, he talks through a crew of misfits including "white trash" beer lover Bubba J and frowning old man Walter with crossed arms and an even crosser attitude. Dunham describes his act as having "absolutely no redeeming social value whatsoever."

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