There are as many answers as there are comics for the question of whom America's best stand-up comedian is. But if you're asking who the most popular comedian is, Pollstar magazine will tell you the only correct answer is Jeff Dunham.
Dunham is a ventriloquist who crafts and designs his own dummies. Over the course of his 35 years perfecting his ventriloquism craft, he was eventually declared ineligible for Vent Haven ConVENTion ventriloquism competition after winning it too many times. Dunham has since become North America's highest grossing standup act. While the bigger name comedian Jerry Seinfeld will play a massive room at Hard Rock Live later this same month, Dunham will be filling up a hockey arena January 25, at the BB&T Center.
With popularity Dunham has also encountered criticism. On his Comedy Central stand-up specials, Dunham's dummies including Achmed the Dead Terrorist have had critics accuse Dunham of racism and insensitivity. Dunham in numerous interviews has defended his act as all being in good fun. New Times spoke with Dunham about his ventriloquism and discovered a man who lives to keep his massive audience entertained.
New Times: What is your process in designing a character and his voice?
Jeff Dunham: I get ideas from just living life and observing the world. Each character has a different genesis and there's no formula. Everything from materials used to complication of movements, to what type of paint and how it's applied. I construct the characters myself, and much blood, sweat, and angst is put into every one of them. Then, and the more difficult part, is creating material and writing the funny stuff!
How different is the experience of seeing your show live in comparison to watching one of your television specials?
I definitely have more freedom to "cut loose" during the live shows than I would on television. It's important to do the live shows and do the characters that people have grown to love and they expect. And at the same time it's fun to be able to throw in something completely new.
How did you train to be a ventriloquist?
Throwing one's voice is, of course, simply an illusion. The ventriloquist must simply learn to imitate what a voice sounds like from far away, or from whatever distance the voice is supposed to be "thrown." But learning ventriloquism for the purpose of performing with a "vent figure" requires no "distant" illusion, since the character is usually sitting right next to the ventriloquist. But learning to speak without moving the lips is learning to speak an entirely new way. Anyone can learn ventriloquism, and just like learning any skill, the dedication to accomplish the task is in direct correlation with the ability to learn. The more you practice, the better you are and the quicker you learn.
Is there more or less pressure in performing in front of a packed arena than there was when you were struggling and playing half empty rooms?
Moving into much larger venues, coupled with the current economic climate, has also upped the ante for getting the show right every time. When we first started doing these huge arenas, I was concerned that the intimacy of the 300 seat clubs that I had grown to know so well would be missing. On the contrary, the audiences stayed right with what I was doing. The bigger the venue, the bigger the screens. Everyone has a good seat. The only thing missing is being able to pick on some poor schmoe in the front row and everyone being able to see him.
Jeff Dunham: Disorderly Conduct. 5 p.m., January 25, at BB&T Center, One Panther Parkway, Sunrise. Visit thebbtcenter.com.