Jeff Dunham to raise voice(s) at Delaware State Fair

Ventriloquist Jeff Dunham says his curmudgeonly character Walter was first thought to be a three-minute routine on stage but he later realized everyone could relate to Walter and he has become one of Mr. Dunham’s most popular characters. (Submitted photo)

HARRINGTON — Ventriloquist Jeff Dunham holds the Guinness world record for most tickets sold for a stand-up comedy tour. He has over a million YouTube subscribers, amassing over a billion views, leading to record-breaking viewership of his specials on Comedy Central and NBC. He sells out arenas across the world.

And even after 30 years in the business, he still doesn’t believe it.

“I always wanted to be a headliner but I never envisioned I would play arenas. That was crazy to even think about. Arenas just don’t happen with a ventriloquist,” said the unassuming 56-year-old entertainer last week by phone from his home in Los Angeles.

“I always picture this as one of those simulation video games that a father and son play together where they say ‘Let’s make a ventriloquist really popular.’ I don’t take this for granted. I don’t want them to hit the reset button.”

Mr. Dunham makes his fourth appearance at the Delaware State Fair Monday night as part of his “Passively Aggressive” tour. He previously played the fair in 2009, 2013 and 2016.

Growing up, he said his only frame of reference for a ventriloquist who made it really huge was vaudeville, radio and movie star Edgar Bergen, whose career with partners Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd spanned almost 60 years.

“He created characters that raised eyebrows and pushed the envelope for the time. He brought ventriloquism to the forefront. It used to be that the ventriloquist was the act in vaudeville who would be pushed out there in front of the closed curtain while the headliner was getting ready,” Mr. Dunham said.

“But he became the headliner.”

Like Mr. Bergen’s characters, Mr. Dunham’s partners have also raised eyebrows at times. Ahmed the Dead Terrorist is the skeletal corpse of an incompetent suicide bomber, whom Mr. Dunham uses to satirize the issue of terrorism. Walter is a retired, grumpy old man who is a Vietnam War veteran with an unfiltered, curmudgeonly look at life.

He says he’s learned how to toe the line over the years.

“A good comedian is sensitive to how far to push things,” he said.

Ventriloquist Jeff Dunham will bring his cast of characters, including the high-strung Peanut, to the Delaware State Fair Monday night. It will be his fourth appearance at the fair.

“I think that if you’re offending a small percentage of your crowd, maybe 2 to 5 percent, you’re probably right on the edge and doing the right thing. About 3 percent are probably going to be offended by what the rest of the audience is laughing the hardest about.”

He said the current age of political correctness has made things a bit trickier.

“I would say it’s like being in a slightly crowded china shop where the shelves keep getting pushed together closer and closer,” he said.

“You do have to watch your steps a little more carefully doing what I do than you did before PC went totally crazy. But I’ve created characters that if I ask the same question to each one, I will get a different answer and a different joke out of each one. They all have their own personalities.

“I’m not out to sell an agenda or to preach to anybody or change anyone’s thinking about a particular subject. I’m just there to entertain people who have spent money to come see me and make them want to come back. Standup comedy can be cutting edge and it should be. It just depends on how far you want that edge cut.”

For state fair shows, he said he’s always mindful that he’s performing in front of a family audience where he keeps things G-rated.

With politics being as polarizing as it’s ever been, Mr. Dunham said a good comedian needs to learn the “Johnny Carson or Jay Leno tap dance routine. Politics is so difficult to joke about these days,” he said.

However, he doesn’t shy away from the subject as this new tour introduces Larry, an exasperated personal adviser to Donald Trump.

“Now that can be a great job or a horrible job depending on how you look at it. I’ve been having fun with him,” said Mr. Dunham.

He makes all of his characters by himself in his home studio.

“I add a new one from time to time and then try things out and see if we can come up with an idea that will work. I’ll start with a cheap and dirty version. If it works, then we’ll spend the hundreds of hours it takes to build a new character,” he said.

For every partner that works, he says there are a handful that didn’t cut it over the years.

“I’ve always threatened to go out on stage with a trunk full of characters labeled ‘What the hell was I thinking?’ Here’s what I thought was a great idea. Maybe I’ll put some of those up on YouTube,” he said.

On of his big successes has been Walter, for whom he found the idea at a ventriloquist convention at the start of his career.

“He was a frowning dummy that somebody copied Charlie McCarthy from one scene in a movie and then put that face onto a regular dummy,” Mr. Dunham said.

“I didn’t think he would work so I asked to take him on stage and challenge myself and he killed. I asked if I could buy him off the guy and the price was too much for me at the time. I was still in college.

“So I made my own version. I took him on stage and figured that the audience could only stand two or three minutes of that negative humor. But then a light bulb went off and I realized that so many people can identify with a person like that.”

Mr. Dunham’s success has spawned a new generation of ventriloquists, with entertainers such as Terry Fator and Darci Lynne rising above the competition on “American’s Got Talent.”

And he remains amazed by it all.

“I do scratch my head a little bit and wonder how this tired old art has been made fresh again. I think it’s great. It all comes down to the entertainment value. If the audiences applauds and laughs, that’s all that’s important. I’m waiting for a really good dog act to come on the scene. When’s a juggler going to start playing arenas?” he joked.

“It all boils down to the comedy. Ventriloquism is just a vehicle for it. It’s just that in my case, the comedy comes through as a dialogue instead of a monologue. And I’m able to capture that comedic tension that can only happen when there are two people on stage.”

Tickets for Monday’s 8 p.m. show in the M&T Bank Grandstand are $44-$59 with a VIP package available for $150. They can be purchased at DelawareStateFair.com.

The fair runs through July 28 in Harrington.

Reach features editor Craig Horleman at chorl@newszap.com

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