Jeff: Age is a state of mind. Walter: Not when your ass starts leaking.
Ventriloquist Jeff Dunham is never alone. Even though he opens his current world-wide concert series "Disorderly Conduct" with a 20-minute hilarious solo stand-up comedy routine, there are dead people behind him, held captive in little black cases ready to spring into action. Okay, one dead "person." Achmed, the Dead Terrorist -- one of his most popular dummies whose most famous line: "Silence! I kill you!" never really gets old.
It's safe to say that Dunham's other popular sidekicks: Walter the grumpy old man; the high-strung adorable fuzzy purple creature Peanut; the beer-gut redneck Bubba J; and Little Jeff (his alter-ego look-a-like puppet) are never at a loss for words. That's because their master always makes sure they never stop talking back to him.
What's remarkable is Dunham's back story. If you didn't catch his astounding two-hour documentary, "Jeff Dunham, Birth of a Dummy" on the Biography Channel, then you've come to the right place. The gifted 51-year-old -- who talks without moving his lips when his puppets are chatting -- sat down with The Huffington Post to share the incredible highs and lows of his 37-year journey to the top.
I had the great pleasure of interviewing Bob Newhart earlier this year. Before he goes on stage he "paces." What do you do before you go in stage?
I pretty much have the same routine. I don't realize that I have a routine until it gets interrupted, but it's by the book. We have a countdown starting at 15 minutes and we have walkie talkies out there and I do the same thing every single night. I'm looking at the Dear Walter questions that they bring me about 30 minutes before the show starts, and then, it's a matter of just changing clothes by the clock. My boots go on at the exact same time. My pants go on at exact same time every night, and then Audrey (his beautiful wife) is making me one cup of coffee, and I do the hair and a little bit of make up, and we'll walk out the bus.
We stand backstage for like the next two minutes. I talk to Audrey (his beautiful wife), then we kiss the same point every night and I walk up on stage.
I saw your two-hour documentary on the Biography Channel. I was blown away by it. Everybody in the entertainment business sacrifices, they get through ups and downs, they have setbacks. You have had more setbacks in your career than any human being should have. Did you ever stop and think, 'Do I really want to continue doing this?'
In all the years, ever since I started in the 3rd grade, there has never been a point where I said, 'Maybe I shouldn't do this.' The difficult stuff makes you stronger. There were always shows that didn't go well or big opportunities that were that close and then got taken away, but I never question that. I think I'm one of the lucky ones that I never questioned that this is what I wanted to do and that I couldn't do it, because I knew that if it didn't get big, there were still going to be a place for me to be doing paid shows or corporate work.
You had some big disappointments many years ago with The Tonight Show. The talent booker kept jerking you around. It's a long story but worth repeating for all aspiring stand-up comics.
I had already auditioned for him a few times. The first time I auditioned for him was 1985 and he wouldn't call me back at all. Finally, I called him so many times that his secretary, I think, just begged him, 'Take this poor kid's call.' I had been on the road with Mickey Rooney. I was doing my act, and I thought I was ready for the big time.
I finally got him on the phone and said, 'What's the problem?' He goes, 'You're just 'not funny enough.' I said, 'Okay, I can take that.' He goes, "You can?' I go, 'Yeah... if I become funny enough will I get on?' He goes, 'Of course.'
So I took that as a challenge. That was in '85 and then in '88 I moved out to Los Angeles. It was my goal, since I graduated from high school in 1980. I gave myself 10 years to get on The Tonight Show with Carson and I just kept pushing and pushing and pushing. That never left my mind, that I want to get good enough, funny enough to be on The Tonight Show with Johnny. I thought that was a lofty but realistic goal.
In '88 I moved to Los Angeles, auditioned for him in November, and he booked me for the show. So yeah, that was great. I bought the the thousand dollar suit and shoes, went back to Dallas, told my parents, called all my relatives, we got ready to do it. Literally the day before, the night before I was supposed to tape, he came out and said, 'Let me see you one last time, make sure if there's any jokes you should leave out for Johnny's sake or the audience's sake I'll let you know.'
He came and saw the show, it was a bad audience that night. He left right afterwards. Roseanne Barr was there. She was just as sweet as she could be. She goes, 'No, no, he sometimes leaves early. Don't worry about it, you were great.' Then he called me the next day and he said, 'Jeff, I'm sorry. You're just not ready.' I was in TV Guide, the whole thing. So literally hours before I was supposed to meet that 10-year goal, eight and a half years later, it didn't happen.
That was the biggest [career] disappointment of my life, ever. It was awful because I'd been working on it for so long. But then a year and a half later, in the spring of '90, I had now auditioned for him a total of eight times. On the ninth time, the show, I thought, went the same. Then, he came out into the parking lot and said, 'You got it.'
I'm like, 'What do you mean I got it?' He goes, 'That was great. You're ready.' That was April of 1990 and it was a Friday night. Friday night was the best night for Carson. The other two guests were B.B. King and Bob Hope ... I usually start crying now (he tears up) because it was such an emotional time to be standing there on that stage and hear Johnny Carson introducing me. That was a big big big deal.
If I had been on The Tonight Show that first time in '88 when he told me, 'It's too soon. You're not ready yet,' as hard as that was to swallow, it was a pill I had to swallow. He wasn't lying to me. He wasn't being a jerk. A lot of people thought Jim (talent booker) was a jerk, but he wasn't. He was being honest. He knew what would work in front of Carson and the audience. So it was a blessing in disguise. If I had gotten on there a year and a half or two years too early, what he said to me was 'It's better to be five years late than one day early to be on The Tonight Show.'
The Tonight Show plus all those comedy shows, and I was doing big theaters in '92 or '93, and the career took off. But then, it waned. I went back down to doing comedy clubs. Then, I spent a good ... from '93 til '08 doing comedy clubs again. I was at the top of my game in comedy clubs, but by that time my first wife and I had the three kids and we'd done what every American family does, we spent ourselves to the hilt and then we were living month to month. Then the career started really dipping back down even further in '05, '06. We almost had to sell the house. Then, Comedy Central came along and my management really pushed to get that DVD, that first special on the air. Then it exploded after that.
You certainly paid your dues.
Twenty years of comedy clubs.
When you watch shows like America's Got Talent, and you see the winners -- like ventriloquist Terry Fator -- win one million dollars and go directly to Vegas, do you kind of say in your mind, 'Well damn. That's not fair!'
Everybody has there story, everybody has their path. I look at mine as a blessing because it's a really solid foundation, a really grassroots following. I love the way that I did it because that foundation of performing. You know, that 10,000 hours, I put in my 10,000 hours. So as a result I can write comedy now, I can build by own dummies, I know when a joke is going to work, I can predict when a joke is going to work or not. That only comes with time and hours and hours and hours of being on stage.
When you had all your setbacks, how did you keep going?
I don't know where that tenacity came from. A lot of people would have gotten discouraged and quit. I think, being an only child helps because there's nobody there to put you down and nobody to tell you you can't do it. My parents never discouraged me. There were a couple times when my dad criticized a couple things that I did, but it was nothing. So through the bad shows, I never wanted to quit.
Everybody seems to love Walter, the grumpy old man. What was your inspiration for him?
Bette Davis was actually the real inspiration for him. I saw Bette Davis on with Carson the last time she was on. Here was this old woman, who'd been everywhere and done everything with everyone. So here she was smoking her cigarette, she'd speak her mind, she didn't care what anyone else thought. She just told it like it was, and there's Carson, spinning around in his chair laughing. The audience is dying. I was like, do we give old people the license? What is it about that, that old people can get away with anything? So that was one of the main influences of Walter, and I had a friend in Waco, where I was going to college, whose father was a nice guy but he was a total curmudgeon. (Laughs)
What was your inspiration for Peanut?
All through college I was searching for characters that would make me unique and set me apart from the typical ventriloquist with the typical dummy that was the little boy, cheeky hard figure like Charlie McCarthy. Edgar Bergen made that puppet popular. He made it look easy. It made sense, an older guy with a little boy, he was brash, he was witty, so that's what everybody started doing. I wanted to get away from that, I wanted to come up with some defining characters. Literally one day it just hit me. I know the character, I know what he needs to be, he needs to be wacky and crazy and be an everyman like Kermit the frog is an everyman. It's like a very generic, Kermit the Frog.,
The image just popped into my head and he's a soft figure, unlike all the other character I use that are hard figures, meaning they're either wood or fiberglass. There's a woman who would make the soft figures, and she was brilliant at it. I called her and I said, 'Verna, here's what I want.' I described him to a T. She sketched him out, sent me the drawings. Obviously long before the Internet. She mailed me the drawings, I called her back and said make this change, this change, and this change, and three weeks later Peanut showed up and I went, 'That's it.' And that purple was before Barney.
I thought blue won't work, that'll be a smurf. Yellow, he'll look like a duck or canary or something. Red, he would look evil. Green, he would be a reptile. I thought purple is the only color really left. I described the fur, the hair, the eyes, and the one shoe.
I grew up in Texas, so I kind of have that license. Waco, Texas, oh boy. Bubba J. was my nod to Bergen because he had Mortimer Snerd, which is that stupid character. Name any group of characters, there's always that dumb character. With Disney it was Goofy.
You toured with Mickey Rooney early in your career in Sugar Babies. He was quite the ego buster for you.
It was only like a couple of weeks into the show, and I was doing really really well. The audiences loved it. Mickey called me in, and he goes, 'I don't get this. Remember, the only reason you're here is so I can change costumes.' Oh. I didn't have any ego at that point, I just went, 'Yes sir, I understand.'
Oh my gosh. I would have crawled under my bed and sucked my thumb for two weeks.
I was happy to have the job, it was great to be there, I'm on the road for a year with this unbelievable great show, I'm doing 12 minutes, I'm getting paid great money, what's wrong with this picture? Okay, I'm there so you can change clothes. Thanks for the gig, Mr. Rooney. It was fine. I was put in my place, but I wasn't getting an ego about it. I was truly happy to have the job. So I was very appreciative... and it was Mickey Rooney!
Jeff Dunham, "who was recently named Pollstar's #1 Comedy Tour in North America for three years running," is embarking on an international tour in 2014 with anticipated stops in China (his 'Wooden Americans' are made in the U.S.A.) and Afghanistan. To follow Jeff on Twitter, go to: www.twitter.com/@jeffdunham