Crafting Characters

I understand your concerns about the terrible skill levels of our reality show culture. What has Paris Hilton ever done skillfully? Or, for that matter, Spencer and Heidi, from whatever stupid show they're on? But many dedicated performers continue to work their butts off to get where they are.

One of them is ventriloquist Jeff Dunham. One of his specials was the highest-rated show on Comedy Central ever, more than any "South Park" or "Daily Show," leading to his regular series on the cable channel. His three DVDs (from 2005, 2007 and 2008) are still the three best-selling comedy DVDs on Amazon.

Now he's so big, he's headlining Caesars Colosseum today and Saturday.

Dunham started honing his craft in the early 1980s. It took 10 years just to get booked onto "The Tonight Show" back in the Johnny Carson days to perform for six life-changing minutes.

"I had done that particular six minutes so many times, over and over, I knew it perfectly. I knew where every breath was. I knew where every laugh was," Dunham tells me. "I wasn't all that nervous."

Dunham had auditioned for Carson's talent booker nine times over a few years before getting the green light.

"He always said to me, 'It's better to be five years late than one day early.' There's a huge amount of wisdom in that. All that time, waiting to get on and preparing, it was like the Olympic guys training for so many years," he says. "You're prepared for it."

Carson invited Dunham to sit on the couch, something Carson did only with comedians he truly enjoyed, signaling Carson's stamp of approval to the whole entertainment industry.

"I walked off stage that night, and my agent came to me and said, 'Kid, your life is never gonna be the same after tonight.' And he was right. That first night on with Carson -- that was April '90 -- that was a big stamp of approval," which eventually grossed him $600,000 a year on the comedy club circuit.

The way Dunham tells the story, he actually had set a goal for himself, at the start of his career, to appear with Carson within 10 years.

"It happened within three months of the date I had set, that I wanted to be on."

Obviously, Dunham has worked on the technique of ventriloquism, of speaking while being spoken to by yourself. But he'll tell you what other hard-working artists will tell you: One must learn the technique, then spend all other energy on content.

"A race car driver doesn't worry about whether the race car's going to work," he says. "You have to assume the mechanics, that your technique's going to work. Then you have to work on being funny and entertaining. That's where the art comes from."

He tries to find balance in the butts of his jokes, built into characters such as griping old Walter, Latino Jose Jalapeno, redneck Bubba J, pimp Sweet Daddy Dee and the one that's made him more famous than the rest, Achmed the Dead Terrorist, a clip of which has been viewed 200 million times online.

Some critics complain Dunham's characters are stereotypes -- a complaint that could, to be honest, be leveled against every comedian who's ever lived, from Chris Rock to Robin Williams to Bill Cosby.

"I do make sure that if I'm gonna make fun of everybody, I'm gonna make fun of myself more than anyone in the show, and I make fun of my family. I try to pass it around equally," Dunham says.

A bigger challenge, perhaps, was simply resurrecting ventriloquism.

"Believe me, I've fought the stigma of this being a sad, old, tired, embarrassing art for many years," he says.

"I've tried to paint a fresh potato on it and give it some rock 'n' roll, give it some edge. I tried to do that with Achmed the Terrorist. I try to keep it as clean as possible, but at the same time, I put an edge on it," he says. "That's why the show's on Comedy Central."

That attempt at clean edge has helped him with the family audiences. His fans skew younger now than his demographic did five or 10 years ago, he says.

Still, there were many in the entertainment media who didn't even know who he was until he broke that Comedy Central ratings record in 2008. And he's still not known to all of America.

"I don't know how much of a household name I am. But the fans are there. They're like country music fans. They're very loyal."

It only took three decades of working his butt off to stand in front of thousands and, with Achmed on his arm, tell them, "Silence! I kill you!"

Contact Doug Elfman at He blogs at