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John Lamb, Published January 31 2010

Tough crowd: Dunham lets dummies do the talking but gets last laugh

It’s been only 17 months since the last time Jeff Dunham performed in town. But don’t hold it against him if he can’t remember much, if anything from his previous stop.

In that year and a half, the comedian’s career shot to the stars and now appears to be heading back to Earth.

The 47-year-old comedic ventriloquist brings his suitcase full of characters (the crotchety, old Walter, the redneck Bubba J, Peanut the freaky, fuzzy, monkey-like puppet and of course, Achmed the Dead Terrorist) to the Fargodome on Wednesday night as part of his “Identity Crisis” tour.

When he took the stage in August of 2008, the comic ventriloquist’s star was on the rise. His DVD “Spark of Insanity” established him and his suitcase of characters outside stand-up circles.

What “Spark” lit, YouTube took to the next level.

“The YouTube thing took what had come off the launch pad at Comedy Central and gotten into the atmosphere and launched it into the stratosphere. Did I get that right? Whichever one is furthest out,” Dunham said with a laugh during a recent telephone interview.

Through YouTube, clips of Dunham have received 400 million hits around the world. That exposure paved the way for Dunham’s 2008 “Very Special Christmas Special,” which attracted 6.6 million viewers to its Comedy Central debut, a record audience for the network.

The comic stayed on the road for much of 2009 and for the second year in a row was the top ticket-selling stand-up, pulling in $34.6 million in ticket sales alone, double what he did the year before.

He even scheduled a return to town, moving up to the Fargodome, but the Dec. 2 show was rescheduled for Wednesday.

Instead, Dunham unveiled his half-hour Comedy Central series in October. Despite good numbers(5.3 million tuned in for the premiere) by the end of the year the show was axed.Dunham claims the reason was due to high production costs, which ran around $1 million an episode.

Comedy Central issued a statement that they planned to keep working with Dunham, which was expected since the network signed a major deal with him in March.

“I honestly believe when the dust settles and the (series) DVDs come out, people will look back and say, ‘Hang on, there was some really funny stuff in there,’ ” he said. “I think a lot of the people screaming at it didn’t like some of the things we were doing.”

The people doing the screaming were likely critics who savaged the series.

The Washington Post called Dunham’s material “deadeningly unfunny,” and the Chicago Sun-Times was left saying, “At best, you won’t laugh. At worst, you will weep for the half-hour you have lost and destroy all the puppets in your home.”

Some of that could’ve been residual animosity from a press conference last summer in which Dunham, through Walter, mocked the critics.

He later explained that Walter can get away with saying things Dunham himself can’t.

When asked just that earlier this month, Dunham had a different answer.

“I’ve realized lately it’s a lot more complicated than that because these guys are not extensions of me,” he said. “I am making them be whatever it is that they are. I don’t believe the things that they are saying, but I am writing these jokes as they are themselves and whatever they are saying in a given situation.

“So if there are critics out there who say, ‘Jeff Dunham is racist,’ No, I’m not. No, I’m not. I have created these characters that are themselves. They answer for themselves and not what I think. They say outlandish things. People that come to the show that are fans, they laugh at what these characters say. I laugh at what these characters say. And I’m embarrassed by what they say. It’s like a play. It’s all acting. It’s pretend. I think the audience understands that.”

With more than 20 years of working in stand-up clubs, does he think there can be such a thing as politically correct comedy?

“I guess if there is, it’s probably not very interesting,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve always believed (what) one comic once said to me: ‘If you’re not pushing the limits, if you’re not stepping on a few toes, you’re not pushing things far enough.’ ”

While he may be pushing people’s buttons, Dunham’s not necessarily paving the way for a new class of stand-up ventriloquists.

“Much like Weird Al Yankovic, sometimes there’s room for only one guy doing it,” said El Arntson, who books comedy acts at Moorhead Courtney’s Comedy Club when asked if he saw more comics using puppets.

Arntson added that Dunham’s influence may not be seen for a few years, as it takes time to learn a skill like ventriloquism.

And if there’s only room for one top prop comic, Dunham isn’t about to step aside.

“I was asked when I was going to take a vacation,” Dunham mused. “Vacation? Let me get this straight. I walk on stage, tell a few jokes, get big laughs, they hand me this big check and then I go home. What’s the downside of that? Why would I want a vacation from that? If you enjoy what you do for a living, there’s nothing better than that. …

“At this point it’s not business for me, it’s just filling up the dance card with all these interesting places just for bragging rights, so we can go, ‘Wow, we did a fun, really cool thing.’ And you never know how long that 15 minutes of fame is going to last.”

If you go

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533.